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Discerning Through Our Desires

There is much confusion in the understanding of “desire” in our world today. It often has a sexual connotation or is considered purely superficial, especially when it’s charged with passion. Because of this, we can easily disregard our desires, deeming them “obstacles” or “not coming from God.”

But our desires are in fact deeply rooted trails that lead us to God Himself. As the saying goes, “The man who rings the bell at the brothel, unconsciously does so seeking God.” Because of our sin, woundedness, and weakness, this pure and strong desire for God gets twisted and disheveled until we can no longer recognize it for what it is.

Our Desires are Hidden Trails to God

However, our true desires remain intact deep within us, waiting for us to discover them. This is what we have been discovering with Christopher West in our Wednesday TOB Formation Series, “What Do You Want.” It is a deep dive into our desires, taking them as our map to find God and His will for each of us.

When we unravel this mystery through, we get to know God and ourselves more intimately. Our desire then becomes a key in unlocking the question of who we are and God’s plan for us. Knowing our desires is simultaneously knowing God’s desires for us because He is their origin and author, and He placed them in our hearts for our maximum happiness and fulfillment.

This then shows us how crucial our desires are in our discernment. Getting to know our desires uncovers the hidden trails of the map leading to God and His will for us, whether that’s our vocation or important questions we face in life. To know our desires, we must go into our heart, where they reside.

Our Heart is the Place of our Desires

Our desires come from a very particular place deep within us and that is our hearts. And so in order to go deeper in our desires, it is paramount to get to know our heart, which is on one hand, very intimate to us and on the other, entirely escapes us.

Our heart, we can say, is quite complex. Sometimes we call it by other names, such as our interior, soul, or psyche. These are not all exactly the same thing but they all try to describe and grasp in a word that secret place within us. We can think of our heart as having several layers. Some thoughts and emotions that come and go may be at a more superficial level, while others are found in a deeper place.

And then, there are our desires, which go into the depths of who we are. They dwell so deep within us, that no one but God could know us and meet us there as we read from the book of Hebrews, “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”

Indeed, they lie so deep that even we, ourselves find in them a lifetime puzzle. Add that to the fact that we are mostly occupied with things of the world that are passing and shallow, filling ourselves with the noise and chaos that distract us.

There are many busy people who go back through their day and conclude nothing much happened or they didn’t feel anything significant, such is our ignorance of our very own heart. The more we live outside of ourselves, the more we are disconnected from our interior until finally we forget there is something deep within us that glimmers with the reality of something greater and more profound than we could ever hope for.

Here are some steps we can take to help us discern through our desires.

1. Get to Know Your Heart

To discern through our desires, we need to get to know our hearts, in which they reside. As we said, there are so many things in our hearts. We need to first practice awareness of the things in there. Recognize what they are and put names for them. These can be emotions, both negative and positive, lights, fears, hopes, doubts, etc.

This helps us to be attuned to the motions of our heart. Knowing what goes on in our heart is like seeing the face of someone you know and then calling them by name as they pass by. This is a life-long journey; we won’t be masters of our heart in one day, not even in one decade.

2. Be Attentive to Your Joy

Each emotion or desire we have speaks volumes of who we are and what God wants to speak to us. Among all these, St. Ignatius of Loyola, a master in discernment, tells us to pay attention first to joy. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and tells us most effectively and eloquently where God is present in our life.

Fr. Nnikolaas Sintobin, S.J. explains: “It is far more important to know where you flourish than where you wilt. It is far more important to know where God is than where he is not.” Keep in touch with your deep joys and begin there in your discernment.

3. Take Time to Look Back

We need to scour through our emotions and desires to see which are passing and which ones are truly profound. This will take time. Often, we are only briefly aware of our most profound emotions and desires. They are so subtle and low-lying, we only hear them in silence. We don’t experience them like fireworks as we do with passing emotions.

Time helps unearth these deep desires, if only we recognize them more and more and keep track of how they are unraveled through different phases in our life. This is why it is essential to look back often on our day, year, or seasons. Doing this in the presence of God is actually prayer itself.

4. Pray and Speak with a Spiritual Director

Discernment requires regular times of silence and prayer to help us listen more carefully to our hearts and the motions of the Holy Spirit.

“The Examen,” which St. Ignatius of Loyola taught as a method of praying, helps to look back on our day and discern. We basically walk through the events and feelings of the day, paying attention to the presence of God or absence of Him. To learn more about the Examen, you can check out Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s The Examen Prayer podcast in Discerning Hearts.

Lastly, talking with a spiritual director will be an indispensable help in your journey through your desires. A good spiritual director will help you have deeper insights and guide you through important steps in your discernment.

Our desires are not something to be afraid of or to put under a rug. They are shining testimonies to God’s deep plans for us, an invitation to know him more intimately and become who we truly are.


Written by Monna Eve Señara. Monna is an active Pure Heart server since February 2023. She works as a content writer.

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