Yes, God Does Have A Will …
But it may not be what you think it is! Whether we have grown up in the church or have entered the church later in life, we have at some point most likely been exposed to a concept called the “will” of God. Remember, this exposure to the idea of the “will” of God is built on a presupposition that God has a will and it must be found or discovered by his followers, hence we “search for it.” The presupposition that we are working on is that God has a will, but it is not lost. It is discovered by seeing what God is doing and putting our hands to it.
There are surely many views of the concept of the will of God. One of those views of the will of God pervades a large part of the American Evangelical church today. For simplicity, we will call it the traditional view of the will of God. This view suggests that there are, in fact, three different wills of God that must be understood: the predetermined will of God, the moral will of God, and the individual will of God. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these wills of God, beginning with the predetermined will of God.
The Predetermined Will of God
This view proposes that God has predetermined everything that will happen in the universe, which he has created.[ref]Based on the idea of predestination, a staple of the theology of John Calvin (1509-1564), which believes that God predetermined everything before he created anything. In this vein.[/ref] In short, he has a great blueprint for your life that you must discover. This viewpoint has a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God. Sovereignty of God is a theological phrase that refers to the unlimited power of God, who has sovereign control over the affairs of nature and history. It is God’s absolute right to do all things according to his own good pleasure. This belief about God and his will has been discussed for centuries by scholars and there are whole religious bodies that have strong roots built on the belief of the predetermined will of God.
This view suggests that Scripture is filled with verses that suggest this possibility. Here’s an example: John 15.16a “You did not choose me, but I chose you …” is believed to suggest that we did not choose God, but that he chose us. Read by itself in isolation, that’s what it says. But God doesn’t speak in sound bites, he tells stories. It is apparent that a large percentage of Christians view their conversion opposite to this verse. They feel that they discovered God; they found him in a church, an evangelistic crusade, a small group, or some other place in which the followers of Jesus were gathered. But the plain truth of this text that is argued is that God has been tracking us and found us. Francis Thompson called God “the hound of Heaven,” in his 182 line poem that was first published in 1893, which suggests that God picks up our scent and he would not and will not rest until he finds us safely home in his presence. If one reads the paragraph that this short sound bite is in (John 15.9-17), you will discover that Jesus is talking to his disciples that he has chosen and appointed. The text is not so much about the idea of “being chosen,” clearly it says that, but its purpose is about what this choosing is called to accomplish.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah revealed God in this way:
Remember this, keep it in mind,
take it to heart, you rebels.
Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, “My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please” (Isa 46.8-10).
Ephesians 1.11-12 may suggest a similar understanding of God’s sovereignty.
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
He has a plan for his world and history. Let’s see how we can live into Paul’s idea. When you read we in the text above, think community. First, Paul tells us that we were chosen. The word usually means to give or receive an inheritance. Paul used the developed Old Testament usage of this word. Old Testament Israel was God’s chosen people. Paul’s use of this word in this passage established his conviction that all those who are in Christ, Jew or Gentile, are now God’s chosen, as only Israel was understood to be in the Old Testament.
Second, we became God’s chosen because of … the purpose of his will …. Our becoming a part of this new community, which Jesus brought into existence, did not happen by chance. There was no cosmic crapshoot. God willed it! Here is a plain example of God’s will for our lives — to know that we are chosen!
But lest we feel that we are just inactive spectators in this whole process, verses 13-14 of Ephesians 1 shares with us what our part is.
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory.
It is in light of God’s will to save, that faith, hope, and evangelism become possible. The proclamation of the good news is the very means by which God has given us the opportunity to come from blindness to sight. This is not a simple transaction whereby we have given mental assent to one theory of the atonement and now are suited for the new heaven and earth. It is rather beginning the journey of becoming the people of God for the sake of the world. The assurance that God is active in this process is given by the Holy Spirit who is:
Promised. This can be seen throughout the Old Testament with fulfillment in the New Testament although we should not get the idea that the promise of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament means that he was not active in the Old Testament.
Deposited. This word could be translated sealed. A thing that is sealed is something that is owned. The Holy Spirit seals us as God’s possession.
Guaranteed. The word is arrabon. It means down payment or first installment. It is a part of the purchase price, which is paid in advance. The Holy Spirit is God’s down payment to us that all he has promised will come to pass. The Holy Spirit is only a small fraction of the total payment even though he is sometimes by some groups treated as the whole kit and kaboodle.
We must realize that there is an equally true and harmonizing instruction in Scripture about man’s responsibility. If we stress God’s sovereignty at the expense of man’s responsibility, we will become passive, inactive, and irresponsible toward God, his mission, will, and church. We will become fatalistic, hopeless, and deterministic toward the purpose of life. Sayings like “I can’t help myself” or “If it is meant to be, it is meant to be, so why get involved” will pervade our thinking and follow in our speech.
While God’s sovereignty is true, it must be held in tension with other truths of Scripture, which may seem diametrically opposed. Holding opposites in tension is difficult for the Westerner to accomplish. Our formation in the Enlightenment has taught us to believe that the autonomous individual who is rational can in fact solve any problem set before him or her.
Because we are a part of the social contract of the Enlightenment, that is, we believe in the collective effect of individuals to choose out of rational self-interest, i.e., democratic but individual, we reel against the idea that God is sovereign: that he has decided for us what is best for us. Modernity has caused us to truly struggle against the will of God because of its great concern for the autonomous self.
Can you see how holding a solid belief in the sovereignty of God without its harmonizing counterpart, the free will of humans, can be detrimental? If this view is correct, you don’t have any choices at all: none, nada, zip. I think it may be fair to say that if God’s will is predetermined, then there really isn’t anything to talk about. Whatever he has determined for our lives is going to be. Que Sera, Sera!
The Moral Will of God
This second view implies that God has a moral plan for each person’s life and it can be discovered by understanding and practicing the commandments of Scripture. Scripture, in this view, is seen as a book of principles to be followed. Here is an example of what some believe to be “a moral” teaching of Scripture that should be followed.
In his second, or maybe third writing to the Corinthians, (2 Cor 6.14) Paul says, “Do not be mismated with unbelievers.” This verse is often quoted by pastors, counselors, and family members to demonstrate the moral will of God when counsel is being given about marrying an unbeliever. Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of this passage.
In 1 Corinthians 5.9-11, Paul states:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
This passage comes in the book we call First Corinthians. Paul says plainly that he had written these views in a previous letter and now he would be explaining what had been misunderstood by the Corinthians. The previous writing then is not 1 Corinthians.
To understand this passage in 2 Corinthians, we must see its context. In 2 Corinthians 6.14-7.2, we have a break in the context of what Paul is saying. Some New Testament specialists believe that this section of 2 Corinthians is a part of that former letter to which he refers in 1 Corinthians 5.9, as you read above.
If this be the case, and the context break in 2 Corinthians would indicate that conclusion, then we must interpret 2 Corinthians 6.14-7.2 in light of what Paul says it means in 1 Corinthians 5.9. “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” then should be understood to mean those who are in the body, the church, but have a habit of life contrary to Christian behavior.
The purpose of this small excursion and interpretation is to demonstrate how Scripture can often be used to say something that God may never have intended to say. By making Scripture say things it doesn’t mean to say, we often inflict wrong counsel on people, which is damaging to them. One has to wonder how many folks were counseled not to marry that unbeliever, meaning one who had not come to faith in Jesus, while condoning a marriage to one who had come to faith but was living a lifestyle contrary to Christian behavior. Those without sin here, cast the first stone! So what might this little excursion teach us? It should focus us on the basic problem that we read the Bible too often with a very simplistic mindset and that we need to urge those in the church who offer training to call us to task over rather shallow thinking.
A lot of Scripture can simply be read, understood, and acted upon. We may not always be reading it correctly. We have an interesting habit of making “Christian Proverbs” out of often quoted passages of Scripture. In my book, God’s EPIC Adventure, I call this the disease of versitis.[ref]Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure, 13.[/ref] If the context of an often-quoted passage does not support our conclusions, we may, in the process, be contaminating the meaning that the Holy Spirit originally meant with a meaning of our own choosing. If perchance we arrive at a wrongheaded meaning of a passage, it will cause us to act inappropriately.
In short, the so-called morality in this text is not what we have thought it to be. It does not mean that God is not interested in morality, he is. It means that this text doesn’t teach such.
Here is another illustration from 1 Thessalonians 5.12-22 sometimes applied to the moral will of God:
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.
The passage tells us that we should do the following things:
We should respect those in ministry.
- We should hold them in the highest regard and love.
- We should live in peace.
- We should warn people who are idle.
- We should encourage the timid.
- We should encourage the weak.
- We should be patient with everyone.
- We should not pay back wrong with wrong.
- We should be kind to everyone.
- We should be joyful.
- We should pray continually.
- We should give thanks in all circumstances.
- We should not put the Spirit on a back burner.
- We should allow prophecies to occur and test them. We should hold on to the good ones and avoid the evil ones.
Verse 22 of this passage is usually quoted as one of those “Christian Proverbs.” The KJV says, “Abstain from all appearances of evil.” This was my mother’s all-time favorite verse to quote to me on any occasion that she thought I was involved in “evil,” like going to the Saturday afternoon matinee to watch “Roy Rogers,” or going to the public lake to swim where there were girls, which she called “mixed bathing,” a cultural metaphor that was difficult for a youngster to grasp because I was swimming, not taking a bath. And because she quoted it so many times, I began to think that I was always involved in something evil. All too often, what she saw as evil was just simply cultural. So, when we pick up this phrase as an independent thought and separate it from the context and then quote it as guidance for God’s moral will, we are simply making a bad theological statement and attributing our bad theology to God. In this context, this verse can only mean that what we are to abstain from participating in is evil prophecies. It cannot mean anything else and we cannot quote it, void of its context, or we will make God say something he did not say! Who wants to sign on for that! How do we discover “evil prophecies?” We must attend to the gracelet of discernment, which is one of the gracelets that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians. It surely is a community gracelet, given so that the community can discern what is good and what is evil that is being said under the guise of prophecy.
The point is that we often glibly read Scripture, quoting practical thoughts from it, and making them say something that God never intended to say, and then declare that this is God’s moral will for our lives. Which texts have you done that with?
So, is there a moral will of God? This question may ultimately be wrongheaded. What if we said that God’s will for his children is that they keep covenant with him and part of that covenant-keeping is our moral responsibility. If we want to talk about morals, let us learn to speak where Scripture speaks and be quiet where Scripture does not speak. Paul told the readers of Galatians that they should no longer live by the “…works of the flesh,” i.e., the habits of life of this present evil age. This passage is one of many passages, which when viewed in context, will help us define our moral responsibility to be God’s covenant people. It is simply learning to live into his story.
Romans 2.17-18 informs us that the Jews knew right from wrong because they knew God’s law. The implication from the traditional view is that God has a moral law that demonstrates what is morally right and what is morally wrong in life. While this seems reasonable, it is not as clear-cut as we would like to make it. Bad is bad and good is good, but there is so much gray area in life to be dealt with. Again, modernity has caused us to state things about life in clear absolute patterns. Life simply was not created to be so absolute. Paul goes to great lengths in his dealings with the Corinthians to discuss this very issue. This is not to say that God is not moral. It is to say that he may not be moral with the definition that we apply to him as moral. Morality is more often culturally defined than biblically defined. When my mom told me I could not attend movies and watch Roy Rogers on Saturday afternoon or told me that going bowling with my friends, or playing a game of pool (billiards) with my friends, was immoral, that was cultural and has no biblical basis. When she told me not to have sex before I was married, that was moral and biblical. The question that we all have to work with is: What part of our moral view is cultural and what part is biblical? Of course, our biblical view of morality is contaminated by our cultural view. We think our view is biblically sound, but it has been poisoned by our culture.
The Individual Will of God
It is in this last view that it seems that followers of Jesus spend most of their time reflecting on the will of God. While this area is important, it may be overstressed because of our selected cultural value of individualism. This view suggests that God has a perfect plan for your life. He decided who your parents would be, who you would marry, what your lifelong occupation would be, and when you will die. My mom was the “country” theologian in our house, but she was heavily influenced by the “hard shell Baptist”[ref]This group was also known as Primitive or Predestination Baptist, primitive meaning original in the sense of holding on to their perceived patterns of Christianity.[/ref] church group she had participated with when she was a kid. She often told me that God knew exactly when I was going to die, but nevertheless, I should be careful while I was out driving with a date so that it wouldn’t be that night. That logic never made sense to me because regardless of how safety conscious I could have been, if my time was up that night, it was up, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Folks following this teaching believe that God’s will has been created with you in mind, and all you have to do is discover which door the prize is behind: door number one, door number two, or door number three. Choose the correct one and find the will of God and a smiling model will point favorably toward your prize. Modernity has inflated this view to a prime seat because of its own view of the importance of the individual and continues to shout, “Come on down!”
Under this view, there are three beliefs that have been developed. They are:
- The perfect will of God
- The permissive will of God
- Being out of the will of God
Let me explain these three concepts this way. Suppose you were in a room that was built perfectly square. In the exact middle of that room, there was another square room. Being in God’s perfect will is like being inside the square room in the middle of the big square room. Being in God’s permissive will is like being in any other place in the room except the small room in the middle. Being out of God’s will is like being outside the room completely.
Therefore, it is often thought that to be in God’s perfect will means to be bound to the small room, which he has chosen for you in advance. This is God’s ideal for you, his perfect and specific plan. To be any other place in the room is to have God’s second best. To be outside the room, well, let’s just say you will be busted.
One can see the serious implications of this form of teaching and the open gaping wounds that it can cause among Jesus followers. Gaping wounds usually leave lasting scars. Let’s take marriage as an illustration. Jim is seeking God’s will about who he is to marry. He wants to live in the center room, in God’s perfect will. In an emotional moment, he chooses the wrong lady to marry. Now, he is restricted to live in the larger room, settling for God’s second best. The church will allow him to change clothes, cars, schools, churches, houses, jobs, cities, states, and even countries, but he cannot change wives. Worse yet, there is a presupposition that there is a perfect mate that God has selected and that up to that point no one has ever married the wrong mate, when in fact the first one to marry a wrong mate ended the whole idea of having a perfect mate chosen beforehand. Maybe, we should think more deeply about this perfect “will of God” idea before we hoist it on to the backs of folks.
Note all the implications: Jim will feel terrible guilt. He may even pass that on to his wife and kids who are in fact in this theological scheme as God’s second best. Having God’s second-best implies being God’s second best, therefore, his life will never be first-rate. Not only has he made a mistake, but he surely has chosen a lady whom God had picked out for someone else as his perfect will for another. Now that other person is also doomed to live with God’s second-best because his perfect will has been dashed by the mistake of another. I could continue, but I think the point is made. As Jesus followers, we have been duped by this kind of bad theological thinking. It really is absurd! Bad theology makes you ….
It appears to me that we have broken the will of God into compartments. We are inclined as Westerners to do this. We love to see and visit the fragments. The whole idea of a permissive will of God is invented to keep us from believing that we are not in the perfect will of God. Close, but no cigar! I don’t think we have to settle for such a conundrum, but rather we can understand the will of God in covenant and grace. This way of thinking about God’s will has serious consequences and is nowhere close to Paul’s mention of a “perfect will” of God (Rom 12.2). The word “perfect” in that passage comes from the word telos, which can be translated “complete.” So in writing to the Romans, Paul is suggesting that as they lay aside the story of this present evil age, they can begin to see what God’s complete will is, his good and pleasing one. He doesn’t seem to have in mind some kind of a category.
God has made a covenant with us. The form of the Mosaic covenant suggested that God’s relationship with Israel was built by redeeming them from their bondage (Ex 20.lff.). Because they were now in a new relationship with him, he gave them stipulations, which would ensure a relationship with him and with each other. The covenant also provided blessings for the pursuers and curses for the breakers of this covenant. When we break the covenant stipulations, which God has given us, we find ourselves out of the will of God, not in some nebulous area called the permissive will of God, just a few feet from his perfect will for our lives.
The grace of God can be seen from the Romans 8.28ff. passage, which suggests that the Spirit works in everything with those who are loving God. The point is that when we break the covenant, realize the infraction, repent, and come back to a loving relationship with God, the Spirit is contracted to take “everything” that we have done, even our sin, and work in it for “good” to make us conform to the image of Jesus (Rom 8.29). Thus, in our repentance, God shares his grace. This does not mean that we will not suffer the consequences of our wrong actions. It does mean that he will work everything out for our good, regardless of our actions. And above all, this passage does not teach us that it is okay to sin because after all God will work it all out for our good. “God forbid,” I hear Paul saying.
We have noted that frustration concerning God’s will comes because we only put a bandage on the problem rather than offering a solution. Our independent freedom is a part of our culturally selected worldview and may be a hindrance to living into God’s will instead of a help. We suggested that God does have a purpose for our lives. His willingness and purpose are demonstrated by his desire to be intimate with his children.
We developed the traditional view of the will of God, which, in fact, focused on three wills, i.e., the predetermined will of God, the moral will of God, and the individual will of God. Most of the time we are trying to discover this individual will of God for our lives. Thus, by our decisions, we believe we live in the perfect will of God, the permissive will of God, or out of the will of God. Hopefully, you are beginning to see the fallacy of this point of view.