This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.

As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [. . .] When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18–21, 24 NLT)

Even if we don’t grasp the whole of the mathematics behind it, most of us understand the basic truth of Isaac Newton’s third law of motion with as much ease as kicking a ball across a field: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Actions have consequences. Every choice we make (action) results in some sort of consequence (reaction). Sometimes the reaction is perfectly in line with what we expect: we pay the barista and in return receive a hot cup of coffee. Other times, the results are entirely beyond our expectation. Such was the case with Joseph.

Joseph had a decision to make, and the most prudent and righteous course of action seemed to him to be breaking off his engagement with Mary. After all, she was now pregnant, and he knew he was not the father. He might have been thinking that this course of action meant the man who got her pregnant was now free to take her as his wife and be a father to his child. Or maybe he was simply allowing her the freedom to fade into the background rather than go through the spectacle of a wedding while visibly pregnant. Who knows what might have been if Joseph had followed through on his decision to quietly break their engagement. The unintended consequences of his decision are thankfully a mystery because, due to the intervention of an angel meeting him in a dream, Joseph chose instead to stay the course, to take Mary as his wife and to be the earthly father to Jesus.

Fred Rogers once said, “There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.” Choosing the easier way, even when it seems to be righteous, is not always the best way. Joseph was privileged that an angel came to him in a dream to redirect him; the rest of us must instead rely on the difficult process of discernment. We must learn how to set aside what we want and be open to wherever God, through the Holy Spirit, leads us. This is not a skill that is easy or even one that can be mastered; anyone who says they are an expert at discernment is fooling themselves.

Yet when we put in the hard work to learn how to hear the quiet whispers of the Spirit and ignore the thundering shouts of our own wants and desires, we are sowing seeds in our soul that will flourish and bloom in magnificence and splendor.