Ignatian discernment can help tackle difficult life changes

When your decisions don’t work out quite the way you planned, don’t lose hope.
Our Faith

“Now hang on a minute. Go back,” said my Jesuit friend over Zoom. “You said you’d made a good discernment. But I hear you saying things didn’t turn out as you’d thought.” Even pixelated on my computer screen, I could see the slight grin playing at the corner of his mouth.

I nodded, slowly. “Yeah. Right,” I admitted. “My going to Bolivia, the whole postgraduate service thing, that was the right call. It was just…” I chewed on my lip. “Harder. Different than I’d hoped.”

My Jesuit friend nodded. We were preparing for a presentation, one in which I’d been asked to share some lessons learned from applying Ignatian discernment to decision-making.

And despite the fact I’d been back from Bolivia for more than a decade, I had never thought about the fruits of my discernment in this way: A big life transition may be the right choice, but that doesn’t mean it will be an easy or seamless one. My time as a 22-year-old teaching English in Santa Cruz had been very challenging and nothing like I’d expected. After four years as a student of international studies and a veteran of international service trips and campus ministry events, I’d expected my time in Bolivia to go smoothly. Committing to that service experience had been prayerfully considered for months; it was what I was supposed to do. After all, all my friends seemed to be loving their service years.


“But just because the discernment was a good one didn’t guarantee a good experience,” I confessed on that Zoom call. “Or, at least, not the experience I expected.” My friend smiled.

It’s hard to swallow. Yet, it’s true.

Making decisions, big and small, is challenging work, particularly if we engage in a serious process of discernment. Is God inviting me to take this new job? To move to this new city? To end this difficult—or, perhaps, life-giving—relationship?

We endeavor to see the big picture, right? We want our decisions to not only be the right ones; we want them to serve the common good and bring us closer to the person we hope to become.  And when we ultimately make the decision, we expect things will fall into place as a result. We want confirmation.


I suspect that these questions of ultimate meaning hide in the background of any resolutions we’ve made at the beginning of this new year. But resolutions to get in shape, start a journal, drink less, and call grandma more can fade as we grow frustrated with a seeming lack of progress. We are understandably frustrated when our best intentions are continuously met with less-than-ideal results.

So, let’s reframe how we think about resolutions. How can we reimagine the making of resolutions as a spiritual practice?

1. Resolve to accept necessary limitations.

My family recently moved into a new house. As anyone who’s ever moved—be it to a mansion, an apartment, a spare room, or a tiny house—knows, such endeavors come with a fair share of repairs and projects. And I am not at all handy. I know this about myself, yet I still grow frustrated at my inability to fix drywall or install new outlets.

It’s easy to make a decision, to take a step into the unknown, then get angry with yourself and others when you aren’t immediately able to handle every surprise or demand that pops up as a result. But from new houses to new relationships, it’s important to accept your necessary limitations. You can’t be all things, but you can discern when and where it becomes time to surrender your pride and ask for help.


2. Resolve to opt for the best interpretation.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages retreatants to give the benefit of the doubt to their neighbor or to an opinion they may disagree with but do not yet fully understand. This doesn’t mean the retreatant doesn’t take a stand or doesn’t point out what is right and just. It does mean that the starting disposition is one of openness, trust, and curiosity. We’re called to give the best interpretation until proven otherwise.

That’s how I look at dings on the walls in my new home, lines that aren’t straight, appliances that are already failing. I could assume the worst—sabotage, fraud, laziness—or, I could opt for a kind interpretation: We’re all human, and we’re all doing our best.

That same resolve can apply to an uncharitable rumor circulating in the work place, to a colleague or student who just doesn’t seem to be giving their all, to a neighbor whose political leanings you just can’t get behind. Do we need to get to the bottom of things? Of course. But would our journey to the truth be better made by starting in a place of kindness? I think so.

3. Resolve to wait patiently—and hope.

When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, we knew our lives were about to be turned upside down. We did all the things one does: set up the nursery, fill out the registry, look like fools testing different strollers. But, ultimately, we had to wait—and hope. There was no way to peek over the hedge and see what life would be like with a newborn. There were things we could control, but the main thing, the big thing, was beyond us.


Isn’t this the way with so many of life’s biggest projects? We know a prognosis will hamper us; we know we’ll be sad when our kids leave for college. We hope we’ll eventually find our place at school or at work; we hope our new commitments give way to better, life-giving routines.

But ultimately, we all have to wait.


As January becomes February and we live more and more into this new year, consider those choices you’ve made, big and small. What led to your decision? Are you allowing yourself to become frustrated, let down, or even defeated amidst the challenging aftermath of what you know was a good period of prayer and reflection? Or are you resolved to accept your necessary limitations, to opt for the best interpretation—for yourself and others—and do the hard work of patient, hopeful waiting?

Here’s the best news: God is still there, here, among us, you, me. Even if you’ve already faltered in your hopes for the new year, even if you’re struggling to understand how what felt like the right decision three months ago feels so terribly wrong in the present moment, God is still here. God is still at work, drawing forth from whatever decision you’ve made some glimmer of hope and beauty and opportunity.


Because here’s the truth about God, discernment, and the decisions we make: We want to make the best choices we can, but even if we make the wrong choices, we never lose the opportunity to try again, to recast the die, to make a new choice. We never lose God’s trust in our ability to choose anew.

So let’s trust in ourselves, trust in our decisions—even when things get tough. When the Bolivian mosquitos are biting, and the new paint is already peeling. When the new job feels tedious, and the new city feels lonely. When that commitment to wake up early and work out feels like too much and that glass of wine looks too good.

Even in the darkest of moments, the hope we cling to can be as simple as the chance to take one more step, to make one more choice. Our willingness and determination to respond is that act of hope, that refusal to allow the light in our lives to blink out entirely.

Pause. Look around. Remember that the Spirit was present in your past and will be present in the future. God is in all things, tough as it is to recognize at times. And now, in this moment, with the Spirit pulsing all around, you have the opportunity to choose anew. 

Image: Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto

About the author

Eric A. Clayton

Eric A. Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. Follow his writing at

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