What is God's Will? 

Robert Harris
Version Date: April 29, 2013

It seems to me that there is a lot of confusion about God's will. When a disaster happens, is that God's will (or as the insurance companies like to say, "an act of God")? And if it is God's will, does that mean he wanted or planned for it to happen?

Here are some ideas, supported by Scripture references, that I hope will clarify this situation.

Three Aspects

I believe there are three different aspects to God's will. He has a preferential will, a permissive will, and an executive will. While all of these are his will, that is, things subject to his control, the aspects vary in the degree of determination God applies to the outcome.

God's Preferential Will

God's preferential will represents those things he desires to happen or be the case. This aspect of his will is his best plan or wish for our lives. This is the aspect of God's will we are referring to in our prayers:

May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. --Matthew 6:10

That is, may we do your will and not our own or someone else's. When we seek to know God's will for our lives, this is the aspect we seek, what he desires for us, what he wants us to do. But people, with free will, can resist God's preferential will. A well known example is that of Jonah:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.  --Jonah 1:1-3 (ESV)

Or consider the case of salvation. It is God's preferential will that everyone should be saved

The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.  --2 Peter 3:9 (NKJ)

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. --I Timothy 2: 3-4 (NKJ)

But we clearly see that not everyone is saved. Many reject the Gospel, against God's (preferential) will.

In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus tells us that God's preference is to keep everyone in the fold:

What do you think? Suppose a man has 100 sheep and one of them strays. Won't he leave the 99 sheep in the hills to look for the one that has strayed? I can guarantee this truth: If he finds it, he is happier about it than about the 99 that have not strayed. In the same way, your Father in heaven does not want one of these little ones to be lost. --Matt 18:12-14 (GW)

God's Permissive Will

God allows many things to happen that he does not appoint or order to occur. Just before he tells the parable of the lost sheep, quoted above (Matthew 18:12-14), Jesus acknowledges the presence and power of evil, and that evil occurrences are permitted, without having been appointed by God:

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! --Matt 18:6-8 (ESV)

The moral and spiritual economy that God has established here on earth with humans who have been given the gift of choice means that temptations--and giving in to them--will happen, with the result that sin and evil will be present. But that does not mean that God desires, intends, or produces any of it, especially not for punishment. Jesus specifically addressed this misconception:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” --Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

As you can see from this passsage in Luke, Jesus specifically rejects the "suffering means God is punishing you for sin" argument. God permits the consequences of human folly, and this permission includes crime and injustice (verses 1-3). God permits crime--and all other manner of sinful behavior--to occur because he has given us free will and because we often choose evil over good. Moreover, God's permissive will, as seen in Luke 13:4-5, includes accidents and natural disasters. The earth still groans under the curse from the fall, and earthquakes, fires, floods, and so on are the result of a natural world under sin.

But God does not necessarily appoint these events. In some cases he might, but it is a mistake to assume automatically that when something bad happens, God wanted it to happen. "Why did God want this to happen?" is therefore a fallacy, resting on what is most likely the false assumption that he appointed this by his executive will (see below). And so, it is doubly wrong to assume that God wanted some personal evil to occur in order to punish someone. We simply cannot know that. We must rest in his love:

In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. --John 16:33 (ESV)

God's Executive Will

This aspect of God's will covers those events and outcomes that God does indeed appoint or produce by fiat. When he created the universe, for example, it was spoken into existence by executive determination:

And God said, "Let light be," and light was. --Genesis 1:3

There is no contingency or condition with God's executive will, unless he places one on his plans:

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”  --Deut 30:15-20 (ESV)

Another example would be Jesus' healing by divine will:

When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.  And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  --Matt 8:1-3 (ESV)

The executive is the aspect of God's will Paul is referring to in Romans 9:19b, when he quotes a hypothetical critic, For who can resist his [God's] will?


This model entails several implications.

1. We should pray that our lives align with God's preferential will for us. He has blessings standing by, if we will avail ourselves of them:

I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord. They are plans for peace and not disaster, plans to give you a future filled with hope. Then you will call to me. You will come and pray to me, and I will hear you. When you look for me, you will find me. When you wholeheartedly seek me, 14 I will let you find me, declares the Lord.  --Jer 29:11-14 (GW)

2. We should not assume that everything that happens is God's best desire for us.

3. We should not assume that any disaster or evil is God's preferential or executive will, when it is most likely only his permissive will.

4. We should pray and study to discern, if possible, which events in our lives involve which aspects of God's will, for we cannot always understand. Remember the proverb, "The central work of life is interpretation."

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com