God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to God’s Will by Mark Thibodeaux

Summary: An exploration of Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment primarily focused on exploring decision-making.

As I have said before, I am exploring the concept of discernment, especially around Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment this year. Like What’s Your Decision, God’s Voice Within is an introduction to the Rules of Discernment focused on decision-making. God’s Voice Within is a bit broader in approach than What’s Your Decision, but they are different enough that I think they can be companion books, at least to compare how the two attempt to present Ignatian decision-making.

Two quotes to set the stage:

“Discernment would be simple if we could identify the five, or twelve, or twenty-five fail-proof steps to making good choices. But choices are not the result of mere rational exercise; choices come out of who we are as well as out of what we think. That is why discernment is not a system but a process, and it’s a process we must learn, and apply, and then learn some more.” p1


“Ignatian discernment, then, isn’t so much about what to do but about who to be. It’s about becoming a person in tune with the movements that lead toward God. The doing will flow from the being.” p6

Thibodeaux is not talking about a system of decision-making; he is more focused on a lifestyle or process of continually seeking after God, which leads to an orientation of seeking after God’s will in all areas of our life.

The Rules of Discernment are two sets of broad guidelines to help spiritual directors assist others in discerning the work of God (and Satan) so that you are oriented toward God’s path for your life and away from Satan’s. Generally, the focus on our emotions, experience, and the confirmation of our community (spiritual director, family, friends, etc.) leads us to see God at work “in all things” around us. As I have said in other places, Ignatius assumes that emotion is part of what God has created us to have and is also part of how God communicates with us. Ignatius does not automatically trust emotion and experience; that is what the rules are for, to help discern where the emotion and experience are part of God’s direction and communication and where we are being tempted away from God, either directly by satan or by our own fallen nature.

Emotion and experience are often dismissed as unreliable in many Protestant theological conceptions. And I have over-intellectualized my faith and repressed emotion at times. Two years of Ignatian Spiritual Direction training have partly reoriented me to a more positive understanding of emotion and experience. Emotion and experience are often presented as all or nothing; you either trust them wholly or entirely dismiss them. Ignatius does neither. He accepts them as real but then tests them for signs that they are from God or not.

Many people are familiar with the concept of “the true self” and “the false self.” That has tended to be a psychological orientation when used by modern Christian mystics to discuss how we are to orient toward God post-Freud. Still, those concepts can be found much earlier and with a less overtly psychological orientation.

Part of what I appreciate about Ignatius is that not everything is about sin. Ignatius talks a lot about consolation, the feeling of well-being or grace that comes from God and moves us toward God, and desolation, the absence of God or despair, causes us to isolate and withdraw from God and those around us. Ignatius does say that desolation can be caused by sin, but he also has categories of desolation that are not caused by sin; it is allowed by God, and God can use that desolation for our growth, even if God does not cause it.

What is more explicit in God’s Voice than in a couple of the other books I have read on the rules of discernment is what we should be doing when in desolation and consultation for our spiritual benefit.

Eight Ways to Deal with Desolation 1. Name it. 2. Make no unnecessary changes. 3. Rely on your support network. 4. Consider logistical or moral causes. 5. Be aware of the false angel of light. 6. Be firm with the false spirit. 7. Be gentle with yourself. 8. Have faith that God is at work in your desolation. p 103

One of the metaphors that Thibodeaux uses to understand consolation and desolation is sailing. Some who have not sailed before may not understand that whether the wind is behind you or in front of you, you can still sail, although you will use the wind differently depending on the direction it is coming from. But if there is no wind, not much can be done to move a sailboat. Ignatius then tries to help his readers use both consolation and desolation to move our spiritual life and not rely on the lightness of consolation.

Thibodeaux and Ignatius also do not ignore sin. Sin does have an impact. However, our spiritual life is not simply sin avoidance. Sin can cause us to hide. So, transparency around sin and openly admitting sin and temptation can help counter the power of sin.

Recently I said to my mentor, “I need to tell you about something, not because I think it is a problem but for the sake of transparency.” I then told him of feelings I was having that were embarrassing to me”…”that I would rather not have told anyone. He listened well, and we then had a great conversation about it. Looking back on that moment, I still don’t believe the feelings I was having would have become a problem, but I have a strong sense that speaking it aloud to someone provided a fortification against the “agitations and temptations” of the false spirit. p56

Simple avoidance often empowers sin, which is the difficulty with books like Everyman’s Battle, which teaches sin avoidance, instead of books like All That is Good, which teaches us to embrace the good so that it crowds out the power that temptation can hold over us. That does not mean we ignore temptation; we do need to identify triggers and our personal weaknesses toward sin and temptation so that we are not opening ourselves up to temptation in unhelpful ways. Seeking after God’s goodness is generally a better method of dealing with sin than sin avoidance schemes.

Toward the end of the book, there is a lengthy discussion of the process of being open to God’s direction through prayer, exploring options, seeking advice, etc. It lays out a method or approach that is generally helpful and wise.

One concern is that because of our culture, much of the orientation to reading Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment is focused on decision-making. Decision-making is one of the methods of using the Rules of Discernment, but the main focus is on seeing the movement of God in our lives. Seeing God at work is not only decision-making, and I think we can emphasize our decision-making too strongly. Similar to my discussion of sin avoidance above, paying too much attention to decision-making can distract us from the larger purpose of seeing God at work around us.

One last quote that I think summarizes why I have appreciated Ignatius’ approach:

Many spiritual writers of Ignatius’s day spoke of desires as obstacles to God’s will. A person was supposed to suppress his desires to eliminate them whenever possible. But Ignatius held the radical notion that God dwells within our desires. Not only are desires not evil, but they are also one of God’s primary instruments of communicating to us. God inflames the heart with holy desires and with attractions toward a life of greater divine praise and service. Unlike many of his religious contemporaries of the sixteenth century, Ignatius did not seek to quash desires but to tap into the deepest desires of the heart, trusting that it is God who has placed them there. The soul is the place where God’s desires and my desires intersect. p167

I have 30 highlights and 3 notes on my Goodreads page if you want to explore more.

God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to God’s Will by Mark Thibodeaux Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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