Most committed followers of Christ, when speaking of deciphering God’s will for their lives, are typically referring to navigating between multiple “morally-neutral” options concerning a career move, a geographical move, the start of a relationship, or other such life decisions. Occasionally divine direction is specifically sought in more mundane matters including which car to buy, where to go on vacation, or perhaps which restaurant to dine at. (We certainly don’t want to be disappointed with dinner!) Interestingly, the Scriptures, when speaking of God’s will, are most often describing not what we might call this “specific divine will of direction,” but rather what theologians have identified as “God’s will of decree” (also known as “God’s secret will”) or “God’s will of precept” (also known as “God’s revealed will”).
To understand what theologians mean by these two concepts, we might begin with a question: Is God’s will always done? Some passages in the Bible appear to answer this question very strongly in the affirmative. Acts 4:27-28 explains that even in the brutal and unjust treatment of Jesus Christ by the Jewish and Roman authorities, God’s will was being done.
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
Similarly, Paul’s hypothetical conversation partner in the letter to the Romans asks rhetorically, “For who is able to resist his (i.e. God’s) will?” Romans 9:19
These and other passages suggest that there is a sense in which it is only by God’s decree that all things ultimately come to pass, and, therefore, that God’s will (in this sense) is always done. In general, however, God does not make details about the future known to people. James, then, can rebuke overconfidence concerning the future among the more well-to-do of his audience with these words.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15
We may have our intentions, James argues, but no one will trump God’s will concerning what will come to pass, and this he has not revealed to us in great detail. Thus, as already mentioned, theologians write of God’s “secret will.”
On the other hand, there are an abundance of passages that indicate, typically implicitly, but no less clearly, that God’s will is not always done. For example, Jesus remarks:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Matthew 7:21
We might add to this the obvious observation that although the Ten Commandments certainly delineated God’s will for the Israelites, they by no means always adhered to these provisions. Therefore, we may also speak of God’s “will of precept;” that is, God’s revealed will concerning human behavior.
The New Testament authors regularly refer to this aspect of God’s will.
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable… 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:15
Though we are so often anxious to discover God’s specific “will of direction” for our lives, he seems more interested in revealing his ways to us; that is, he is more concerned that our behavior and priorities reflect his character and heart. We want to know if we should become firemen in Phoenix or physicians in Philadelphia. God wants us to be holy, to be thankful, to be joyful, to do good to our neighbors, and to pray.
Fine, you may be saying, but I still have to make decisions! Indeed. And in our next post, we will take a look at some of the ways the apostle Paul went about making decisions.