My father died slowly—nine excruciating months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. When well-meaning friends tried to comfort me with “it is God’s will,” I was furious. Surely God did not intend such torture for my father or his family. We had prayed constantly and worked for a cure with everything that Western medicine had to offer—had we been fighting against God’s will then?
I found answers to my frustration in a small, easy-to-read book of five sermons entitled The Will of God. London pastor Leslie Weatherhead suggests that the phrase “the will of God” is used so loosely that we are confused about its real meaning. Weatherhead describes three distinctions to the term:
- intentional (God’s ideal plan for man—his original creation)
- circumstantial (God’s plan within certain circumstances—what we experience in our lives in this world)
- ultimate (God’s final realization of his purposes to bring man back into harmony with him forever)
God created (intended) a perfect world with God and man interacting in harmony. That world included ideal freedom for mankind to choose what we would believe and what we would do—even though he knew that eventually someone would make a bad choice and evil would enter the world.
No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this, Never so much as imagined anything quite like it—what God has arranged for those who love him.
(1 Corinthians 2:9, The Message)
God had Jesus in mind to handle the evil circumstances that would result from our sinful choices. Jesus’ painful death and resurrection, which led to payment for our sins and our redemption, wasn’t God’s intentional will, but his circumstantial will. God didn’t plan evil or intend evil for the world; that burden lies at the feet of humanity.
When circumstances eat away at our lives, it can appear to us that evil is winning. Pastor Weatherhead describes the reaction of Jesus’ disciples after his death:
On Good Friday night eleven men, in the deepest gloom, felt like you. They said in their hearts: “We trusted him; we followed him; it was his will to establish his kingdom. He told us so. And evil has been allowed to take him from us. It’s the end of everything.”
But they were wrong, weren’t they? It was only the end of their mistake and the beginning of the most wonderful use of evil which God has ever effected.
God’s intentional plan was stymied by circumstances, but through his circumstantial will, Jesus died to pay for the sins of each and every one of us, and God’s ultimate will is realized. We are brought back to unity with him.
Let’s apply this thinking to my father. God made him a people person, an enthusiastic and infectious leader, and my father used these talents to serve God as a pastor and church planter for his entire adult life. Then evil did terrible things to him—attacked his body through a cancerous tumor in his brain, changed his personality, crippled his body, until slowly he died. Yet, through it all, he knew, testified, and believed: God is his father, the ultimate meaning of the universe is love, and God’s ultimate will of bringing him to live with him forever will be accomplished.
God’s will encompassed my father’s entire being and life—not just his death—and extends to eternity. Trust God. God is love. Rest in his nature and his will for you.