Recently, my Sunday School class has been involved in a study of the “The Will of God.” We’re using a book by Leslie Weatherhead. I don’t find I’m in complete agreement with his definitions, but he does offer a comprehensive interpretation of The Will of God. It has led me to do some deeper thinking about words I’ve heard often. The concept has mostly dumbfounded theologians, and I believe is primarily a construct of people looking for some kind of logic in illogical situations.
Weatherhead was a minister in the Methodist tradition at the City Temple in London. Weatherhead died in 1976. He was minister of the church in London during World War II. During the war, the Church was burned out after being hit by incendiary bombs. Certainly I think the circumstances of his time informed his preaching, and the book comes from a series of sermons. The British, Londoners especially, were under constant torment by the Nazi bombers. Thousands of British were dying in the war and right in London. These were people clearly trying to find some explanation for what was happening to them.
Weatherhead has three ways to look at the will of God: Intentional, Circumstantial and Ultimate. While a small book, Weatherhead still requires a book to explain all these, so forgive my very abbreviated explanation of Weatherhead’s three perspectives. I’ll try to use an example to explain. Let’s say a person goes out for a drive. God intends for all to be well, and for that person to have a safe and enjoyable drive. However, if there is an auto accident, it is God’s circumstantial will that no one be hurt, and if they are, that they be healed. If the person dies anyway, the ultimate will of God would be for God’s purpose to be achieved..that something good could come from the death. Perhaps a person might receive an organ transplant from the driver.
Other’s distinguish the will of God in two ways. That of the decretive and preceptive will. The former means that which God wills to do, or permits himself; the latter what he wills that we should do…theologians say the former cannot be resisted and is always fulfilled…the latter is often violated by men.
We simple Lay people often use “the will of God” as excuse for the things (usually bad things) that happen to us. I grew up in the funeral business, got licensed, and practiced in the field for some years, and so often heard death and ailments blamed on “the will of God.” I think this is a disservice. Let’s be honest about it, how can a loving benevolent God cause the death of a child, the lasting agony of cancer or Alzheimer’s. Some have laid blame for 9/11 and the devastation of hurricane Katrina at the feet of God, calling it his will to punish America (usually based on America failing to stone homosexuals to death).
On Box Turtle Bulletin there was a recent story about Darlene Bogle. Darlene had been part of Exodus affiliated ex-gay ministry, and later denounced that affiliation and was one of three leaders of the ex-gay to apologize last year for their involvement in the movement. In 2005 Darlene had lost her long-time significant other to breast cancer. Recently, Anthony Falzarano, founder of PFOX and a person very active in the ex-gay movement, came across a blog by Darlene, and sent her an email with this message:
I am sorry to hear that your lover died of breast-cancer. Darlene is God sending you a message? Please consider coming back to Exodus. You are loved and missed. Why would God call you back to lesbianism, give you a lover and then take her away. I’m sorry that you are going through this. My heart is breaking right now but I believe that you belong to the Lord and “He chastizes the one’s that he loves”.
This is, of course, hateful on an individual level, but I’ve heard similar things come from the mouths of preachers at funerals. “Is God sending the rest of us a message by taking this person from us.” In this line of thinking, it is the will of God that one person will suffer and die to make a point to someone else. Setting aside the absurdity of these statements on their face, this is in complete contradiction to the very basis of the Christian faith, that God sent his son to die for our sins…to pay the price so we don’t have to. One has to ask the people who use these statements, “so which is it?”
I believe this thinking finds it’s foundation in the oft quoted parts of the Bible like Matthew 10:29-31 where Jesus tells his Disciples, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” This gives us the message that God is deeply involved in even the most minute details of our lives.
I’ve come to a different conclusion. I believe that God is a benevolent God. He created a Universe, and so that we might live in it with some certainty, it contains some immutable physical laws, and on our planet Earth, there are forces of nature that act in ways to protect the earth, and to reform and replenish. So that we might be more happy, enjoy freedom of spirit, and learn and question, he gave us free will.
Free will does not always result in one making the best choice for oneself, or the people around, and there is always the law of unintended consequences. I watched a great movie a couple of years ago called the Butterfly Effect. In it, a young man appears able to go back in time to pivotal points in his life, and change his actions. He does this, giving us the impression that he’s now done “the right thing,” but that results in negative outcome for someone else.
What I suppose it all comes down to is how one views God. If you see him as the great controller, turning all the dials, pushing all the buttons, the chess master moving the pieces around the board, then everything that happens is the will of God. That’s a very fatalistic view, which means we don’t really have to try. In this view of God, we have no control, and hence no responsibility.
I don’t view God as chess master. While a radical view to some, I like how Rabbi Harold Kushner put it, “Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, rather than the other way around.” This is informed by Kushner’s belief, similar to what I’ve tried to express, “…that God is totally moral, but nature, one of God’s creatures, is not moral. Nature is blind.”
When we get past an infantile desire to not be responsible for ourselves and the world around us, we begin to understand the true will of God, and in that comes not always pleasure and happiness, but at all times peace.