The baby dies way before its time, and the well-meaning friend comes forward with drawn face and resolutely pronounces, “Well, apparently it was God’s will.”
It seems that many have come to the belief that if something occurs, whether good or bad, it must be the will of God, and so all involved should nod and move on with their lives with the comfort that it could not have occurred if God didn’t want it that way. He knows best. He is Sovereign. The tragedy was his doing for some mysterious reason, and we are expected to accept it as such.
The young father suddenly has a heart attack and leaves a wife and two kids behind. I hear a fellow Christian lament the loss and then conclude that God must have needed him in heaven early. Another person buying some equipment from me, shares the pain of a grandchild that fell out of a window and died, to which “friends” told him it was God’s will. A man struggles to find work to support his family, and a concerned party suggests that the lack of work “is meant by God”.
In one week, I have heard all of these excuses for why the suffering has occurred or continues to weigh so heavy. They all come from friends, and are intended to both encourage and honor God, however they accomplish neither. Such words do not reflect the truth. They are not supported within Scripture. And, not one comes from God.
Life is very hard to explain in the midst of war, suffering, broken relationships, or death, especially so as it impacts the young and seemingly innocent. What kind of a loving God would allow such pain, is the common question. It is well beyond this post to identify all that could be said about the will of God, however, the belief that “it is God’s will” can and will be compared to Scripture, particularly as it relates to our hard times.
Light will be shed first on the likely religious background for such a belief. Then the word of God will be compared to that doctrine. Finally, based on what Scripture declares, a more accurate belief regarding the intersection between God’s will and our circumstances will be highlighted.
Although the history of doctrinal formation may not be as familiar as the latest sport scores, there is an event that should register for most people: the Protestant Reformation. At a time when the established church reeked with abuses, a wave of resistance crashed on the shores of Christianity in a cry for returning to scriptural authority rather than priestly control. The effort was noble and in my puny opinion necessary, however, those who gave voice to the dramatic shift also contributed some of their own frailty of error.
Martin Luther, and many who trace their theological tent pegs to that time period, believed that the identity of sovereignty was one of the key problems. The question of who held supremacy: God through Scripture or the Pope through tradition, set the stage for a less familiar doctrine, that of determinism.
This was nothing new. The idea of fate has roots that slither way back in time, but Protestants who strongly upheld the Sovereignty of God as revealed through Scripture, saw a threat in the idea of human free will. They assumed that in order for God’s will to be sovereign, then man must have no influence on changing or undermining that will. That is the crux of determinism: that God determines all events, all circumstances, all fates of every person, and so there cannot be any life-impacting choice in humans. Your existence, life, circumstances, pain, relationships, choices, interests, ups, downs, ins and outs, are all pre-determined by God.
Of course, over time, distinctions have developed, leading many to identify Luther’s ideas as “hard determinism”, allowing for a softer variety of the same thing, but the essence remains the same: whatever happens in your life, it is God’s will, so deal with it. This is what leads those kind folks to suggest that your marriage failure is what God wanted. It is the reason so many claim that the premature death of loved ones was meant by God. It is the teaching of determinism that influences well-meaning people to try and comfort, in the midst of pain, that God wills it.
I trace my faith and belief back through the Protestant line, but I embrace Scripture, not denominationalism, no matter how much time has passed. Truth is truth, and Luther did not have a perfect corner on that market. I can say that, because Scripture demonstrates it. That doesn’t mean everyone will accept what God says, but I simply cannot promote what violates the Word. Consider how the Spirit teaches on the will of God:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Notice that the Lord’s will was to gather his children in Jerusalem together, but he allowed his desire to be thwarted because “you were not willing”. Jesus allows human free will to alter what he wants.
“But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.”
Scripture is blunt here. People are allowed to reject God’s purpose. Specifically, the Spirit declares that God’s purpose, which is the same thing as saying God’s will, was refused by the religious leaders. Times have not changed much. That truth still echoes today, as many ministers turn aside to myths and reject the faith that they think they still profess. The myth of determinism suggests that no one can resist the will of God, even when Scripture clearly reveals the truth.
“‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord…’If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.'”
The declared will of God is that we use our God-given ability to reason, to which he states that the results are already set in motion by him. We engage with God as we make our individual choices and what happens thereafter is part of his design but not forced upon us. Both the good and the pain are formed by him, but their specific application to our choice is not said to be pushed upon us.
In the case of Moses, God even told him at one point that it was his holy will to destroy Israel and start over through the lineage of Moses. Think about this: God is say that his will is to wipe out Israel. Moses intercedes, pleads, and reasons with God, following which Scripture declares that God changed his stated purpose. What God had determined did not occur. To suggest that God didn’t really intend to accomplish his own word and knew Moses would asked for what God really willed is to call God a liar–not a good idea.
“I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.”
Again and again, the Lord reveals that he is patient so that all will repent and come to a knowledge of God, but neither time nor God force forgiveness. Her unwillingness contributes to her own destruction–that was not God’s will.
What many refuse to accept is that God remains sovereignly in control even while allowing a degree of human free choice. In fact, the reality of circumstances and many of our choices is that God is quite capable of working out his will no matter what direction we choose. If the toast burns, or the light turns red, or the exam is graded as an F, or the money gets stolen, or the knee gets scraped, or the friend betrays, or the family rejects, or the minister sins, or the baby dies, or the pain gets worse…
“time and chance happen to them all.”
That is a hard pill to swallow. There are times when the suffering is the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and although God is fully aware and allowing it to occur, it is not his will that we suffer. When the woman gets raped, it is not God’s will that such abuse occurs to her. When horrible things happen, they are often the result of our own circumstances unfolding through the choices of all involved and not the cause of God.
A point of clarification. To speak of the will of God is to reference both his overall purpose and his specific orchestration in fulfilling that plan. This is where many get off track, because Scripture doesn’t always insist on both happening at the same moment. So, in regards to salvation, in which both always exist, God’s purpose is to bring many into his eternal Kingdom, and he is causing that ultimate end-game to unfold step by step. However, in regards to which individual names get listed, it is his absolute purpose to fill that list, but the specific names are never said in Scripture to be predetermined (aka: caused). In fact, Revelation states that specific names that are already written in the Book-of-Life can actually be removed.
In our personal circumstances, whether or not you experience identity theft, or struggle with some handicap, is not something God is likely causing upon you. The jobless may have brought their own lack of work upon themselves, or they may be the unfortunate recipient of corporate downsizing, but it is unscriptural to say that particular hardship was meant by God. To justify abuse against non-Christians as “God wills it” is most likely the teaching from wolves in the Church, not those led by the Spirit. Your particular brand of struggle may be horrible, unfair, and seemingly undeserved, but in spite of divine allowance, it cannot be automatically credited as caused by the will of God.
We must be careful here. He can and does cause such details. This is not a planet set in motion by some detached higher power. He remains personal and intimately involved in each life created and in our events. However, his will is not to cause you to watch Survivor or the evening news, or to endure some tornado.
In Scripture, Jesus reveals that one young man was disabled in order to reveal the glory of God. However, the reason the disciples asked if he or his parents sinned, was because that is exactly the reasons given by God for many who suffer. Sin causes pain; the sins of others can get passed down to the “innocent”. This happens under the Sovereignty of God but often without his specific will causing it. As Lord over all, he can and at times does intervene, however, he very often leaves circumstances to unfold per our own choices and those around us. He knows full well what is occurring, and it is fair to say that he allows it, but when we say “it is God’s will” it implies both that it is his purpose and that he is causing it.
God is responsible for both the good and the bad that occur. In this sense, it is his will that he remain in charge. Nothing can occur without his allowance. And yet, being in charge does not mean he made something happen, or that he wanted it to occur, or that you had no choice in bringing circumstances upon yourself.
It is the will of God to allow for human will. He doesn’t force fate upon you. He doesn’t even force himself upon you. You have to choose. That is why he uses that little conjunction “if” so many times when he speaks of all the good he desires to bless you with, if you obey him.
“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”
“See I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursings, therefore choose life”.
Our fate is set in motion by God, but influenced by our own determination. We cannot cause our salvation, but we can deny it. We can leave the window open and not protect our children. It is God’s will to allow the event to unfold as it does, but it is misleading to imply he caused it. In this case, it was our poor choice that directly contributed as well as the curiosity of that child. It is always within the will of God to oversee the transactions on the street corner, but it is our own will to buy the drugs or sleep with the prostitute. God doesn’t cause sin, nor does he cause the consequences. He set cause-and-effect in motion, but he only intervenes and alters the outcomes at specific times of his choosing.
In this way, we often have multiple choices before us and God may be willing to work with any of them. He simply expects us to demonstrate our will. When we do, there will be consequences–possibly good, possibly not-so-good–but in this scenario they have been caused by us, not God. He simply will coordinate all the pieces from whatever we choose to bring us within his higher will. He does the same with the choices of others that fall upon us. In this way, it is not true (in most cases) to say that he wills for those things to happen, but rather that his will takes those things and causes them to lead us into his will.
It is only when that will of God is defined as both his desire and his intent, then and only then will he cause every detail to occur. There are times in Scripture when the will of God is presented as desiring something for which he is simultaneously allowing human choice to alter the outcome. There are other times when the will of God is shown to intend a particular outcome, for which there can be no other result. Scripture is careful to make a distinction, and so should we.
To identify something as the will of God, a careful Christian will recognize the difference between his Sovereignty in allowing circumstances and his special intervention to cause those circumstances.
Did God kill your baby? Did he cause your accident that left you paralyzed? Did he make that bad person abuse you? If he has not claimed, as supported in Scripture, to have made those things happen to you, then please discard believing such untruths.
It is hard to acknowledge that a super-powerful God might still allow such tragedy; that it might be within his will to allow something that he could have prevented. However, in terms of his will, he reveals that we are each allowed to decide for ourselves to live in tornado-alley, or to travel dark streets, or to wear revealing clothes, or to hang out with questionable friends. In most cases, we reap the consequences of human choice–both our own and what comes from others.
We live our lives in a dynamic environment. As we go along, God invites, but he does not force. He calls, but he does not always cause. Those who respond will discover that God has not lost any of his Sovereignty to the will of man. Instead, they are the ones who will reap the promise that everything will work out for good.
In the end (all details long since past), he will make all things new. By combining the free choices of our daily ups-and-downs, he will fashion our future. He causes life while granting the freedom to live in our own pot of stew. He is Sovereign and we are free.
What ought to be said, in the face of suffering, is that God’s will is that everyone be saved! It is the Lord’s will that what is broken gets healed, if so desired by the one who is broken. He intends to bring many to glory, and it will happen!
It was his will to bring wrath on his Son, because of our freely chosen sins, so that we would be spared that degree of suffering and be invited back to him. It was God’s will that Jesus ride on a donkey, die with holes in his hands and feet, be called God-with-us and be named Jesus; however, the specific occurrences like the Lord riding on Peter’s boat, or eating fish, or having someone touch his garment cannot be identified in the same way as God’s will. Those details all occurred under the supervising will of God, but the first group were caused, because Scripture must be fulfilled, but the latter circumstances were incidental to human activity.
We taste of hard, but temporary pain–in general rather than in detail, that is his will–but it will not last forever for those who keep their faith in him. The details of our struggles most likely result from causes other than from God, but our final rescue out of all of them will only ever come from one Cause.
It is the will of God that you come to know and trust in him. It is his will to save, heal, restore, and grant eternal life. Your circumstances, pain, and suffering fit within his will, but they are not typically determined by God.
It is the will of Satan and the result of Sin to destroy. It is the will of man to do what he wants and be his own god. It is the will of God to give life.
The wise will give credit where due.