How to say ‘no’ to good things

After two seasons of hosting her podcast, Lindsay told her listeners that the show would return for a third season in the fall. She lined up guests and set up interview times, but as the date to start recording episodes for the third season came closer and closer, she knew something wasn’t right.

“I thought there would be enough time after my baby was born and the kids were in school, and I would be ready to go do another season,” she explained. “But I started to hear this little voice in the back of my mind saying, ‘It can wait. I can wait.’”

Lindsay took that nudge to daily prayer, and that’s when she realized the little voice she kept hearing wasn’t her own voice, it was from God. “I considered what it would look like if I waited another couple of months,” she said. “And what I realized was that my family needed me more. And I needed my family more.”

Saying “no” to a good thing was challenging. But Lindsay contacted the guests she had lined up for the third season and told them about her decision to postpone. “What was hard for me was that I’d made it known that I was going to come back at a certain time, and I didn’t want to go back on my word, even though I know my audience isn’t huge,” Lindsay said. “I had this thought that something was expected of me, but the situation changed. I went with it, and it all turned out OK.”

While we may be tempted to think of discernment only in light of big decisions, like discerning a vocation, the truth is that discernment is a reality of our everyday life. Whether it’s hosting another season of a podcast or deciding what to do with a job offer, we’re regularly faced with opportunities for discernment.

Meet St. Ignatius of Loyola

If there’s one saint to turn to when you’re in a season of discerning whether (or how) to say “no” to something, it’s St. Ignatius of Loyola. The co-founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius is known for his guidelines on the discernment of spirits and recognizing God’s will in our daily lives.

St. Ignatius believed there are three circumstances in which we find ourselves when making a decision surrounding a discernment. In some situations, we have so much clarity that we’re ready to answer with an exclamation point. St. Ignatius writes that this is the case “when God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it. St. Paul and St. Matthew acted thus in following Christ our Lord.” Arguably, these are the easiest decisions to make, since we have clarity.

But clarity isn’t always present in discernment. Sometimes we can feel conflicted about the decision. Other times, we could feel totally clueless about what the next steps are. If you find yourself conflicted or clueless when it comes to saying “no” to a good in your life, here’s what St. Ignatius would recommend as some next steps.

Remember that discernment is always between two goods

Before moving ahead toward clarity, it’s good to begin by checking to make sure we’re actually in a season of discernment. Although saying “no” to a bad thing might be an easier decision than walking away from something good, it’s important to remember that true discernment only exists when it’s between two goods.

“It is necessary that all matters of which we wish to make a choice be either indifferent or good in themselves, and such that they are lawful within our Holy Mother, the hierarchical Church, and not bad or opposed to her,” St. Ignatius clarifies.

If we’re deciding between an objectively good choice and an objectively bad choice, what we’re left with isn’t a discernment. It’s simply a situation where we need to choose the good and reject the bad as a non-viable option for the Christian life.

Pray for the grace of healthy, holy detachment

Even though you’re discerning between two good things, you may find yourself leaning toward one or the other option. St. Ignatius recommends taking time to strive for holy detachment towards both choices. When you’re detached, you’re more open to hearing the voice of God speaking into the decision making process.

“I must be indifferent, without any inordinate attachment, so that I am not more inclined or disposed to accept the object in question than to relinquish it, nor to give it up than to accept it,” St. Ignatius explains. “I should be like a balance at equilibrium, without leaning to either side, that I might be ready to follow whatever I perceive is more for the glory and praise of God our Lord and for the salvation of my soul.”

Ask God to shed some light on the subject

It’s not as if God tosses us into a season of discernment and tells us to sink or swim. He desires to accompany us in this season, and to make his will known. But how do we go about discovering his will? St. Ignatius would advise turning to prayer.

“I should beg God our Lord to deign to move my will, and to bring to my mind what I ought to do in this matter that would be more for His praise and glory. Then I should use the understanding to weigh the matter with care and fidelity, and make my choice in conformity with what would be more pleasing to His most holy will,” St. Ignatius recommends.

Ask yourself what advice you would give a friend in your situation

Sometimes it’s helpful to consider your situation from an outside perspective. St. Ignatius recommends imaging someone who needs to make the same decision you have in front of you. The advice you would give that person can bring clarity and peace to your own discernment.

“I should represent to myself a man whom I have never seen or known, and whom I would like to see practice all perfection,” St. Ignatius writes. “Then I should consider what I would tell him to do and choose for the greater glory of God our Lord and the greater perfection of his soul. I will do the same, and keep the rule I propose to others.”

Keep the end in mind

It can be easy to forget the eternal perspective when making a decision between two goods. St. Ignatius knew this all too well, and that’s why he recommends imaging yourself at the end of your life, standing before Christ. Keeping the end in mind can make the decision making process easier.

“This is to consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death. I will guide myself by this and make my decision entirely in conformity with it,” explains St. Ignatius.

Write out an old fashioned pros and cons list

One way to move out of a state of confusion is to write out the pros and cons of each of the options available.

“This will be to weigh the matter by reckoning the number of advantages and benefits that would accrue to me if I had the proposed office or benefice solely for the praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul,” St. Ignatius recommends. “On the other hand, I should weigh the disadvantages and dangers there might be in having it. I will do the same with the second alternative, that is, weigh the advantages and benefits as well as the disadvantages and danger of not having it.”

If you’re struggling with clarity or cluelessness in a discernment, pull out a piece of paper and a pen and jot down some pros and cons surrounding both options. Seeing the reality of the situation in front of you and in a more tangible way can be incredibly fruitful.

Seek the peace

St. Ignatius places a huge weight on the presence of peace in the decision making process. Once you’ve reached a conclusion and are ready to say “no” to a good thing, St. Ignatius recommends returning to prayer for a final indicator of clarity.

“After such a choice or decision, the one who has made it must turn with great diligence to prayer in the presence of God our Lord, and offer Him his choice that the Divine Majesty may deign to accept and confirm it if it is for His greater service and praise,” he writes.

When you’re discerning saying “no” to a good thing in your life, remember to ask God for the grace of peace, and to turn to him in prayer throughout the entire decision making process.

It’s possible to find clarity and peace in a decision, even when you’re having to walk away from a good opportunity. Then, with peace and clarity achieved through the grace of God, you can “go forth and set the world on fire,” as St. Ignatius would say.

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