Anyone who knows the Lord’s Prayer knows the line, ‘Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven’. Some of you may also be familiar with Romans 12:2 – ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will’. That sounds great. But how on earth do we test and approve the will of God himself? And what do we even mean when we talk about his will? I’m going to have to come clean and tell you that there is no way I can satisfactorily answer those questions in this post (or at all in my life)!
In the process of working out his theology, John Calvin posited a ‘“Revealed will” [that] calls all to redemption,’ and a ‘“Secret will” [that] intends to save only the elect’. It should also be said, Calvin was always cautious, and warned against “penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom”. There’s a lot in here that could be talked about and discussed in more detail than I’m capable of, but essentially we’re looking at one facet of God’s will – the will to save some/all of humanity – and the difficulty in actually interpreting God’s will because his mind is so far beyond our own.
I’m going to be honest and say that the idea of God having a revealed and secret will doesn’t sit well with me, but God’s will for salvation is a good place to start when looking at this topic. It says in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (this is an example of what Calvin might call God’s revealed will). Other translations render ‘want’ as ‘will’. So when we talk about ‘will’ are we talking about some sort of desire? And if God wills it, will it be done or could that desire remain unfulfilled?
As far as I can tell, the Greek verb in that 1 Timothy verb, ‘θελει’ (thelei) has the same root as the noun from Matthew 6:10, in the Lord’s Prayer – ‘θελημα’ (thelema). So my guess (and I may be wrong) is that we’re looking at the same sort of thing. The problem is, this hasn’t really got us any closer to answering the questions.
One train of thought that’s just occurred to me is that if Jesus encouraged us to ask for God’s will to be done in a prayer. This suggests that maybe it’s not set in stone and can come to fruition (or not) depending on us! Whether or not this is theologically sound I don’t know, but it’s a suggestion.
One source I saw on that Greek work, thelema, glosses it as God’s ‘preferred will’ rather than a more definite will. This maybe makes sense with my last suggestion as it encourages the idea that when we’re talking about God’s will in this way it is not something that will definitely happen.
At this point I should probably be a good writer and tie this back in with the Calvin salvation stuff…but I can’t. I don’t know the debate well enough and I don’t want to get bogged down in it on here either. Sorry about that, but if you’re interested it’s so easy just to go through the New Testament and pray to God and see what seems most likely about God’s will towards salvation, something I keep meaning to do.
Before I finish I want to move on quickly to the second aspect of all this – how can we know what God’s will is for us and for the things around us? Well that Romans 12:2 verse gives a pretty clear indication that it’s not something that starts with us. Only when our minds have been transformed can we test and approve God’s will. I’m just going to throw this out there: I’m pretty sure we don’t renew our minds all by ourselves. This comes from Jesus. Jesus is, after all, the one mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5). He, being paradoxically and amazingly both God and man, is the one holding us on to God…of course any knowledge we have of God’s will comes through him! In one sense, Jesus’ life was an expression of God’s will, and engaging with the gospels is a start. He loved people practically. He healed them. He met them in their situation. He told them about God. And then he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
If you’re confused and struggling to work out what God’s will is for you, start there. We have a perfect example (quite literally) of God’s will for humanity. That’s how he wants us to live.
Where do we go from there? How do we discern God’s will for our individual lives? Well remember that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28a). That’s a pretty reassuring start. The verse goes on to say that those who love him have been ‘called according to his purpose’ (28b). Immediately there’s a link there between loving God and his purpose. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a methodical, fool-proof way of hearing from God – I wish I could! It’s not an exact science, to use a cliché. For me, a good starting point is just reading the Bible with an open mind and praying around it and praying into the events going on in your life. I can’t be more exact than that because God doesn’t talk to everyone in the same way. The same God who appeared in a blinding display of light to Paul in a public space spoke to Elijah in a whisper when the prophet was alone on a mountain.
I can’t really conclude this as I’ve pretty much just thrown threads of thought together and hoped they make some sort of sense. I’ve probably asked more questions than I have given answered, but this topic is so far beyond me that I couldn’t really hope for anything else. I guess a final encouragement to anyone trying to hear God and work out his will for them would be just keep at it. Don’t give up. It’s not always easy; prayer is a lifestyle choice and not just something you do when you want something. I also think it’s something that the vast majority of us need to get better at!
 William Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence, p. 63
 William Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence, p. 61