The faithful Catholic is guided by faith and reason, not faith alone, not reason alone. The faithful Catholic is guided by the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium — by all three, not by any one or two alone. The faithful Catholic is guided by grace. For the grace of God enlightens the mind and inspires the will: to avoid evil, to do good, but also to take particular courses of action preferred by the will of God among many other good choices.
The faithful Catholic is also guided by the Providence of God.
Now this guidance does not occur in isolation from the other ways that we faithful Catholics are guided by God — faith, reason, Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium — and above and through all these ways: grace. You cannot be guided by the Providence of God unless you are living by faith and reason, by the teachings of the Faith, and by a constant cooperation with grace, in the state of grace. Certainly, God’s Providence guides all things, encompassing and intervening and preventing even the most wicked persons and things of this world. But a true full and loving cooperation with Providence is found only by faith and grace, when the faithful person is also guided in all these other ways.
How can we be guided by Providence?
The first step is to know and live by the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, by faith and reason. If you are not living in this way, STOP and do not read the rest of this article. Reform your life first. Give up your secular ways and live like a faithful disciple of Christ. Then consider the Providence of God.
The second step is the listen for the guidance of Providence. God is constantly trying to guide us poor sinners to heaven, and to guide us along the best path to that blessed destination — a path that is paved with the love of God and neighbor. God’s Providence is guiding your life, but not solely in a way that is beyond your control. The Providence of God seeks the cooperation of each faithful soul, of each person who is willing, or who by grace may become willing, to offer that cooperation. So be watchful in the ordinary events of your life for indications from the Providence of God.
The third step is to prayerfully discern which elements in your life are from the Providence of God and which are not. If your prayerful discernment finds that God approves of all that you are going in your life and all your recent choices, then either you are a very holy Saint or a sinful liar. It is very easy, when you are considering your own decisions in life, to “prayerfully discern” — due to a bias when judging your own case — that God approves of all you do. That conclusion is very common and almost always incorrect.
Above all else, if you are doing ANYTHING in your life that is contrary to the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium on faith or morals, you CANNOT use a discernment of Providence to approve of that contrary behavior. People are fallen sinners, and so they have many failings and sins. God does not approve of all that you do. Discern your sins. Then discern your imperfections. And finally discern which of many good courses of action God prefers. If He prefers exactly the same course of action that you yourself prefer and chose, start over. Discern your sins. Then discern your imperfections. Then seek knowledge of that course of action which God prefers and you do not prefer.
Can you rely on your conscience as a sure guide to find and do the will of God? Not necessarily. Most Catholics have NOT formed their conscience in accord with Church teaching. Most Catholics and, alarmingly, most teachers of Catholicism do not know the basic teachings of the Magisterium on morality: the three fonts of morality, intrinsic evil and the moral object, formal cooperation, material cooperation, and the different types of contrition and repentance. Most Catholics cannot rely on their own conscience, because it has not been formed according to Christ.
A well-formed conscience is a reliable, but not infallible, guide along the path of salvation. A poorly-formed conscience is like a close friend who constantly schemes to lead you in to grave harm. Learn the moral teachings of the Church. Only then can you be guided by Providence.
The fourth step is to prayerfully choose to cooperate with the purposes of the Providence of God, which you have discerned. Seek the grace of God — His strength and guidance — in order to change bend your will to the will of God, in order to change your life according to His purposes.
Sometimes you will be mistaken. You might think that God’s Providence is guiding you in a certain direction. You are fallible. Do not make the mistake of assuming that your own understanding of God’s will is the same as God’s will. Do not treat your own understanding of the direction that God’s Providence is indicating to you as if it were infallible. God is infallible, but you and I are not.
So the fifth step is to constantly reevaluate your own understanding of God’s will as expressed to you by Providence and Grace. You might think that God wants you to do one thing or to avoid doing another. You could be wrong. Never treat your own understanding of God’s will as if it were infallible. And under no circumstances, no matter how clear it may seem to your own fallible mind, never at any time should you make any choice that is a sin according to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, according to Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. The Providence of God is not an excuse for you to justify your own sins, or to violate your own conscience, or to misdirect your conscience in any way that is contrary to Church teaching.
God’s Providence is NOT telling you: to sin, or that an act which is sinful for others is not sinful for you, or that an act that is sinful under Church teaching is not sinful for you, or that the Church is wrong in its teaching on faith or morals, NOR any other type of excuse to act immorally. God’s Providence is NOT telling you: to do what you like, to do what pleases you, nor to do anything that bring benefits to you while harming or ignoring the needs of others.
In writing this post, my main concern is that people not use the claim of being led by Providence to justify their own sinful or self-centered behavior. God always leads faithful souls along a path of love of God and neighbor, a path of carrying your cross to Calvary, a path of prayer, self-denial, and works of mercy. If your interpretation of God’s Providence seems to be leading you along a different path, you are mistaken.