Good versus evil. You see this theme played out in comic books, video games, westerns, and other movies. In the classic westerns, you could always tell who the good guy was—the one wearing a white cowboy hat. The villain, of course, wore a black hat and was usually dressed all in black. The good cowboys and the villians had their own posse or gang. The good posse protected the town and fought for justice and peace. The evil gang robbed banks, hijacked trains, and terrorized the towns. In these stories, it was clear who belonged to the good side and who belonged to the evil side.
This idea of good and evil is seen in many religious traditions, including our own. In the Book of Genesis, we are first introduced to God’s goodness. God creates the entire world and sees it as good. Humans too are created good. Things get a little dicey, however, when evil, represented by the serpent, comes to town. The serpent tempts Adam and Eve to go against God (who clearly said not to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden). Adam and Eve choose what is false, or evil, over what they know to be true, or good.
We’ve heard this story so many times that it’s easy to follow along and watch as Adam and Eve fall for the serpent’s trick. “Don’t listen to him! He’s the devil, duh. Don’t even go near that tree. What? You actually ate the fruit! What were you thinking?” To us, Adam and Eve’s choice between good and evil may have seemed obvious. But in everyday life, things may not always be so clear.
First of all, there are no white or black cowboy hats to tip us off.
Second, there’s no such thing as good guys who always do good and bad guys who always do evil. God created the world and all of us as good. Like Adam and Eve, however, we can be tempted into choosing what goes against God, even though we know what is good.
Third, when we have to make a choice about how to act, it may not be clear what to do. How do we know what God wants us to do, that is, what is his will for us? This is where discernment comes into play. Discernment refers to the process of tuning into God's will. It is a process of figuring out what God is calling us to. Discernment takes place when we have the opportunity to make an immediate decision (do I say something about the racial joke that my best friend just told or pretend it didn’t bother me) or a decision about the overall direction of our lives (which group of friends is the best one for me?). In both cases, the decisions we make have everything to do with God and the kind of person he is calling us to be. Sometimes we might think that God has nothing to say about such things, especially the little decisions we make every day—what outfit should I wear today? what book should I read? what should I do after school? who should I call to go out with this weekend? But every choice we make, no matter how small, can lead us to be more in tune with God, or less.
Here are some tried-and-true pointers that can help you make decisions that are in tune with God.
First and foremost, remember that God is always with you. Take some alone time with God—sit with Scripture or a religious image, go for a walk through the trees or by the water, find a quiet spot that can help you come in tune with God, such as a chapel. Get in touch with God’s awesome love for you. This is the basis of all your decisions.
In the Star Wars saga (another classic story of good versus evil), there is a memorable line that is often repeated when a character is faced with a challenge: “Search your feelings.” For example, in Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, Luke says, “Search your feelings, Father, you can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.” He’s trying to get Darth Vader to choose the good that is within him instead of giving into the evil. This practice is not just for the movies. In discernment, we search our feelings so that we have a sense of how in tune we’ve been with God throughout our day. We can ask two important questions: When do I feel “in the zone” with God? When do I feel like I am totally out of tune with God? Our responses can help us figure out where we stand with God and help us make good decisions about the direction we are going.
Sometimes when we search our feelings, we find that there are certain things that always seem to lead us into temptation. It is important to be aware of the things that are temptations for us. Knowing our temptations helps us be more careful so we don’t get caught off guard. For example, if I know I often mess up when I get angry at my little brother when he gets annoying, then I can take extra precautions to guard against this temptation. Some good options for me are surprising him with kindness, avoiding him when he is particularly annoying, or talking with him about his behavior when he is acting “normal.” Sometimes it is helpful to talk to someone we trust and ask for help in facing temptations.
Our conscience is that inner voice that helps each of us to judge the morality of our actions. It guides us to follow God’s law by doing good and avoiding evil. When we have to make a decision, it’s good to check in with our conscience because it can serve as a guide to good decisions.
The good news for us is that we don’t have to figure out what God wants us to do by ourselves. In addition to the grace of God, we have the Bible, the Church, and all the saints to help us. We can read stories about the ways that Jesus and the saints made decisions for God and how they dealt with temptations. Whenever we face a choice, remember that we have a bunch of consultants who have “been there, done that” and who are always willing to help.
In Matthew 7, Jesus tells the disciples that they can know what is true from what is false by the fruits of their actions. “Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:17-18) If the fruits—our words, actions, and behaviors—are good, then it is a good indication that the decision we made or will make is good. If the fruits are “rotten,” then that too is a good indication that we may need to do some repair work. True discernment results in good fruit (even if it’s something we wouldn’t normally pick out for ourselves).
These pointers can help you when you face decisions. Even though making good decisions can be difficult at times, trust that the Holy Spirit is with you to guide you and help you choose what is good and true.