Among many Christians, "God's will" has become a popular catchphrase. When expecting something desirable to happen, some are inclined to say, "I am not sure if God would approve of this"; in reality, however, they are hoping that God will accomplish what they have already planned. In a situation of decision making, others often say, "I don't know what God's will is." They imply that if only a sign would come from God, this divine revelation would expel their doubts and solve their problems at last. Thus "God's will" has become a convenient device that covers many Christians' secrets and shields their uncertainty; it has become a useful expression that absolves them from awkwardness and excuses them from a lack of confidence.
This careless use of the concept of "God's will," however, raises some serious questions. Is God's will so opaque or mysterious that we Christians have no way to understand what it is? Is it God's purpose that humans remain in ignorance so that He can manifest His divine majesty? If that is the case, then how do we carry out His teachings and become true believers? Further, can we use "God's will" as our guide in every situation? Can it be applied to our personal affairs, or is it more of a general principle by which we conduct ourselves? How do we tell the particular from the general, and what does this distinction mean? These are indeed important questions that deserve our careful reflection.
The Kingdom of God In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs His audience to pray in the right way. He bids them not to "heap up empty phrases," because that is what the unbelievers tend to do and because God already knows what humans have in mind before they present their requests to Him (Mt 6:7-8). Instead, Jesus teaches those who pray to hallow God's name first and then to wish that His kingdom will soon arrive. This wish in prayer is to see God's will quickly done "on earth as it is in heaven" (Mt 6:10). Afterward they can ask for such earthly needs as daily bread, peace, and prosperity (Mt 6:11-13). Jesus' instructions here are reinforced by His later statement, "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Mt 6:33). Here Jesus consciously informs us that God's will and human will are two different things. Although what humans want may not necessarily go against God's wishes, His will is obviously more magnificent in scope and serious in content.
"God's will" is first and foremost related to the kingdom of God. When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He urgently proclaimed: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mk 1:15). His mission was to fulfill God's will, and so through His teachings he revealed the kingdom of God to His listeners. Jesus worked unswervingly to accomplish the will of His Father, which he was entrusted with (Jn 5:30). He was so devoted to realizing this goal that He eventually sacrificed His life in obedience to God's plan of salvation (Heb 10:5-9).
The kingdom of God represents the state in which God's will and power reign supreme. It is a spiritual realm where only those who observe God's commands can enter and reside. When we pray to God, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," we are wishing that God's truth will dwell in our human world without any hindrance from our selfish desires. And by praying that this state will soon take place, we show our willingness to sacrifice and observe what God instructs us to do.
On one occasion when Jesus' family members went to see Him, He took the opportunity to teach His immediate followers that His true brothers and sisters were those who did the will of God (Mk 3:35; Mt 12:50). It was not Jesus' intention to deny His kinsmen; rather, He wanted to show that to establish a spiritual family is such serious business that only those absolutely committed are qualified to do so. If brothers and sisters of flesh and blood are precious, how much more so are those who constitute the kingdom of God? This level of commitment means that not everyone who calls upon Godâ€™s name, or even prophesies or performs miracles in God's name, can enter His kingdom. As Jesus emphatically asserted, "only the one who does the will of my Father" can eventually enter (Mt 7:21).
Eternal Life It is God's will to grant eternal life to those who believe in Jesus, as the Gospel of John unequivocally testifies (Jn 6:40). Still, what is the content of "God's will"? It seems that God does not often give divine instruction to an individual with respect to personal matters such as buying a house, choosing a school, or investing in a business. Instead, divine revelation mostly goes to those affairs that are connected to "God's will"-that is, holy work related to the establishment of the kingdom of God. For example, the vision that Peter saw in Joppa instructed him to receive Gentiles as Christians (Acts 10:9-16), and the one revealed to Paul in Troas urged him to spread the gospel to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). But the Bible also mentions spiritual qualities that characterize "God's will," which we as true believers should comprehend. We can take the miracle that happened to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a good illustration.
When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear Jesus the Savior, she accepted God's will with gladness and humility (Lk 1:26-38). Elizabeth, Mary's relative, called her a blessed woman because of her belief and willingness (Lk 1:45). Then, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Mary praised the Lord, describing the great things that God has done for those who obey and fear him (Lk 1:46-55). She pointed out God's great mercy, as He repeatedly took care of Israel according to His covenant with Abraham. Significantly, this mercy was offered only to the lowly, the hungry, and the poor. God not only never showed His mercy to the proud, the rich, and the powerful, but He even brought His harsh judgment upon them. This seems to go against the common human understanding of what it means to receive God's blessings on earth, but in this way "God's will" opens up a new order that welcomes those humble in spirit, pure in heart, and responsive to God's calling in time of need.
Justice & Mercy The case of Mary highlights the spiritual qualities that God revealed many times in the biblical tradition. For instance, in reproaching the social ills of his days, the prophet Micah pronounced God's judgment by emphasizing that what the Lord wanted was clear and straightforward: "to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God" (Mic 6:8). And these same social ethics and religious demands had been revealed to the ancient Israelites through the Mosaic laws long before. God never changed His mind, nor did He ever make His will mysterious; He always wanted His chosen people to obey His commandments and practice them with a spirit of humility and mercy. It was humans who twisted "God's will" and made it seem mysterious, in order to cater to their own selfish needs.
In this light, it is important to note that "God's will" essentially refers to justice and mercy, the two attributes that best characterize God's nature-and therefore we should strive in our daily lives to put these concepts into action. The Apostle Paul further expanded the will of God to include "what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2). In other words, we need to recognize and accept "God's will" as those things that lead to the establishment of the kingdom of God. Paul encourages us to discern them carefully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we can be participants in God's good work.
Virtuous Conduct "God's will" not only indicates a spiritual quality but also points to the living contexts that require our moral decision. The author of Hebrews admonishes us to be "complete in everything good" so that we can fulfill "God's will" (Heb 13:21). He emphasizes the fact that "God's will" is not something abstract; instead, it is intimately related to our conduct. In First Thessalonians, the apostle Paul pinpoints a number of specific things we can do. He mentions that Jesus has called His redeemed ones to form a special community, which is holy and just. Therefore the believers should abstain from fornication, exercise control over their passions, and behave justly toward each other. These moral requirements are the will of God, and they distinguish us from unbelievers (1 Thess 4:1-8).
Furthermore, Paul lists other ethical actions that fulfill the will of God: "respect those who [labor in the church], [maintain] peace [in the church community], admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted,...seek to do good to one another,â€¦rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess 5:12-18). These virtues show God's nature in concrete situations, and they remind us of the importance to be doers instead of merely hearers of the gospel.
Jesus testified that He came to serve humanity, not to be served by it (Mk 10:45). For the sake of God's kingdom, He even sacrificed His life on the cross (Gal 1:4; Phil 2:6-8). He also instructed His disciples to emulate His example because that was "Godâ€™s will" (Mk 9:35, 10:42-44). Therefore, if we wish to do "God's will," we should humble ourselves and serve others. That is why at the beginning of every epistle to the church community, Paul always identifies himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ "by the will of God" (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1). He means that he is God's servant, called to build the kingdom of God on earth. We need this same humility and willing spirit to serve if we want to qualify as God's workers in helping to build His kingdom.
Our personal requests to God may be important or even urgent on many occasions, but they may not always be related to "God's will." God certainly does not look down upon our reasonable prayers, because He understands our human weaknesses. But our tendency to use "God's will" as a convenience often trivializes its seriousness. A careful reading of the Bible should give us more insight into what "God's will" really means. If we pray to God based on a right understanding and with the accompanying right actions, He will listen to us. As the Gospel of John teaches us, "Now we know that God does not hear sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him" (Jn 9:31). May we all worship God, obey His will, and be participants in His kingdom, on earth and in heaven.