Thoughts on Ignatian method for discerning God's will?

Walking in God’s will can be challenging for many reasons. Our hearts may not be attuned to the Holy Spirit. Our own personal issues like our motives, desires, fears, poor judgment, lack of knowledge and impatience, often interfere. We may be influenced by cultural and peer pressures that cloud our perception. Spiritual forces may also seek to distract, deceive, or discourage us from following God’s will. Even after starting off right in God’s will, sometimes we veer off along the way. Navigating these challenges in decision making according to God’s will may become easier with a systematic approach that considers these factors.

Recently as I looked into this subject, I came across the Ignatian method for making prayerful decisions that does just that. It is based on the writings of 16th century Spanish Saint, Ignatius of Loyola called, “Spiritual Exercises”. Though I am not a Catholic, I found myself quite in agreement with the steps outlined and thought the steps are a practical representation of biblical principles, such as searching our hearts to be in God’s moral will, making our will subordinate to God’s sovereign will, and seeking guidance through scripture, prayer and wise counsel.

A couple articles that I found helpful in understanding this method are here and here.

Briefly, some key ideas mentioned are -

Ignatius’ guidelines for the discernment of spirits fall into four major categories: (1) seven attitudes or personal qualities required for an authentic discernment of spirits, (2) three different “times” or conditions during which decisions are made, (3) seven practical techniques which can be helpful in the discernment process, and (4) some guidelines for how to distinguish whether a given inner movement or desire comes from the good or evil spirit.

Seven essential attitudes include openness, generosity, interior freedom, prayerful reflection on experience, having one’s priorities straight, and not confusing ends with means.

Ignatius observes that in making an important decision we tend to find ourselves in one of three basic situations. We tend to either (1) feel inner clarity or certainty about what to do, or (2) we feel inner conflict about what to do, feeling pulled in different directions (for example, feeling drawn to both religious life and having a family), or (3) there is not much of anything going on inside and we feel clueless.

Seven Practical Discernment Techniques
(Spiritual Exercises, [178-187]

  1. Ignatius suggests that we start the decision-making process by putting before our mind what it is we want to decide about. For example, we might be trying to decide whether or nor to enter a specific religious community.

  2. He then asks us to pray for the grace to “try to be like a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to either side” (Spiritual Exercises, [179]). In other words, we should try to the extent possible not to prefer one option to the other but only desire to do God’s will. To help us maintain focus and perspective, he asks us to keep the ultimate end and goal of our existence clearly before us.

  3. Then we pray for God to enlighten and move us to seek only what is most conducive to God’s service and praise.

  4. One suggestion Ignatius makes is to imagine a person we never met who seeks our help in how to respond to God’s call in the same decision we are considering. We then observe what advice we give this person and follow it ourselves. This is helpful since most of us are better at giving others advice than at figuring out what we should do.

  5. Another suggestion is that we imagine ourselves at the end of our lives either on our deathbed or after our death standing before Christ our Judge. How would we feel about our decision then? What would we say to Christ about the decision we have just made? We should choose now the course of action that would give us happiness and joy in looking back on it from our deathbed and in presenting it to Christ on the day of our judgment.

  6. When we do not experience inner clarity about the correct decision to be made, Ignatius suggests that we use our reason to weigh the matter carefully to attempt to come to a decision in line with our living out God’s will in our lives. To do this we should, bearing in mind our ultimate goal, list and weigh the advantages and disadvantages for us of the decision at hand, for example, the reasons for and against entering religious life or a specific religious community. We are then to consider which alternatives seem more reasonable and decide according to the more weighty motives – not from our selfish inclinations. Looking over our list of “pros” and “cons” for the decision at hand, we should notice if any of the reasons listed stand out from the others and why and see which way this might point us. This technique can help us move from inner confusion to greater clarity at least as to the issues that need to be attended to and help separate out which are more significant.

  7. Having come to a decision, we turn again to God and beg for signs of God’s confirmation that the decision is leading us toward God’s service and praise. The usual sign of this confirmation from God is an experience of peacefulness about the decision. The confirmed decision has a feeling of “rightness” about it, and we feel a sense of God’s presence, blessing, and love. This is a very important step, since the feeling of rightness, peace, and joy about a decision is a positive indicator that we have made the right decision whereas feelings of anxiety, heaviness, sadness, and darkness often indicate the opposite.

What I appreciated was an emphasis on living a holy life through spiritual disciplines and not just when we need help from God, cultivating proper attitudes and motives in our heart, not confusing ends with means, using reason and using the feeling of peace as an indicator of right decision only after working through all the other steps. While I may not personally endorse all of St. Ignatius’ beliefs, I found this framework for decision making helpful.

I am wondering if anyone else has used the Ignatian method for discerning God’s will. What are your thoughts on this approach?

If not, what are some other frameworks that have been helpful to you in discerning God’s will?

What are some common mistakes in discerning God’s will that one should be cautious about?


Hi @lakshmi

I found this really interesting, because discerning God’s will is an issue that every Christian will face through their lives. In approaching the topic, I find myself wavering between wanting a really useful framework to follow and fearing being caught in the trap of relying on a 1-2-3 step process that confines my understanding of how God guides us.

I hadn’t heard of the Ignatian method although I recognise aspects from within it that are commonly talked of.

This is something I’ve tried to incorporate into my prayer life in the last year. It’s coming to a place that when we’re asking God to open a certain door before us, that we don’t set our heart on the desire itself but only on desiring God. It’s helped me, because it means that if God has other ideas to mine, I won’t be disappointed because He knows the best way for me to grow in my relationship with him, and it might not include the thing I’m asking for. I must say it isn’t natural for me to think like this, although I am trying to place him only at the centre of my will.

There are some very practical and wise pieces of advice like this. I certainly think this is useful in incorporating into a decision process.
I also wonder if some people could find this framework a bit burdensome if they applied it too rigidly to every decision in their lives.

The second link you shared incorporated this step:

Ask God to give you feelings of consolation about the preferred option.

This sparked some curiosity for me, as I recently listened to a talk by an apologist who was ‘busting’ myths on how we seek God’s will for our lives. One of the myths he busted was this idea that we look for a feeling of peace about a potential choice. He questions whether the Bible teaches this as a means of knowing God’s will or making decisions and argues that the command in Colossians 3:15 to let peace rule in our hearts is really a call to live as peacemakers, not to be a strategy for discerning God’s will. His conclusion is very general: be holy because God is holy (1 Pet 1:16). If every choice we make is one of holiness, and points to God, then the decision is probably a good one.

Personally, I think a middle ground of both Ignatian’s method, and this broader rule of thumb outlined above are probably safe ways in which to make decisions.

I’m grateful that you’ve shared this though. I feel inspired to incorporate this method into my next life decision I make. It could be a fruitful way of making a decision, especially when other people are involved in the decision process too.


@lakshmi, I appreciate you sharing this framework with us.

This line sticks out to me:

We can always start to adopt this posture of life. However, if our first attempt to desire God’s will is when we have a major decision, I think we need to demonstrate extra care.

Sometimes, I have seen people offload responsibility for their decisions by saying, “God told me to do it this way.” It might be that their prayers were sincere in making their choice, and they did feel peace about what they chose to do, yet they lacked the personal maturity to discern God’s will because this was not their usual disposition.

As the author of Hebrews states,

We have a great deal to say about this, and it is difficult to explain, since you have become too lazy to understand. Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food. Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature—for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil.

If we want to follow God’s will in the big decisions, it’s important that we train ourselves to distinguish between good and evil in the small decisions, too.

Without this pattern of life, we will have a hard time understanding the Scriptures as we make decisions.

At the same time, I felt what @alison shared:

For a major decision, I would feel the need to write down my decision-making pathway, discuss it with a few friends and a mentor, and then proceed through it step-by-step.

One very helpful way that I’ve made significant decisions is to use a spreadsheet. One friend taught me to do it like this:

At the top of it, I write the challenge: “I need to make a decision about ______.” [Where to live, work, send the kids to school, etc].

In the rows, I write down the values I will use to make the decision and weigh them on a scale from 1-5.

In the columns going across the spreadsheet, I write down the options available to me.

Then, for each option, I evaluate how well it aligns with my values.

Finally, the subtotal is modified by how risky the decision is.

For instance, when choosing a job, “Starting a new company” could be the initial “winner” until you realize that it has the greatest chance of failure. Then, “Taking a job with a major corporation” might be preferable. This is naturally just an example; it depends on one’s own circumstances.

Values Restaurant 1 Restaurant 2 Restaurant 3
Closeness to home 4 * 1 = 4 2 * 1 = 2 5 * 1 = 5
Price 3 * 2 = 6 2 * 2 = 4 4 * 2 = 8
Chocolate cake 1 * 3 = 3 5 * 3 = 15 3 * 3 = 9
Good reviews 5 * 4 = 20 5 * 4 = 20 2 * 4 = 8
Subtotal 33 41 30
Risk of decision (%) 10% 5% 20%
Total 33 * 0.90 = 29.7 41 * 0.95 = 38.95 30 * 0.80 = 24

In this example, Restaurant 2 is the winner because it does so well on my top two values - serves chocolate cake and has good reviews. Additionally, perhaps I’ve been there before, so I think there’s a low chance it will be a bad experience.

However, in looking at the overall framework, I might realize that price is more important than the availability of chocolate cake and re-arrange the table to account for that.

The reason this helps me with major decisions is that there are usually multiple options and different values/priorities. By putting them all into one table, it’s easier to look at them together and then adjust the various factors and rankings until everything is dialed in. This tool can also help in making a decision with someone else.


Hi @alison and @Carson,

Thanks for those thoughts! It’s so helpful to learn from your experience and wisdom.

I happened to listen to this talk as well. I can see how simply depending on feelings of peace as a green light from God and non-peace as a red light from God on a decision is not a proper way of discerning God’s will. If Col 3:15 is the verse people use to support the view of feeling peace in discerning God’s will, then that doesn’t seem to be a proper application of the verse based on the context.

However, I think St. Ignatius’ view differs. The first article I had attached explains that St. Ignatius developed these guidelines to discern between the different influences like God and other negative forces that shape our thoughts, desires and feelings. By following the framework, we would spend much of our time bringing our heart before the Lord in prayer to search our motives and desires, whether there is anything that is not pleasing to God that could become an obstacle -

Possible obstacles: projections, disordered attachments like inferiority complexes, superiority complexes, or glorified self-images; “shoulds” or “oughts” that tyrannize you; perfectionism, fears, materialistic greed, and possessiveness; past hurts and self-pity; competitiveness that leads to envy; impatience with yourself or others; lust, ingratitude, and irreverence; desire for control, power, status, prestige, exclusiveness, and so forth.

I thought searching our hearts before God was an important step that is often missed. It’s possible we are quick to think we are in the moral will of God when we are not, because we may have not spent time searching our hearts. The peace in this situation is certainly not a green light from God. However, if we have spent time searching our hearts, then the peace felt may be a green light, at least about being in the moral will of God. If we are seeking a relationship with God but we are walking outside of God’s moral will, our hearts wouldn’t rest nor would there be peace in our situation. I thought St. Ignatius method of searching our hearts before God and seeking His will/wisdom in the matter is supported by scriptures such as James 3:15-17. As an example, I have experienced a group where there was constant fighting over bible doctrines and relational strife as a result of it. In such situations prayer may reveal how to correct course to be in God’s will and thus produce peace.

Once we have searched our hearts and we know we are in the will of God, then I think Carson’s method of putting all the information into a table and objectively evaluating which best suits our values is a great way of making a decision. The only thing I may add is that we could borrow from the wisdom of St. Ignatius in thinking about advantages and disadvantages as we assign a number for each value under the different options -

Which reasons are the most important? Why?
What values are preserved or realized by each option? (Many advantages and disadvantages may be pointing to the same value.)
Which option more evidently leads to God’s service and better serves the growth of your true self in the Holy Spirit?
Which option seems more consistent with your own faith journey and history with God?

In the end, we need both wisdom in the sense of being in the moral will of God and also wisdom in the practical sense of what is the best next step based on all the advice and information gathered to make a godly decision. I think St. Ignatius’ method is more focused on the moral aspect, which is very important but there are other considerations as well. Whatever method we choose, we will need to take some risk and make the decision and trust that God will watch over us (Prov 16:9, Ps 37:23-24).

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Forgot to mention that I too appreciate your caution here if we choose to use St. Ignatius’ framework. For example, for those who are too introspective and have a tendency to self blame, it would be important to not overidentify with the possible obstacles. At all times, we need to rest on the finished work of Jesus and all that his grace has made possible.

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