How can I know what God wants me to do with my life?

The call of God is always for us to live with noble purpose, with love as our highest motivation.

Permission to reprint granted by Cowley Publications.

Becoming Human by Brian C. Taylor

Purchase a copy of Becoming Human by following this link to


How to Find the Way Forward

Written By Brian Taylor

Find the Way ForwardExcerpted with permission from Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus, published by Cowley Publications.

A job change beckons or is forced upon us: What now? What is the best use of our gifts, and how should we balance practical needs with our dreams? How long should we wait to hold out for what we really want? We’re in a very unhappy marriage: How much effort to rebuild trust and intimacy is “enough”? Should we stick it out for the kids’ sake, or will our unhappiness harm them worse than divorce? We’re wrestling with decisions about the care of elderly parents: How do we balance family responsibility with our own personal needs and boundaries? When, if ever, do we override what our parents want with what we believe will be good for them?

Sometimes the way forward is clear as a bell. More often, however, we seem to be faced with two somewhat unattractive alternatives, because neither is without flaw. Both have their merits and their drawbacks. We make a list of both, and the list evens out. No help there. We pray for God’s guidance, and nothing seems to come back. No skywriting, no burning bush. What do we do?

It is easy enough to say “things will work out,” or “you’ll know what’s right,” or “God will show you the way.” All of these statements may be true, but in the meantime, how do we actively search for the best way forward? Or to put it in more traditional terms, how do we know when something is God’s will for us? 

Jesus didn’t offer any simple formula to answer these questions, and we should be wary of those who do. But through his teachings and actions he did show a way of going about discernment.

First, he told us to pray for help and guidance (see the eleventh chapter of Luke). We are to make our needs known to God. We are to knock on the door, insistently if necessary. We are to trust that just as we know how to respond to the needs of our children, so God will grant us what we need and give us guidance.

It is surprising how often we forget to pray about the questions that perplex us. Or if we pray about it once, we assume that further entreaty is redundant or presumptuous. We figure if God doesn’t want to answer us, we shouldn’t bug him.

How different this is from Jesus’ image of prayer. He encouraged us to be passionate, persistent, like children who will not let their parents alone until they respond.

Sometimes I face storms in my work that I have no idea how to navigate: A staff member becomes ineffective, undermining others’ work; a pastoral counseling session suddenly becomes confusing for me; I have to guide others toward a financial choice that will hurt someone either way it goes. When sailing through these unfamiliar waters, I try to pray every day for God’s guidance. I don’t demand an answer today. I just hold the need before God, coming back to that place of questioning, waiting, listening, trying to be patient. If I don’t get an answer, then I return to this place again, day after day. Over time, my questioning changes, my listening improves, my ability to be present to God in this quandary grows.

In the Zen tradition, some students are given koans to practice in meditation. A koan is an intellectually impossible question, a paradox that can be comprehended only by intuition, not understood by rational thought. One of the classic questions, for instance, is “Without words, without silence, will you tell me the truth?” Sitting in meditation with this question, one moves beyond rational exploration, into a more direct, experiential encounter with the question.

Similarly, the big questions about which we seek guidance must be approached by something other than the intellect. And persistent prayer, which Jesus recommends, is one way to do that. We can go over and over the merits and faults of this or that possible decision ad nauseam, and never be able to settle the question by this means. With constant prayer, we simply live with the question. This is what the Zen koan practice is all about: living with the question. Holding the question before God, patiently, daily, our perspective eventually shifts and we see everything from a new point of view. The way before us becomes clear, a third alternative comes to us, or the question just ceases to matter anymore!

Second, Jesus taught us to know the tree by its fruits (see Luke 6:43–44, for example). We are to look at the fruits, the outcomes and consequences, the ways in which a particular option manifests itself. Does it lead toward the kinds of things Jesus taught and lived? Does it lead toward greater love, faith, hope, and peace? Does it lead toward a more harmonious life for all concerned? In the unfamiliar waters I sometimes navigate, I listen deeply and patiently until some way forward appears that will serve the highest good of the staff member, the counselee, the finances of the parish. Often this way is not the most comfortable way, but it becomes, after a period of listening deeply, the only way.

This is the discernment process advocated by the Jesuits, outlined by St. Ignatius of Loyola. One is to become sensitive to the states of mind and heart that are generated by this or that possibility. If one way forward tends to stir up things that are unhealthy or unsettling—such as anger, self-justification, gratification of ego, etc.—it is probably not of God. If it stirs up greater faith, hope, honesty, and other signs of the Spirit, it is probably of God.

We speak of this kind of sensitive knowing nowadays as the work of intuition. We wrestle with something, and sometimes we come to a place of feeling “in our gut” what is right. We intuit the right way forward, realizing that one option really “feels” more true than the other, even though we may not be able to explain this feeling rationally. Of course, this is not an instant method, and it doesn’t always work like this. But often enough, we can feel our way forward by listening intuitively, by waiting patiently until we know what we must do.

The criteria by which we judge whether or not something feels right should, for Christians, be shaped by the gospel. But this is not a matter of simply deciding upon a list of “Christian” criteria as the “right” ones. Instead, as we give ourselves to Jesus’ path more and more, as we learn that it is, in fact, a path that brings us life, we will naturally associate the qualities of Jesus’ life and teachings with what feels right for us. He will influence us through our intuition. I find that if I am patient and prayerful about discerning difficult decisions in my work, that I get to the point where I know what I must do or say in supervising staff, in counseling, in making financial decisions with others. The Spirit has settled the muddy waters, and the way before me is clear.

And so through our intuition, we judge the fruits of a tree. We look at a person whom we are considering hiring; we consider how to respond to someone with whom we are in conflict; we listen to our motivations in trying to push something forward with our family or in our workplace: In all these situations, we examine the fruit— that is, the quality of the thing being considered. Is it true to the spirit of Jesus? Is it true with what I feel in my gut to be real, to be life-giving? 

The “best” fruit, of course, is love. Love is the bottom line. And so we must ask, Does this or that way forward promise some degree of greater love for all concerned? But in answering this question, we must be careful. For what we assume to be love may be nothing more than our conditioning. Being nice and avoiding conflict are not the same as love. Allowing someone to trample aggressively over us or others simply because we don’t want to hurt their feelings is not the same as love. Sometimes, loving means doing the very thing that makes us uncomfortable, or that creates the most conflict.

In the end, we will not always know what God’s will is before we have to plunge forward. Sometimes we just have to assume that since we have not received any guidance from the Spirit, God has left it up to us. The wonderful thing about this is that even if we make a mistake, God will work with that just as much as if we had made the “right” decision. For there is no place that God is not active in our lives. There is no place that God is not working to bring good out of anything and everything. God will continue to love us even if we make a mistaken decision for all the wrong reasons.

Sometimes I imagine that spiritually, we are in a kind of environment where all roads eventually lead to heaven. Out of wisdom we may choose the straightest road forward, or out of ignorance or stubbornness we may choose the most indirect path possible. Very few get on the bus marked “Express.” Most of us get on the one that should be marked “Strangely Detoured.” But the wonderful thing is, if we miss the right bus, another one will come along shortly, not to worry. God never gives up on us. Did you take this wrong turn? Fine, then we’ll get there this way instead! 

In the fifteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus tells stories about the one lost sheep, the one lost coin, the lost son who strayed. But God never allowed any of them to be truly lost. There was always a way home.

So it is with us. We may be able to find our own way with persistent prayer or with our God-given intuition, or we may not know what to do. But even if we become lost in ourselves, we are never lost in God. There is always a way home, and God will keep nudging us along until we find it.

Copyright ©2005 Brian C. Taylor

Brian C. Taylor lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he has been Rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church since 1983. He is also the author of Becoming Christ: Transformation through Contemplation.