What is God’s will? How can we know God’s will? Does God’s will always happen? Can we look at the world around us and assume that everything we see is because of God’s will? If we pray for something and it doesn’t happen, should we assume that it wasn’t God’s will?
The way that we understand, define, or think about the subject “God’s will” is very important. This is one of those topics that will affect so many other things. It affects how we view God’s character. It affects the decisions we make every day. It is difficult to overstate the influence this has on the lives of people that believe in God.
In this post, I hope to provide a way to think about God’s will that will be simple, helpful, and most importantly, Biblical.
When we talk about a person’s will, we are talking about something that person desires or wants. A person makes his or her will known by expressing it through some means of communication. If you study this out in the Greek you will see this to be the case. The Greek word translated “will” means just what we think it would mean…to desire or want. A man’s will is something that a man desires…God’s will is something that God desires.
At this point I would like to offer a somewhat silly example to illustrate a point.
It is my wife’s will that I do not track dirt into the house after I have been outdoors. It is her will that I take of my dirty shoes before I walk on the carpet. She has made her will known by telling me. She has communicated her will to me on more than one occasion, and that is how I know that it is her will.
However, even though she has communicated her will, this does not automatically guarantee that it will happen.. In this case, her will is directly affected by the choices that I make. In order for her will to happen here, I have to agree and participate. If I choose to disagree or ignore her will, and walk on the carpet with dirty shoes anyway, then her will does not happen.
How God’s will works
God’s will works in much the same way. He expresses His will by communicating it to us, and that is how we know His will. He makes it known to us either through scripture, or by communicating to us through other people, or by speaking to us directly, or a by variety of other ways.
Sometimes God’s will only involves something that He Himself will be doing, without regard to any other created being. In these cases, His will always happens. God is trustworthy, true, and powerful enough to accomplish anything He decides that He wants to do. For example, it was God’s will that light appeared in the darkness during creation, and this absolutely happened (Genesis 1:3)
However, sometimes God’s will involves the choices that people (or angels or demons) will be making. In those cases, He makes His will known by some means, and then the people (or angels or demons) choose to either agree and participate, or disagree and go their own way. In these types of situations, God’s will does not always happen. For example, God’s will is that you love your neighbor as yourself. We know this because Jesus said it (Mat 22:39) and it is also written in the Bible in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18). Unfortunately, this only happens on rare occasions. For the most part, people do not love their neighbor as they love themselves. So this particular instance of God’s will does not happen very often.
More examples where God’s will doesn’t always happen
Here are some other examples that demonstrate this aspect of God’s will:
1 Timothy 2:4 – [God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
It is God’s will that everyone is saved. However, we know from many other scriptures in the Bible that not everyone is saved. There are a multitudes of people that reject God’s truth. Each time a person refuses to be saved, God’s will does not happen. God allows people to reject Him if they choose to do so, but it is still His will that they believe and receive salvation. (Note: this does not contradict a proper Biblical understanding of “election” – see this post for more info)
2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
God does not want anyone to perish. He wants everyone to come to Him and receive forgiveness and salvation. But as I mentioned before, we know from the Bible that huge numbers of people reject His offer and die without being saved. Each time a person dies without repenting and being saved, God’s will does not happen.
Luke 7:30 – But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by [John the Baptist].
God’s will was that the Pharisees heed the warnings of John the Baptist, and repent and come and receive his baptism. However, scripture clearly states that the Pharisees rejected God’s will, and did not participate, and therefore God’s will did not happen. For this reason we cannot look at the actions of the Pharisees and assume that their choices were aligned with God’s will. We cannot assume that what happened was God’s will.
Matthew 23:37 – O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Jesus clearly states here that he wanted to gather the Jews (the “children of Jerusalem”) to himself. That was his will. However, this did not happen. For the most part, the Jews of his day rejected him. The will of Jesus did not happen in this case.
Even more examples…
For a more general example, consider this: over and over in the Bible God tells people not to sin. Sin is not God’s will. However, people still choose to sin. Each time someone sins, God’s will does not happen in that situation.
You can turn to just about any page in the Bible and find an example of God’s will not happening because of the poor choices of people. Here is a small sampling:
- God did not want Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17) but they did it anyway (Genesis 3:6)
- God did not want people to sacrifice their children to idols (Leviticus 20:2-5) but they did it anyway (Jeremiah 32:35)
- God does not want people to commit murder (Exodus 20:13) but both the Bible and human history are full of examples of people committing murder
- God does not want people to commit adultery (Exodus 20:14) but both the Bible and human history are full of examples of people committing adultery
- God did not want the world to come to the state that it was in before the great flood (Genesis 6:1-6), as evidenced by the fact that He was sorry that He made man on the earth (Genesis 6:6). However, the earth became that way because creatures with free will made poor choices that did not align with God’s will
- God wanted the Israelites to enter the promised land the first time they came there, but the Israelites refused to go in (Numbers 14)
I could go on like this for pages and pages (and I may do that in a future post), but that is enough to make the point painfully obvious. God’s will does not always happen. Sometimes His will depends on the choices of the beings that He created with free will.
In the passage of scripture commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus tells us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it heaven:
Matthew 6:9-13 (emphasis added)
Our Father in heaven,Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Jesus instructs his followers to pray that God’s will would be done on earth in the same way that it is done is heaven. This implies that God’s will is not happening on earth in the same way that it is in heaven, and that the prayers and declarations of His people can have some effect on that. If God’s will is always happening already, this this prayer makes no sense. Why pray for God’s will if it is going to happen automatically anyway?
So what does this tell us?
Well, among other things, it tells us this: You cannot look at things that are going on in the world and assume that everything is God’s will, because God’s will does not always happen. Not everything that happens is God’s will. God is not controlling everything. He lets people make choices that affect the course of history to some degree.
If your circumstances are not very good, do not assume that your circumstances are God’s will, especially if those circumstances are the result of someone’s sinful choices. You cannot look at some horrible tragedy and say that it was God’s will. You cannot blame sin or sickness on God’s will. If someone dies that you love, you cannot automatically assume that “God took them,” or that it was His will that they die. It is very possible that God wanted something very different to take place.
God revealed his character and his will perfectly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we come across any event or situation that contradicts that revelation of God’s nature, we should be very careful before assuming that God wanted that situation…before assuming that it was his will for it to be like that. Instead, remember that God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect (Romans 12:2), and you can trust and take comfort in that.