God’s will refers to the things God wants. Scripture claims God has “wants” for our world and for our lives. Cool idea. The billion-dollar question for those of us who buy into that notion is how do we “access” God’s will? Is it something that just happens? Or, is it something we need to seek out and move towards? The answer is yes and yes.
I think there are at least three different ways we encounter and experience God’s will. Let me iterate them.
The Sovereign Will
There are some things God wants that we can do nothing about; they just happen—Jesus was destined to come and He did; He is destined to come back and He will; there will be an eternal judgment whether or not we approve. These are the things God “works out everything in agreement with the counsel and design of His [own] will” (Eph. 1:11 amp) irrespective of what humans do. These God “want to’s” are backed up by His sovereignty. We must accept those things. There’s no real need to try seek and find this aspect of God’s will; it will find you.
The sovereign will of God is seen in things like where you were born, your family of origin, your personality, interests, passions and calling, the time in history you find yourself in—the big, global stuff you and I have absolutely no control over.
The Pursued Will
There appears to be a boatload of things God wants to happen, but they don’t just happen because of that want to. For example, God wants everyone to experience eternal life, but that doesn’t happen. Jesus actually said “few” would experience it (Mat. 7:13-14). Paul wrote that God wants every believer to “give thanks in all circumstances.” He explicitly said, “this is God’s will for you” (1Th. 5:18). But it doesn’t happen all the time. It certainly isn’t working out too well for me. I’m still a recovering ingrate (and I don’t think God is to blame). So, there are things God wants for us that don’t happen.
I think this is why Jesus told us to pray to our Father: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Mat. 6:10). This cannot be referring to God’s sovereign will—there would be no reason to pray for that to “come.” It’s already coming. This must be referring to the aspects of God’s will that do not happen without human cooperation.
Paul picks up on this theme. He wrote that the Christian must “approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2). Imagine that. Paul is saying that there are some things God wants to happen in our lives that won’t happen without our approval. Whoa. According to Paul, we have to "find" this aspect of God’s will and then put ourselves in it.
This will of God that must be pursued and approved involves things laid out in Scripture, like the call for all believers to be forgiving, kind and generous; the call to maintain purity in our motives; embracing the Christian view of money, sexuality and power; the holding to a standard of holiness God that calls us all to; embracing a Christ-centered way to love, work and live; etc. These things must be pursued in order to be experienced because God will not force these life-choices into us. We must choose or “approve” them.
The Challenged Will
There are times when God wants to do things and then changes His mind when he runs into the “want to’s” of his people. You can’t read the narrative of Scripture without being forced to bear witness to the fact that in an important sense, humans have a say in the way things turn out here—that, at times, God hears our will and it challenges Him to change His. This is not sovereignty at work or even us discovering and pursuing His will in our lives—this is God allowing us to challenge him with our wants and desires. The Bible is jammed with story after story of God responding to the will or “want to” of His people.
Who can forget the amazing dispute between Moses and the LORD on Mount Sinai in Exodus 32 in which God, after vowing to wipe out idolatrous Israel, is moved to change his mind by the man, Moses, and Moses’ impassioned pleas? And what reader of Scripture can keep from rubbernecking over the gut-wrenching cries of King Hezekiah in Isaiah 38 who cries out to God for his life after God told him he was going to die that day. God saw Hezekiah’s heart and the divine, sovereign decree was revoked.
These stories affirm that some aspects of God’s will unfold as real, dramatic interaction between God and humanity. How sweet is that?
Yet, this obviously spurs lots of questions. Challenging ones. But I do believe there are aspects of God’s will that can be challenged—where we wrestle with God, like Jacob did with the angel in Genesis 32. This becomes appropriate in decisions like whether or not one should marry, what city one chooses to live in, what career one chooses, what church one attends, what friends to build relationships with, contending for an answered prayer or for special wisdom, and so on. This isn’t about God’s sovereign will or about God’s revealed will that we should pursue; this is the place where God may impress us with what to do but invites us to plead our case (See Isa. 43:26). This certainly doesn’t mean God will side with all our want to’s, but I love it that He listens.
In most cases the will of God doesn’t mean that whatever is destined to be will just be—that human effort is inconsequential. Our lives and faith in God do make a difference, which means we do not have to accept that things have to be the way they are. We can trust God to transform situations, people, homes and cultures. A true understanding of sovereignty recognizes that God has sovereignly designed His created beings to matter! On one level our lives are hot-out-of-the-oven from God’s heart as the result of our interaction with Him—which means things can be different. This is the hope of Christianity.