What is "God's Will"?
First off, let me point out two ways in which we can collect data about how God set up creation:
- We observe past and present circumstances, note the outcome of each circumstance, and extrapolate to find general principles by which God operates.
- We read God's Word, note the principles taught in each passage, and extrapolate to find general principles by which God operates.
Now that we know the general means by which we collect data about God's creation, let's consider how people actually go about determining what God's Will is. Here are some options:
- It is the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
- It has always been the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
- It will someday be the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
- It ought to be the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
1. It is the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
Many Christians that I respect, especially those to whom God's Sovereignty is a big hammering point, hold the view that God "actively" wills everything that comes to be. There is never anything that happens without God willing that particular thing to happen (and whatever comes to pass does so for some "great(er) purpose" that we can't fully grasp). This does not mean that we shouldn't strive to change our circumstances or live holier lives--only that God has crafted creation in such a way that everything we do is ultimately in accordance with His Will and His plan. Thus, when we encounter someone who is dying of cancer, we can comfort them by saying, "God knows your situation, and He is accomplishing a great good through it. God has a reason for putting you through this, and if you persevere through this trial with faith, you will be greatly rewarded. Have joy in the Lord, and thank Him for refining you through your suffering!"
When we determine God's Will by what we see happening around us, it is easy to let our observations define what ought to be, in addition. For example, when we see that people regularly die of cancer, we begin to think that not only is it God's Will for those people to die of cancer, but also that generally, people ought to (or need to) die of cancer in order to accomplish God's Will for mankind. Many Christians hold on to this new, expanded, experience-driven notion of God's Will. The interesting part is that these same Christians claim that their notion of God's Will is derived from a plain reading of Scripture. I believe that the subtle background definition of God's Will (plus extrapolation into what ought to be) based upon observation of present circumstances can greatly tinge our interpretation of Scripture, and that we are often most susceptible to (self-)deception when we fail to realize that we actually do read Scripture with colored vision. Unfortunately, when we adopt the belief that we know "best" how to interpret (or "read") Scripture, pride often gets in the way of the Holy Spirit's gentle corrective voice.
If we choose to define "God's Will" in terms of what we presently see happening around us, we need to be careful not to unknowingly slide into the more controversial position that what presently happens around us indicates what ought to be.
It is a Scripturally founded position to think that nothing happens outside of God's Sovereignty--so in a sense, Christians can probably agree that whatever happens is within God's "global" Will (which takes into account the hierarchy of principles He's put into place, including the principle of humanity's free will). In this sense, God could theoretically desire something contrary to His "global" Will. However, if we instead take God's "Will" to be synonymous with God's "ultimate desire," then we get into dangerous territory. We can begin to dilute ourselves to the point that we can't recognize when our beliefs directly contradict Scripture. For instance, if we see that many people in the world die in their unrepentant sin, we could form our theology so that it is God's Will not only for those people to die in their unrepentant sin, but also that it is God's Will that (many) more people need to die in their unrepentant sin in order to accomplish some great(er) Divine Purpose (e.g., to display God's justice). How could we ever accept such theology! For Scripture tells us "plainly" that God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, KJV).
Thus, it is extremely important that if we think of God's Will as the manifestation of God's Sovereignty in current affairs, then we should be careful not to excuse ourselves from seeking God's desires for the future.
2. It has always been the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
(2) is similar to (1) in that it judges God's Will through our observations of the world. In this case, however, we don't only take into account how things are presently, but we observe how things have been throughout history. We may consider recent history or survey all of recorded history in order to determine general principles for how God deals with mankind. For example, we can come to the conclusion that it is not always God's will to heal His children from their physical ailments by observing that not all Christians throughout history were healed of diseases of various sorts.
Although this sort of historical survey can be important for figuring out God's hierarchy of spiritual principles, I think it falls prey to the danger of (1) above unless we adapt a modified "global" understanding of God's Will which is separate from God's ultimate desire for us. For if we simply take God's "Will" to mean God's "ultimate desire," then when we observe that many people died in unrepentant sin throughout history, we may conclude that it is God's Will that many more people ought to die in unrepentant sin, which is in tension with what we know from Scripture. Thus, I conclude that Christians should avoid using the historical method for determining and defining what God's Will (a.k.a., "ultimate desire") actually is for us. I believe that, instead, the historical method should be used to gain wisdom and perspective about how God interacts with His creation in general.
3. It will someday be the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
Usually, when Christians talk about what will "someday" be the case, they are referring to situations that Scripture promises to be (or, describes as being) in the future. Thus, if we use (3) as our notion of God's Will, then we can say something like, "It is God's Will for us to be morally perfect," and only mean that "We will someday be morally perfect--as in, we will be morally perfect one day when we are cleansed from our sin nature and live in the presence of God in heaven."
I doubt that Christians practically think of the term "God's Will" in this way, but let's consider the implications nevertheless. If we say that "whatever will someday be the case" (according to the predictions or promises of Scripture) is ultimately "God's Will", then we are essentially appealing to a model of God's Will that is intimately tied to God's Sovereignty. God crafted creation such that there would be certain outcomes, and by His Sovereignty, nothing ultimately results without God willing it. As I noted in (1), I believe that we are in danger of misinterpreting Scripture if we hold on to this notion of God's Will and believe that God's Will is synonymous with His ultimate desire. Scripture as a whole reveals that God has a heart of love for all people and that He patiently waits with open arms for people to come to Him. How can we then say that it is God's "Will" (or "desire") that people end up separated from Him in hell (a place that was designed not for us, but for the devil and his angels--see Matthew 25:41)? Thus, if we choose to understand God's Will as the sort of thing that accounts for all events in creation subject to God's sovereignty, then we must delineate our talk of "God's Will" and "God's ultimate (or ideal) desires."
4. It ought to be the case that X, therefore it is God's Will that X.
This notion of God's Will incorporates the expectations that we have from Scripture about how the world should ideally be. Thus, it could be God's Will that every person on Earth be physically healed and born again even if it has never been, is not now, and never will be the case that every person is healed and born again. According to this paradigm, the term "God's Will" is synonymous with "God's desire." If we adopt this understanding, we will observe that God's Will is often not accomplished in our world. God set up a hierarchy of spiritual principles that structure His interaction with creation (giving us the capacity to act as we so choose), and this results in His deepest desires for our Earthly lives sometimes not coming to fruition. (For instance, He gave us freedom to rebel against Him, and when we choose to rebel, this results in a rift in our relationship with Him--something which He does not desire.) God is sovereign in that nothing happens without His consent, not that nothing happens contrary to His deepest desires. So, when we speak of "God's Will" with respect to a particular situation, we are referring to a desire that God has for us (as revealed in Scripture) that we can aim to achieve through cooperation with Him.
The danger here is that we can turn a blind eye to the past and present situations of suffering people, thereby losing our sense of compassion and our ability to grow in understanding. Sometimes Christians go so far as to deny present circumstances, claiming that God's Will has already been accomplished. Faith in their own conception of the unseen promises of God prevents some Christians from objectively evaluating their situation. God has not called us to have "blind faith" that something is really the case when it is not. Rather, God has called us to have faith that He will fulfill His promises to us, even when our circumstances are grim. This is an important distinction that many Christians fail to make, to their own detriment.
If we think of "God's Will" as "what God wants things to be like ideally," then we need to be careful not to re-interpret our present circumstances such that we fall prey to self-deception. If we know that it is God's Will for us to be physically healed of cancer, and yet the disease continues to spread rampant throughout our body, we need to be willing to evaluate our situation and determine what is preventing God's Will from being accomplished. Analysis of our present situation does not show lack of faith, but it could instead lead us to a better understanding of God's spiritual principles so that we can better apply our faith. God calls us to have faith in Him--not in our made-up notions of who He is. When we claim to know what "God's Will" (God's desire) is, we need to make sure that we have based our description upon God's truths and not upon our own idea of what ought to be the case.
How can Christians avoid misunderstandings about what "God's Will" is?
This is a very difficult question to address, but we can draw some principles from what we learned in the section above.
First, we need to make sure that the term "God's Will" is being used in the same way among the members of the discussion. Throughout our considerations above, we came across three potential meanings of the phrase "God's Will":
- "God's Will" = That which God allows (or purposes) by His Sovereignty. [This can be distinct from what He desires (ideally).]
- "God's Will" = That which God desires to result (ideally). [This can be distinct from what He allows.]
- "God's Will" = That which God desires to result (ideally), which is whatever He allows (or purposes) by His Sovereignty.
A lot of arguments can be resolved when Christians simply recognize that the term "God's Will" is used differently in different Christian circles. The more important discussion lies in where one draws the line between what God desires and what God allows by His Sovereignty, or if one draws the line at all.
Second, we need to realize how we have come to form our beliefs about what God's Will is. If our belief is based upon a generalization of past or present observations, we need to recognize that our belief is not primarily (or solely) derived from Scripture. This can help us to correct our "colored vision" as we try to read and understand Scripture honestly, and it can also protect us from self-deception and pride. If our belief is based upon our own idea of what ought to be the case instead of what Scripture actually says, then we need to recognize that our belief isn't founded upon Scripture. We need to build our theology upon the principles revealed to us by God through Scripture--not upon our limited conceptions of how things are or how things ought to be. If we will truly seek God instead of seeking to defend a particular paradigm of thought, I believe that we will draw closer to the truth than we ever have before.
May the Spirit guide you into all truth. God bless.