Jean and Janice Charbonnet of Mandeville have been married for 16 years and have five children, ranging in age from 2 to 15. They made the following presentation to the International Catholic Engaged Encounter Conference in New Orleans in August. They talk about the prayerful process a couple goes through in making an important decision.
Let’s say you’re facing a major decision in your life. Some examples of major life decisions are the following:
➤ Do you sell your house?
➤ Do you switch the kids to a new school?
➤ Do you change jobs?
➤ Do you move your elderly mother into your home?
➤ Is now a good time to make that large purchase you’ve been thinking about?
Think of the last time you had to make a major life decision. What was that like?
➤ What it stressful?
➤ Was it unitive or divisive?
➤ Could you see the hand of God in it? Where was God in the process?
Here are a few tips we have found so helpful in making decisions as a couple, and hopefully it will help you the next time you are facing a major decision.
God has a plan for your married life
Janice: When Jean and I were first married, our parish priest at the time gave a homily one Sunday and said something that really made an impact on us and stuck with us for the rest of our marriage. He said one of the most important prayers you could ever pray was, “Lord, I give you permission to do whatever it is you want with my life.”
Our first step in talking to God about any decision is telling him that you want him to be boss, that you want his will to be done in your life. You have to give God permission to do what he wants with your life. God doesn’t need our permission to act, of course, but he does want us to have an attitude of surrender to him.
For some people, that sounds scary. If I let God do whatever he wants with my life, is he going to turn it upside down? Yeah, he might. If I let God do whatever he wants with my life, is he going to ask me to do something that other people won’t approve of? Yes, he might. Will it make me happy to do his will? You bet!
We are hard-wired to be happiest following God’s plan. He doesn’t want us to be holy and miserable.
Yes, I know what plans I have in mind for you, Yahweh declares, plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope – Jer 29:11-12.
Giving God permission isn’t easy, we know. I am a Type A person. I’m a list-maker and a doer. So I always have an opinion about how something can be done. The challenge for me is to remember that I need God and to remember that I should ask him for his direction.
Car and driver analogy
Jean: Following God as a couple can be very challenging, but the challenge usually has to do with the way in which we submit to God and allow his plans to unfold in our lives.
➤ Example 1: You’re the driver; God’s the passenger
In this example, you are holding the wheel, and God is in the car with you. This is good. You have decided that life with God as part of it is a good thing, so God’s right there with you.
However, when it comes down to it, it’s kind of like having a GPS with a British accent. The GPS offers convincing advice, but ultimately, you go where you really want to go. It’s like when you have your GPS on in your hometown and the voice says: “In 500 yards, turn right.”
“Ha,” you say. “You’re voice is charming, but we’re going straight here.”
It’s the angel on your shoulder, but not much else.
➤ Example 2: God’s the driver; you’re in the passenger seat
In this example, now God has the wheel and you’re sitting right up front with him. You’ve made the conscious decision to say, “God, you drive for a while.” It takes a lot of guts, especially for men, to admit we don’t always know where we’re going. It’s really easy when you figuratively wreck the car or run out of gas. Once I was living up north, I got caught in my first snowstorm and just pulled over and let a local guy in my car take over. I was in over my head.
At times like that, it can be a really easy decision to let God take over. However, as soon as we feel comfortable again or confident in where we are, we want the wheel back. Or when we see something dangerous ahead, we might try to grab the wheel. We recognize the need for God to lead the way, but are prone to overconfidence or panic.
➤ Example 3: God’s the driver; you’re in the back seat
In this example, we have recognized that in order for us to fully allow God to lead, we need to step back and truly let go. This can be very humbling, like allowing a less-experienced driver to take us somewhere when we feel like we know the way. Sitting in the back can tempt us to want to shout out directions, but at least we can’t reach the wheel.
In giving God permission, we will probably look like all these different examples at different times. But what’s important is this: It’s important to have God in the car and not on the side of the road asking for a ride; and we need to be able recognize when we’re grabbing at the wheel.
Janice: OK, so God is in the car. He’s behind the wheel. What’s next?
Once you’ve told him that you want his guidance, the next step is to listen to what it is. And that means praying. You have to be praying in order to hear what God is saying. You need to be in a state of grace by attending confession regularly so that you can hear clearly. But as long as you’re talking to him, he will speak to you.
You don’t have to be praying a certain way. You don’t have to be a certain kind of holy. If you tell God that you want what he wants and that your life belongs to him, he will let you know. For Jean and me, it comes in the form of a tugging in our hearts that will not go away and that we’ve prayed about. It’s not complicated.
Scripture tells us God will be right there to help us get where he wants us.
While from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears, “This is the way, walk in it” when you would turn to the left or the right – Is 30:21.
Yes, I know what plans I have in mind for you, Yahweh declares, plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. When you call to me and come and pray to me, I shall listen to you. When you search for me, you will find me – Jer 29:11-12.
God doesn’t play hide and seek with us. He wants you to follow his plan more than you do. He’s a loving dad who wants to see you happy and doing well.
Listening to God: Our story
Janice: I was born in Eastern Canada, and we spent the first nine years of our marriage in Minnesota and Ottawa working for a Catholic missionary group called NET Ministries. Jean grew up in Metairie and Covington. For us, the thought of moving from Canada to Louisiana was always an idea in the back of our minds. The idea was a little scary to me, but the thought would keep surfacing over the years. I knew that moving down here to be near Jean’s family would be harder on me than on Jean, so I began to pray, “Lord I want what you want. And if this is what you want, please change my heart and let the idea come from me so that I know this is really your will for us.”
I didn’t know that Jean was also praying, “Lord if this is what you want, then let it come from Janice and not from me so that I know this is really your will for us.”
Around the time of our third child’s baptism in 2007, our families all came to Ottawa in a whirlwind. Some stayed with us; some were in hotels. There were people all over the house, and the kids were having a blast. It was so awesome, and then a few days later, everyone was gone again and there was this empty feeling.
We had done this same ritual for each of the other kids’ baptisms, and it was starting to feel frustrating. We loved working for the youth ministry, and we loved our community in Ottawa. But not having family around just felt empty, and we felt the kids were losing out.
So the day after everyone left, Jean had an extra day off and we went to the park with the kids. While they were playing, I finally got the guts to say, “Look, what if we moved?”
Jean: So we took it to prayer, asking God to show us what we should do. We decided that there was no pressure for any immediate decision, but that six months would be a good amount of time to make a decision. We prayed that God would either make the desire to move stronger in our hearts or less desirable and that we would both get the same sense. If we felt differently, then it wasn’t the right thing to do.
As the months passed, the desire just grew and grew. And we kept thinking about all the logistics and all the hurdles: selling the house, finding a new house, finding a new job, finding a new school, leaving ministry for another field, trading six months of snow for six months of heat, embracing good food and culture as well as bugs and allergies, and trading all our friends for family.
Regardless of how these things made us feel, when we prayed about it, we still felt God urging us on, and we both felt the same way.
We took a trip to Louisiana with the family for Thanksgiving, and we decided this would be the decision point. We prayed and told God that was when we wanted to choose, and that if that was not what we were supposed to do, we asked God to change our hearts before then.
As we landed in New Orleans, we decided that since our hearts didn’t change and we only felt better about the move, that was it. So, we were excited to have made this big decision.
We were excited to have prayed and gotten an answer, excited by the idea of the adventure of starting a new chapter soon. God gave us a lot of joy about the decision. We told my family when we were there, and everyone was excited we were coming home. So now we were sure. This clearly was what God wanted.
Next came the hard part: Telling our friends at work, friends in Ottawa and Janice’s family. None of it was easy, and none of it went great, especially telling Janice’s family.
Janice: So as exciting as it was to tell Jean’s family that we were moving down to Louisiana (there were tears and laughing and jumping up and down), it was just as depressing and upsetting to tell mine.
Being in Ottawa was still far from my home town – about a 10-hour drive – but that distance was doable. My mom had worked out a nice system of taking the overnight train from my hometown to Ottawa. Moving down to Louisiana was akin to moving to China. It takes three flights to get from my hometown to here.
My mother and I are very close. She was very sad, and our decision caused her a lot of pain. There was nothing I could do except to say to God, “OK, well, this is because of you, so you fix it.”
As the years have gone by, since we first moved, time has helped heal my mother’s heart, and my family comes to visit at least once a year. This is what I learned: Sometimes giving God permission to do something means letting go of what you love and think you can’t live without.
However, I can’t begin to tell you the blessing it has been to be down here. Every year that goes by, God reveals another reason why he wants us here. God’s plans for us are much better than what we can craft on our own, and I’m so grateful that I got out of his way and let him “drive.”
“And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” – Matt 29:11.
Everyone who has given up job promotions, extra leisure time, Saturday mornings in bed, a quiet house, a clean house, a nicer car in God’s name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. God’s plans, even the ones that involve sacrifice, are good plans and good for you.
Jean: When I visited the American Embassy in Ottawa, they broke the news that the visa process usually takes 12 to 18 months. While the children were dual citizens and could come with me, Janice likely would have to wait in Canada until her visa was processed. We hadn’t even thought about which Catholic school the children could attend. We would have to sell our house and move regardless if the sale happened or not. I was going to have to find a new job, whether in ministry or in the secular job arena. And, somehow, I was going to have to move all our stuff, along with our van, 1,500 miles over a few days from Ottawa to Louisiana.
The weight of each issue was heavy. But, we knew that God was clear in speaking to us through each other, and we were on this journey. So this was no time to jump out of a moving vehicle.
We would panic and pray, and God would keep telling us through family and friends and each other, “Hang in there, I’ve got a plan.” God started revealing his plan, and small miracles began to happen.
➤ Through a connection with Sen. David Vitter’s office, a letter was sent from the Senator to the visa office in Canada requesting an expedited process. Janice got her visa appointment in four months.
➤ Through another connection we got our oldest enrolled in Catholic school.
➤ Our house sold in 48 hours and made us enough money to pay off debts and still make a good down payment on a new home.
➤ My brother, Father Beau Charbonnet, and brother-in-law, Jason Angelette, flew up to Ottawa, to help us move, with air miles donated by my father.
➤ Then after Janice stayed with her family in New Brunswick for a month during the move, she came back to Ottawa and got her visa. My father donated air miles again for me to fly up to Ottawa and fly back with the whole family on July 13.
➤ Finally, after being here for a only few weeks, a connection through an old friend got me a job as a neurophysiological technician, for which I was trained on the job, and have still been working at since August 2008.
God provided everything he said he would. He fulfilled all his promises.
Janice: As Jean mentioned, God can speak to you through your spouse. As a wife, I felt it was key that Jean had my back and was putting me first in the discernment. He would say things like “I just want to be sure you will be happy” and “We’ll only make the decision if it is a good decision for you.”
That helped me relax and loosen my grip on the situation. It helped me let go of that wheel, and he and God could work together to move me where God needed me.
We were on the same page with this decision and we were both committed to making sure we were both on the same page. Leaving one spouse in our “decision dust” wasn’t an option. As married couples, we are no longer two, but one.
What is good for your spouse is good for you. What is harmful to your spouse is harmful to you.
Believing/Trusting in God
We have a God who is crazy, passionately in love with us. He thinks we are the greatest. He wants our marriage and every aspect of our lives to be the best they can be, and he knows how to get it there.
If you’re facing a decision that seems impossible, if you feel like you’re supposed to choose option A but you just can’t imagine how it could work, rest assured that God knows how it can work and he will make it work. There is nothing that is impossible to him.
Our prayer for you as couples is that you would:
➤ Give God permission to do what he wants in your lives.
➤ Listen to each other as one of the ways that God can speak to you.
➤ Be bold and confident and peaceful when following the Lord because his plans are so much better than anything we can create on our own.