What Do We Mean by
“The Will of God”?
“I’m just waiting now to find God’s will in this matter.”
“Our church is trying to discern what God wants us to do.”
Versions of those phrases are around us all the time in Christian circles. We’ve likely used them ourselves. I have.
But maybe it’s time for rethinking this whole matter of “knowing God’s will.” Here are some verses that will prod us (James 4:13-15 New Int’l. Version):
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow… Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'”
I find it helpful to distinguish two “wills” of God:
1. God’s DESIRED or PRESCRIBED will (his moral revelations to us)
2. God’s DETERMINED or PROVIDENTIAL will (what God has set to transpire in the world and in our lives)
An example of the first is in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 – “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified, that you should avoid sexual immorality…”
We acknowledge God’s will in this sense every time we pray the words of The Lord’s Prayer (“Your will be done”) or when we recall the words of Jesus to his Heavenly Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” We find this “will of God” in Scripture. As free moral agents, we can choose whether we want to be “in God’s will” in this moral sense and we are accountable to God for our choices.
James 4:13-15 (above) is an example of God’s determined, providential will. Its specific details are hardly ever available to us in advance and we are not responsible for knowing them. We will be “in God’s will” in this sense whether we know it or not, or whether we want to be or not.
There is a wide range of issues that are neither forbidden nor commanded by God—that is, not addressed in Scripture. With these issues, there is no absolute “will of God”, that is, no prescribed right or wrong. We are responsible for weighing these issues and making good-sense choices. Issues such as “Should I go to this school or that school, or have this or that career?” or “Should our church have this or that program or building?” are examples.
In this realm of “indifferent things” we must be willing to let others make different choices from our own without regarding them to be “out of God’s will.” And no one should judge us for our choices or try to play the “spiritual trump card”—“I believe this is God’s will for us (and your idea isn’t!).”
So, bottom line, I for one do not try to “discern God’s will” in the realm of his providence. I will live in this realm with prudence and wear my seat belt. I will seek wise counsel, gather information and apply my reason and common sense. I may choose not to travel to certain places—others may choose otherwise. But ultimately, “whatever will be will be.” I will be “in God’s will” and I need to thank him for that, make my plans to the best of my ability, and know that ultimately God is in charge of my life and I am not.
And it would be wonderful if Christians would spend time thinking through how The Ten Commandments (for example) apply to their daily lives rather than trying to discern the will of God that is hidden till it happens.