Sometimes when something terrible happens, people will say, “Oh well, it is God’s will and we just have to accept it.” I always wonder what they mean by that, because it can mean many things.
If, as I sometimes suspect, they mean God has every detail of our lives planned out and causes every single thing to happen, then I do not agree with that statement. But if by that they mean that it is God’s will to order the world in such a way that people can make good and bad choices, then the world is indeed ordered as God wills it to be– but then that doesn’t mean he causes every little thing to happen. God is all-powerful and did create this whole universe and everything in it. He had the power to set it up in any way he so desired. But by creating us in his image, he chose to give us a free will, allowing us to make bad choices that can lead to hurtful consequences.
Therefore, if an 18 year old gang member kills another 18 year old gang member in a drive by shooting, we must not say in any simple sort of way, “Oh well, it is God’s will and we have to accept it.” How can it be God’s will that 18 year old boys kill each other? God commands that we NOT kill each other. Drive-by shootings happen when God’s will is disobeyed. We must not call murder God’s will.
Rather, I think it is more Biblical, and more helpful, to think in terms of not one single will of God but three wills—three distinct God ways God works in this world to carry out his will and purposes. There is God’s intentional will, and his circumstantial will, and his ultimate will. This sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Let me explain.
First, the intentional will. God would never intend that people kill each other. 18 year old boys should have fun together and work together, not shoot each other. That is what God intends. That is God’s intentional will.
But, because God loves us and gives us freedom, we may turn away from God and misuse that freedom; as in the drive-by shooting. Then, under those circumstances, God may have a different will. It is not God’s will that 18 year old boys be arrested and put in jail, but that is what must happen to a killer in order to protect the community. Therefore, under the circumstances of sin and the misuse of God’s gift of free will, it is God’s will that the boy be punished. That would be God’s circumstantial will.
Third, there is also God’s ultimate will. God’s ultimate will is that both boys have faith in Jesus Christ and be forgiven and inherit eternal life in heaven, and there be friends and not shoot each other. God’s will must then be spoken of in these three ways.
It also works like this for parents and children. A parent’s intentional will is that their children always obey them, never disobey them, never hit their little brother, and never talk back. It is not a parent’s intentional will to have to put children in the corner, deny privileges, forbid all computer games, or whatever else has to be done to ensure that the children do not endanger themselves or others by disobedience. The parent’s intentional will is that everything should go smooth all the time. This does not ever happen. Even the best behaved children will disobey, and then under the circumstances of that disobedience, parents may have to do some things that they would not normally have done. So their circumstantial will might be to punish their children is some way in order to teach them a lesson in obedience. And then, the ultimate will of parents is to have the children grow up and be responsible and independent and on their own, not needing parental correction or discipline at all. The need to punish and discipline is not the intentional will of parents, nor is it their long term goal—but it is a means to an end, made necessary under the circumstances of disobedience. You already know how this works.
A very bad thing happened on Good Friday. The only perfect man who ever lived was executed in one of the most horrible ways ever devised. And yet, we call that ‘Good.’ Why? Well, it has to do with understanding the will of God in these three ways. It was not God’s original intention that Jesus or anyone else ever be tortured and die in such a terrible way. Death itself was not even in God’s intentional will, but came as a punishment for sin long ago in the first pages of the Bible. And then, after many centuries of trying everything else to get through to his stiff-necked, disobedient creatures, God himself came to visit the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, with his message of love and grace and forgiveness. God’s intentional will would have been that everybody listen to and obey Jesus– not kill him. But God’s will was thwarted by many people’s reaction Jesus, just as God’s intentional will for a perfect world was thwarted by Adam and Eve. In that story people sinned and death came into the world. And when Jesus came, people used their free will to attack and arrest and kill Jesus, again all against God’s will— so that should make it a Bad Friday, and not a Good Friday.
But the death of Jesus was a good thing in a deeper sense, because it was God’s way of dealing with the sin and the death that had been set loose in all the world. Under the circumstances of man’s sin, God provided a way to make things right, a way that included his own Son’s death on the cross. Though God would have intended it otherwise, he knew ahead of time what would happen; so even way back in the Old Testament, God predicted how it would all unfold and that Jesus would die. But this was all God’s circumstantial will–under the circumstances of mankind’s sin and God’s judgement, a way out had to be provided. Jesus was sent to earth for that purpose, even if it meant dying on a cross. So, when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but Thine be done,” it did turn out to be God’s will that he die; that is, God’s circumstantial will.
Of course, that was not to be the end of the story. God’s ultimate will was that beyond all the suffering and death, Jesus would rise from the dead, defeating death, and then offer that same resurrection from the dead and life in heaven to all who would believe in Him. (continued…)
Jesus fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will… Jesus went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
–Jesus, Matthew 26:39b…42b
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
–Jesus, Matthew 6:10