Knowing the Will of God – Part 1: What Do We Mean by the “Will of God”?

Knowing the Will of God – Part 1: What Do We Mean by the “Will of God”?

Recently I saw a news article about a wealthy man who had died and left a large estate. Unfortunately, he had died without making a will so his wife and her step-daughter literally got into a fight over the inheritance. Usually when someone dies there is a written and signed will so everyone will know what the “will” of the deceased was for the final disposition of his or her property.

The situation above is one context in which we use the word “will.” Nonetheless, the word obviously has other meanings in different contexts. Consider the following definitions:
1. The declaration of a person’s wishes regarding the disposal of his or her property after death (as above).
2. The ability to make conscious and deliberate choices of action.
3. The act or an instance of asserting a choice.
4. Anything decided upon or chosen, especially by a person in authority.
5. A determined intention as: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
6. The disposition or attitude towards others as: “He bears you no ill will.”

The Bible talks a great deal about doing the “Will of God.” In this article, and the next two installments, we will consider this issue. But, you may ask, “What do we mean by the ‘Will of God?’” In a way, we could apply all the above definitions to the “Will of God.” Simply put, it is what God desires. But we must acknowledge that it is not as simple as that in real life. Knowing the will of God for our lives, and even in particular situations, can be a challenge. Let’s start by identifying three levels of how we should comprehend what the “Will of God” means.

Level One: The “Will of God” Is What God Causes to Happen
God is all powerful and everything is under his sovereign rule. Certain things happen or happened that God caused directly by His fiat power. For example, God created the universe. Why? Because it was His will or desire. He also created the laws of nature and physics. He decided when and where you and I would be born. He decided who our parents would be. He decided the color of our eyes and hair.

These are things God caused to happen. They are all the result of His sovereign will. Sovereignty means His absolute authority and power to do what He wants. He consulted with no one about them nor did he need to justify His decisions to anyone. He is, after all, God! None of these actions were accidental; they were God’s intentional will. So what does that mean for us?
It means we must, at the starting point, realize that many circumstances are not under our control. We must accept them for what they are and trust in God’s wisdom. Does that mean everything that happens in the world is predetermined? We must be careful at this point. It does not mean we regard everything that happens as caused by God or is His will. That attitude is fatalism, which is more like the Islamic view (“If Allah wills…”).

That is not the biblical Christian view. We are not robots. God has given everyone a will of their own. This is part of what makes us human and made in God’s image. So we are actually –
to a degree – free to not follow God’s will (which is the definition of sin). As Christians, we certainly want to do God’s will as nearly as is possible.
Level Two: The “Will of God” Is What God Wants to Happen and What He Desires Us to Do
In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul told his readers, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). He says we should always want to “understand what the will of God is” in all circumstances. This is what we call seeking God’s “Perfect Will” for our lives. In other words, God has a perfect will for every person. He has our lives mapped for the best possible way to go for the best possible results. He has for us the best education, the best career choice, the best husband or wife, the best financial plans, etc. This should be our highest goal: to do what God wants us to do and do it perfectly! We should aim to come as close as possible to God’s perfect will for our lives.

So, you ask, “Just how do we know, or even can we know, what God’s will is? We will deal with that issue in our next installment. Meanwhile we must acknowledge the fact that very few people find every item of God’s will for their lives. Does that mean, if we are not doing God’s perfect will, that we are sinning most of the time in what we do? Not necessarily, God also has a permissive will.

Level Three: The “Will of God” Is What God Allows to Happen and What He Allows Us to Do
Paul exhorted the Roman believers to present their bodies as “living sacrifices.” He told them, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

As one old preacher said, however, “The problem with a ‘living sacrifice’ is that it keeps crawling off the altar.” In other words, we constantly make choices, some good and some not so good. Some choices we make may not be God’s perfect will. But because we do not always clearly know what that is, God allows us to make imperfect decisions and nonetheless blesses them. This is what we could call God’s permissive will. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad either.

Consider this illustration. Say you wanted to drive from Tallahassee to Atlanta. What is the easiest and shortest route to take? It is probably to go north on US 319 to catch I-75 north in Tifton. So that would be somewhat like God’s perfect will. But what if you take a different route – say drive up US 27 to Columbus where you catch I-185 north and I-85 east? Would that work? Sure it would, so long as you do not run off the road or speed and crash. That’s like God’s permissive will. It may not be the best way, but it is a still a good practical way to go!

We need to recognize that we may not always know exactly what God wants us to do in every situation. However, we can know there are certain things God definitely does not want us to do! (Those are sinful choices. We will discuss those in our next installment.) The point is, if we don’t stray from those absolute aspects of God’s will (i.e. sin); God allows us much freedom and latitude in the choices we make.

God allows us to choose where (or if) to go to college, who (or if) we are to marry, where we work, etc. Those are morally neutral choices in most instances. They may not be, in all cases, the best choice in God’s plan for us. We may not always do everything God wants for us to do. But so long as we follow God’s righteous path He will bless those choices. (Obviously there may be some colleges where Christians should not go, people Christians should not marry, or places Christians should not work, etc. More about that in the next installment.)

Some readers might ask, “But what if it is too late? What about all the bad choices I made that were definitely NOT God’s will? What do I do about those? Some were pretty bad, so what can I do?”

Those are good questions. But it is at exactly those points where God’s grace comes in! We may need to acknowledge our mistakes. We may need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness. If we do, He will always forgive us and allow us to get back in His will. That being said, we still may have to suffer the consequences of our wrong choices. We may even need to make restitution to people we have hurt. God, however, has a way of turning things on their head. He can turn the bad to good if we sincerely seek His will!

Next installment: How can we know the will of God?

© 2004 Tal Davis