Friday, June 27, 2014

Discerning God’s Will (Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 2:12-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In a scene from one of my favorite movies, Pirates of the Caribbean, pirates Ragetti and Pintel are in a longboat on the open sea.  Having just escaped from jail, they are headed for Cannibal Island in search of Jack Sparrow's ship The Black Pearl.  Ragetti is seated in the back of the boat reading a Bible which he is holding upside-down.  He pauses for a moment and says, "Well, I says it was divine providence what escaped us from jail."

Pintel responds, "And I say it was me bein' clever." There is a dog in the front of the boat, holding a set of keys in its mouth and Pintel says, "Ain't that right, poochie?"   Ragetti asks, “Well, how'dya know it weren't divine providence what inspired you to be clever?"  Pintel is clearly dumbfounded by the intelligent question, so to deflect it he says: "You know you can't read and besides it’s upside down."  Ragetti retorts, "It's the Bible, You get credit for trying."

This humorous scene helps to frame the longstanding debate:  “I say it's God's providence that rules our lives, no, I say it’s me being clever.”  God's will verses human free will.  We look at this world, with life and death, with its joy and sadness, with good and evil, with its justice and injustice, with health and illness, with loyalty and betrayal, with the thrill of success and the agony of failure and we wonder.  If we are honest, we acknowledge our own fickle selves in the light of this question.  Like the man who was having personal problems who prayed:  “Lord, I’m ready to change my life.  All I want is to do is your will.”  Later, when his situation had greatly improved, he said:  “Lord, about that prayer the other day, never mind.”

Have you ever prayed, “Lord, show me your will.”  “Lord, I want to follow your will in my life.”  I have.  I cannot stress this Biblical mandate enough – God desires for you and me to seek, to know and to follow His Will.   God wants us to open our hearts and minds to His Will in all times and in all places and in all our years.   We are never too young or too old.

What is God’s will?  This is the question we are addressing today and next week.  Will it answer all the questions you’ve ever had on this subject?  I doubt it.  But it will give you some biblical insights.  Next week, we shall address the more specific question, “How do I discern God’s will in my life?” 

The subject of God’s will isn't simple, it always involves mystery.   Scripture teaches that we live in a context of conflicting wills.  There is our will, other people's wills, Satan's will and God's will.   So we have a challenge ever before us, to discern God's will amidst this reality.  Further, scripture says that God's will is at work not only in human lives, but in the cosmos and in history, in the destiny of nations.  And so we look at the world today, at the relationships between the nation of Israel and the Arab nations, in the relationships between moderate Muslims and radical or extremist Muslims, in the relationships between America and these and other nations and we declare that God's will is at work and God's plans and purposes will prevail.

In the Lord's Prayer Jesus speaks about the Will of God. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  God’s Will or Kingdom has existed in the past, it is a reality today, and it is coming in the future, so we should pray for God’s Kingdom or God’s will to be done.

In the letter of Romans, we read: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  We must be careful to prayerfully discern God's will vis-a-vis the world's will, or the message of our culture, and not get caught up in thinking they are one and the same.

These biblical passages are comforting.  They are hope-filled.  They affirm a truth.  God's sovereign and powerful will is at work in this world and in our lives.  God’s will is not simply a wish-fulfillment or fantasy.  God’s will occurs here and now, it’s a reality today and happens on earth as in heaven.

This biblical truth means that you and I are not merely pawns in life, helpless victims of capricious and impersonal forces over which we have no control.  Life is not fatalistic. We are not victims of fatalism, a blind amoral force which we call fate.  God's will is present and active and God has given us a free will to seek and follow His will in our lives.   Conversely, we also have the freedom to disobey God.    

Is everything that happens in life God’s will?   Predeterminism.   This is one interpretation of God's will.  Everything that happens is God's will, that is, it has been predetermined by God.  Do you believe that?  If a child dies in an accident is it God’s will?  If a person is diagnosed with cancer is it God’s will?  If you or I do something foolish, something stupid, which we later regret, it is God’s will?  As a Christian and pastor I believe the answer is no.  For we live in a context of conflicting wills.  Jesus acknowledges the existence of Satan, of human sinfulness, of a fallen creation and of accidents which occur in life.

Jesus clearly stated that things happen which are not the will of God.   In 2 Peter we read:  “It is not God’s will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”   Jesus does not tell sick people that their illnesses are God’s will; Jesus heals them.  Jesus does not say to the crowds that hunger is God’s will; Jesus feeds them.  Jesus does not tell a man with leprosy that his disease is God’s will; Jesus cures him.  Jesus does not tell a man who is possessed by an evil spirit that its God’s will; Jesus frees the man from the spirit. 

I have found the book titled The Will of God helpful in thinking about the question of God’s Will.  The author divides the concept of the Will of God into three aspects – the Intentional will of God, the Circumstantial will of God and the Ultimate will of God. 

First, God’s Intentional Will means God’s original plan for creation, God’s purpose in creating the world and human beings.  This was before things went south after the Fall.  God created people: to love Him and obey Him with heart, soul, strength, and mind and love their neighbor as themselves, to worship God alone, rather than self or idols, for people to be whole - spiritually, relationally, physically, and emotionally rather than broken, to treat one another with fairness and respect and dignity, to make and nurture new disciples of Jesus Christ, to live together as the People of God, for people to lead holy and moral lives, to help the poor rather than neglecting or exploiting the poor, to work for justice, for people to find salvation in Jesus Christ, to care for the earth rather than exploit it, for people to gain knowledge and learn rather than live in ignorance, and for people to live a meaningful and joyful and fulfilling life in God.   

Some Biblical examples: Micah 6:8 says: “God has told you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”   I Thessalonians says: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  I John says: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  If we love one another God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.”  God’s Intentional Will is clear and understandable and noble. 

Second, God’s Circumstantial Will refers to the assurance that God's Spirit and power and grace is present with us, that is, in and under and through all circumstances.  Here is where we most often encounter mystery. This is the aspect of God’s will about which we have the most questions and difficulty in understanding God’s purpose in our lives.  God promises to help us by His grace and power to not let us be defeated by our circumstances, but rather to triumph over them.   The letter of Philippians says:  “I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.”   God promises to help us not become embittered by adversity, but to remain positive and hopeful.  God promises to instill hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless times.  God promises to guide us and lead us amidst times of confusion and darkness.   God promises by his Spirit to impart courage to us when we are overcome with fear and anxiety.  God promises to provide strength for us, when we feel weak, exhausted and helpless.

The late theologian Paul Tillich wrote:  “God’s will doesn’t mean everything is predetermined, but rather that there is a creative and saving possibility, implied in every situation, which cannot be destroyed by any event.  It means destructive forces within ourselves and our world can never have an unbreakable grasp upon us and that the bond which connects us with God’s love can never be broken.”

Recall two inspiring biblical promises.  Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works together for good with those who love him, with those whom he has called according to His purpose.”   And another promise in I Corinthians: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it.”

This doesn’t mean that everything will always turn out all right or that everything that happens to us is really good for us, or that everything that happens to us is God’s will.  Like the story about a police officer in a helicopter who spotted a car speeding down the freeway.  He radioed his partner on the ground and a few miles later the patrolman in the car stopped the speeder and began writing a ticket.  “How did you know I was speeding,” the man asked.   The patrolman didn’t say anything, but simply pointed skyward.  “Oh, no,” moaned the man, You’re not against me too.”  God’s circumstantial will means that God’s grace and power and love is continually active in our lives.  It means God promises to do what is best for us in accord with His will in the various circumstances which we face in life.

I recall the story of a couple whose son was born with a congenital heart defect.  When he was four, he went to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for open-heart surgery.  Despite their prayers, and the skills of the doctors, sadly, the child died.  His mother said:  “God helped us through our grief in such a loving way that we continually marveled at what was happening.  The people who brought us the most comfort were those who had also lost a child.  They knew what we were experiencing and when they softly said, “We understand what you are going through; there was a bond between us, an empathy that really lightened our load.  The Bible verse that popped into my head was:  “In everything God works for good with those who love him.”  We hung onto it for dear life and watched it come true.  In the weeks and months to come, we were led to accept Philip’s death without bitterness and other people’s faith was strengthened as they watched what was happening to us.”

Finally, we come to God’s Ultimate Will.  This aspect of God’s will affirms that God’s purposes in the world will ultimately be achieved.   God's plans and purposes cannot be defeated or destroyed by any power or event.  It says God can even make evil and defeat serve His final purposes, so that nothing can destroy God’s ultimate will.

What end does God have in mind for your life or mind or for the world?    Our Christian faith declares: “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future.”   Ps. 33 says: “God’s plans endure forever, His purposes last eternally.” 

Yes, God’s will at times is hidden, no question about that. I have certainly found it to be so.  It appears to be temporarily defeated in the world or in our lives.   But Scripture and our faith says: in spite of evil and human sin, God’s plan for the world and for your life and mine will one day be fully realized, be consummated, be completed.  We have a beautiful picture in the book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease.”    And so we pray: “Lord, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen. 

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