Growing up in the church, I’d always assumed that, if there was something I wanted, then it was probably—or definitely—not God’s will for me.
By Christine McParland
What if God’s will isn’t what I want? Can what I want ever be God’s will for me? I’ve often asked these questions, but I especially wrestled with them in my post-college years. I had an art degree that was getting little use, a full-time retail job with no career path, and a waning sense of purpose in life. All I’d wanted was to use the artistic gifts God had given me in church ministry, but after some initial success, that door had closed.
Not only did I lack direction for the future, but I had run out of dreams as well. How could I know or trust God’s will for me when he didn’t fulfill my dream for art ministry? Were my desires always in opposition to God’s will?
This is a question that crosses the minds of many people who try to follow God’s will for their lives. While I don’t remember a specific sermon, Sunday school lesson, or Bible study that explicitly stated, “If you want something, then it can’t be God’s will for you,” this was an implicit conclusion of some of the teachings I’d absorbed when I was younger. Messages that talked about how hard following God’s will is (i.e., not anything you will remotely enjoy); testimonies about Christians feeling called to do something that was the last thing on earth they’d ever wanted to do; and Scripture verses taken out of context, such as “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV), all contributed to my assumption that, if there was something I wanted, then it was probably—or definitely—not God’s will for me.
This assumption was easier to accept when I wanted superficial things, like in high school when I wanted to win a dance competition or in college when I wanted a cute classmate to return my feelings for him. But I was in my mid-twenties and wanted to use my gifts in ministry, and still the door was closed. How could such a good desire not be God’s will? I despaired of ever knowing God’s plan for my life or trusting my desires.
Obviously, God was trying to show me something, but I had no idea what it was (and I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out). But I suspected that, in order to know God’s will, I’d have to know God’s heart. And that would require more time in prayer.
Enter the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.
Huh? I asked the same thing when I first heard about this. During my season of struggle, a housemate was taking a course called “Transformation Intensive” at her Anglican church. I didn’t know who St. Ignatius was or what spiritual exercises were, but intense transformation sounded like something I needed. When the course was offered again the following year, I signed up.
What I experienced in those seven months cannot be covered in a single blog post, but the lesson that has had the most impact on my life since then has been what I learned about the role of desire in the Christian life.
Instead of viewing our desires as something to ignore or deny, St. Ignatius taught that because we are created in God’s image, our true desires come from God and ultimately lead us to him. What?! But what about when I desire something that isn’t good or godly, like when I’m tempted to want something sinful? The key here is discerning our true desires from false ones. For example, underneath a “desire” for promiscuous living is a true desire for intimacy and love, which is partially fulfilled in God’s gift of marriage and wholly fulfilled in a relationship with God. Other temptations like greed or stealing spring from a desire for security, which again is ultimately fulfilled in God himself.
We shouldn’t deny these desires because God placed them in our hearts—not to disappoint but to fulfill them beyond our wildest dreams. But few people have the courage to peel back the surface of what they think they want to see what they truly desire. Fewer still have the faith to trust that all these desires can be fulfilled in God alone.
But what about seemingly good desires, like my dream for art ministry? As I began to look at this desire through an Ignatian lens, I recognized the mixed motives behind my dream. I had a false (or “disordered”) desire to find my purpose in ministry accomplishments and success. While serving God in ministry can be wonderfully fulfilling, true fulfillment comes from my identity as a daughter of God, not in what I do for him. But underneath this was a true desire for worship; my vision for ministry was to use the arts to encounter God more deeply in corporate worship.
I also realized that God didn’t need an art ministry to fulfill this desire. Though I didn’t understand how he would otherwise fulfill it, I knew God’s way would be better than anything I could imagine.
After several more years of prayerful waiting, God did exactly that. I’m currently using my artistic gifts to serve God’s Kingdom, though it looks much different from what I had initially envisioned. My desire for deeper worship was also granted in a way that exceeded my greatest dreams and expectations—a way I wouldn’t have been open to several years ago. But that’s another story for another post.
So whenever you’re wrestling with a desire and wondering if it’s God’s will for your life, don’t immediately ignore or deny it. Take it to prayer. Ask God to help you discern any false motives behind the desire, surrender your own plans and dreams for it, and trust God to give you more than you ever could have wanted.
You might be interested in
Seeking God: Finding Another Kind of Life with St. Ignatius and Dallas Willard by Trevor Hudson
Do you long for a transforming encounter with the living God? Jesus assures us that those willing to become seekers will find what their hearts most deeply desire.
Profoundly influenced by his long friendship with Dallas Willard, and his experience guiding people through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for the last thirty years, Trevor Hudson offers you a practical tool kit for your seeking journey. Designed to help you move beyond insight to encounter the living God in your life, each chapter invites you to experience the crucified and risen Christ.