Q: I work a twelve-step program that suggests I pray only for knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry that out. How do I begin to discern God’s will over my own ego messages? — Steve, N. Carolina

A: Dear Steve,

Discernment is a persistent challenge in our responses to life. How do we choose our paths of action? How do we know which way to turn at our choice points? An important skill in discernment is recognizing how we have chosen to view our options. If our choice is perceived to be between God’s will and our ego, we have already separated an important part of us from God.

Our ego is not our enemy. Our ego is a simpler and less mature part of our being. It has protected us in our early stages of development. But the ego is limited in its vision. It does not see far beyond this moment and our physical location in space. With patience, perseverance, and the grace of loving others, we may develop toward a higher sense of self — one that has a vision of much larger expanses of space and time. When we are called into that higher perspective, we can be compassionate with the fears and failures of our ego. We can also learn, little by little, to discern between choices that may lead toward different ends.

The ego, bless its short-sighted heart, will tend to favor choices that lead to immediate and local satisfaction. The higher self, much closer to the divine, will call us to act in ways that serve beyond us and into the future. Discernment is the lifelong skill of learning to follow the needle of our heart’s compass.

Michael Mahoney

Michael J. Mahoney is Professor of Holistic Counseling at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI, and the author of dozens of articles and books, including Human Change Processes and Constructive Psychotherapy.