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How Do We Know God’s Will?

August 11, 2015 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, God's Will, Spiritual Direction

How Do We Know God’s Will?

Many people after discovering the faith soon realize that it is sometimes difficult to discern God’s will in a given situation.  Most people think that knowing God’s will is impossible.  After all, He gave us our natural capacity to reason and He has revealed Himself to us – so the rest is up to us.  There is some truth to this, especially at the beginning of the spiritual life.  But anyone who tries to make progress in our pilgrimage of faith this way is soon discouraged.  Following Christ often requires us to act in ways far beyond what common sense would dictate.  This is why St. Paul urges, “calling to mind the mercy of God, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship.  Do not conform yourselves to this age, but live a transformed life by the renewal of your minds – so that you may discern what is God’s will — what is good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).

PeterPaulRubensTheCrucifiedChrist[Cross,Crucifixion]WGA20190As long as we try to live like everybody else, as long as we think like everyone else, our ability to know God’s will is severely impeded.   The mercy of God revealed by Christ crucified gives us a different standard.  The pathway to knowing the will of God is found in loving imitation of the Lord who laid down His life for His friends.  God’s will is found in the Cross.

We can find the Cross, first of all through, loving sacrifice no matter how small or insignificant or hidden from the world.  In fact, the more hidden the better.  In the old days, this was called “offering it up.”  Whatever is the least desired, least comfortable, least understood – God’s will is hidden there waiting to be discovered.    Whenever we renounce anything out of love and devotion to the Lord, whenever we bear a trial for His glory, whenever we offer up our internal pain and continue out of faithfulness to Him – this action opens up space in our hearts and minds, space for God’s will to flow into our will. Paradoxically, this never overthrows our freedom but expands it, liberating us from selfishness and anything else that prevents us from loving to the full.MotherTeresaofCalcutaportraitpaintingbyRobertPerezPalou

The Cross of Christ is also found whenever we are moved to do something beautiful for God.  It was in her effort to do something beautiful for God that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta heard the ZurbaranStJohnoftheCrossLord call her to be His light.  She discovered in her efforts to do something beautiful for God new facets of His Holy Will that would have otherwise remained hidden.   St. John of the Cross lived by this same wisdom and marveled at the immense horizon of love and freedom God’s will contains.  He came to counsel those who were seeking the Will of God, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.”

Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.

Art: The Crucified Christ, Peter Paul Rubens, between 1610 and 1611, PD-US; Mother Teresa of Calcuta [sic], portrait painting by Robert Pérez Paulou, 1 January 1994, CC;  St. John of the Cross, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1656, PD-US; all Wikimedia Commons.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • nancyveronica

    The trials keep coming and I am learning more and more to rely on God. This writing really points that out to me. Thank you.

  • dmiller

    How does Anthony Lilles have time for all of that, and have time for family and prayer too!!! Amazing!

    • Judy Silhan

      I am also amazed by all that Dr. Lilles does, including being the Academic Dean at two seminaries, as well as at the Avila Institute.

  • Judy Silhan

    “As long as we try to live like everybody else…” seems to be a huge response by many in today’s society. Sadly, as you pointed out, many are following the will of the culture of death, not God’s will for our lives. Blessed Mother Teresa and the Saints knew the value of being set apart from the world, though truly living in it, by accepting and embracing their crosses. The idea of sacrifice and suffering, for many, is so incomprehensible. I only wish that all of these people could read this beautiful reflection.

  • Jeanette

    Holy Spirit, please guide my thoughts, words and deeds every day of my life. Help me to be sensitive to Your impulses and inspirations and be docile and obey You. I want to be led by You and not by the world. Amen

  • Bob J

    God speaks to us in his word and Jesus is always with us. We are so fortunate and nothing can separate us from His love. Read Romans chapter 8 for inspiration and guidance. Know that all things work for good for those who love God. Peace.

  • Michelle Ann Griffith

    I think this was written for me! Thanks Dr. Lilles! I needed one more confirmation today!

  • Br. Patrick

    Well said Anthony, your quote from Romans hits it on the head, if you are looking for spiritual direction, stopping looking at yourself, that is self-direction.

  • Mary P

    Thank you again, Dr. Lilles, for helping us see that it is the narrow road that
    leads to knowing God’s will and ultimately, eternity in heaven with Him.

  • Cynthia Diane

    Very insightful article-Thank you! What came to mind after re-reading it a few times was John 4:34, ” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work”. In trying to follow Jesus example, it seems seeking God’s will for our life, no matter what the cost or how difficult the path is…this is as essential to our soul and spiritual growth as food is to our natural bodies.

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