Summary: Understanding the difference between the sovereign will of God, the perfect will of God, the permissive will of God and the ultimate will of God.

On November 30, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School, had its security protocol upgraded, requiring visitors to be individually admitted after an identification review by video monitor. The school had 456 children enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grade. The doors to the school were locked at 9:30 a.m. each day, after morning arrivals. But on December 14, 2012, just two weeks later, Adam Lanza, age 20, shot his way through a locked glass door at the front of the school and fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members. All the children were 6-7 years old. Principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach were meeting with other faculty members when they heard gunshots. Hochsprung and Sherlach immediately left the room, rushed to the source of the sounds, and encountered and confronted Lanza. He shot and killed both women. Before driving to the school, Lanza had shot and killed his mother, at their home.

In trying to explain such a horrific event, we are stretched to the limit to try and understand something so malevolent. In the impossible task of trying to understand something like this, some would call it fate, or even destiny, or even, if you will, the will of God. The question I want to think about this morning is: What is the will of God? Was this act of senseless violence somehow the will of God? Did God, for some reason, intend these children to die on this particular day and chose Lanza as the one to bring his plan about? Most of us would respond by saying, “Absolutely not! This was pure evil, and no amount of psychological problems could explain it or justify it.” When we say that evil things like this are the will of God, we could be guilty of assigning to God what was actually the work of the evil one, whom the Bible says, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy”, but Jesus said that his will was, “that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Jesus also said, “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). It was God’s will, not that they die, but that they live meaningful and productive lives. To say that something like these shootings, or other evil things that happen, were God’s will is our feeble attempt to explain what seems to be unexplainable. But to say this can distort who God really is.

I remember as a young pastor I was called to the hospital to baptize a baby who was dying. The child was in an incubator and hooked up to all kinds of medical equipment. I had to reach inside the incubator with sterile water to baptize her. As I talked to the young mother she asked how God could do such a thing. So I began to explain in very logical terms how this was not God’s will or his doing when she stopped me cold. “Stop, she said, “I want to believe this is God’s will. I don’t want to think it is evil. Otherwise, evil has assaulted my life. God has no part in it, there is no good in it — no meaning or purpose to it.” She comforted herself with the idea that her child’s condition was God’s doing. (By the way, I saw the mother years later and learned that the child lived. In fact, she was standing before me.”)

Was it God’s will for one of my granddaughters to have cancer at the tender age of one, and another granddaughter to have diabetes? And is it his will that now one granddaughter has a brain condition that could prove to be life threatening? If this is God’s will, are we then opposing God’s will if we seek for a surgeon who could correct her condition? I would say, “Certainly not!” I don’t believe that everything happen for a reason. But there are those who would disagree.

There are several ways of looking at these questions, and I want to talk about several frameworks by which people try to understand these things. The first framework is formed by what some call the sovereign will of God. Those who follow this line of thinking say that nothing happens that is not his will. No one can interfere with the will of God; it is absolute. God is, after all, sovereign and omnipotent — all-powerful. So, for instance, God has, as a matter of his own choice, selected those who will go to heaven and those who will go to hell, and there is nothing anyone on either side has to say about it. A mere, mortal human cannot interfere with God’s plan. A person has no power to alter God’s will or his plan in any way. Another term for this is fatalism. We are merely victims of fate; everything has been worked out in advance and there is no avoiding it. This view says that God’s will can never be thwarted. Nothing happens that he does not make happen. And some people find comfort in that thought. You did not choose who you would marry, it was fate that brought you together. No matter what you do or don’t do, the exact time of your death has already been decided. People say, “Well, it must have been his time...” All this is God’s doing. Everything has been predestined and planned before the beginning of time. If you get sick, it is God’s will.

Leslie Weatherhead tells the story of a man he knew who thought that everything that happens is God’s will. He writes, “The matter came to me most poignantly when I was in India. I was standing on the veranda of an Indian home darkened by bereavement. My Indian friend had lost his little son, the light of his eyes, in a cholera epidemic. At the far end of the veranda his little daughter, the only remaining child, slept in a cot covered over with a mosquito net. We paced up and down, and I tried in my clumsy way to comfort and console him. But he said, “Well, padre, it is the will of God. That’s all there is to it. It is the will of God.” Fortunately I knew him well enough to be able to reply without being misunderstood, and I said something like this: “Supposing someone crept up the steps onto the veranda tonight, while you all slept, and deliberately put a wad of cotton soaked in cholera germ culture over your little girl’s mouth as she lay in that cot there on the veranda, what would you think about that?” “My God,” he said, “what would I think about that? Nobody would do such a horrible thing. If he attempted it and I caught him, I would kill him with as little compunction as I would a snake, and throw him over the veranda. What do you mean by suggesting such a thing?” “But, John,” I said quietly, “isn’t that just what you have accused God of doing when you said it was his will? Call your little boy’s death the result of mass ignorance, call it lack of adequate medical care, call it bad drains or communal carelessness, but don’t call it the will of God.” Surely we cannot identify as the will of God something for which a man would be locked up in jail, or put in a criminal lunatic asylum.” And that is the problem with thinking that way isn’t it? We have a distorted view of who God is and what he is like.

Some people even use this as an excuse for sinning. They cite Judas as an example and say that Judas was a necessary part of God’s plan, and that God made him betray Jesus so that Jesus could die for our sins. Judas really had no choice. So then they say about themselves, “Well, I couldn’t help it. This is the way life is; it’s the way God made me.” It was the same thing people in the Bible said to Paul. He wrote to the Romans saying, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” (Romans 9:19 ). This is a distortion of what God’s will is. And for the task of obedience we have the help of the Holy Spirit, for the Bible says, “And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will” (Romans 8:27). The Bible explains that, “it is God's will that you should be sanctified”(1 Thessalonians 4:3 ). That is God’s will.

Another aspect of God’s will that we have to consider is the difference between God’s perfect will and God’s permissive will. That is to say, there is such a thing as the perfect will of God, but he may permit certain things to happen even though they are not his perfect will. Within his permissive will, he may allow some things to happen, but he does not cause them to happen. Let’s take, for instance, the prime example: the death of Christ on the cross. Three times Christ prayed in the garden that he would be spared, but in the end he prayed, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Was it then that God’s perfect will was that men should nail Christ to the cross and cause his death? Absolutely not! God’s will was that Christ should be obeyed and followed. But God permitted it because if he knew he would use it for his ultimate redemptive purposes. For God to keep mankind from sinning would be to take away from mankind freedom of will, which makes us free moral agents, and gives us the freedom that makes us human. It even allows us to spit in the face of God if we choose — and many have chosen to do so. If we are not free to rebel against God, then neither are we free to love God. We would be merely robots — programmed to do God’s will. What enters the picture here is not only God’s permissive will, but God’s ultimate will. God permits some things because he knows that ultimately he can use them for good. For instance, without the death of Christ we would all have to pay for our own sins and God would have to destroy the world. What men intended for evil, God used for good. This kind of thing happens in our lives as well. God takes evil that has happened to us and uses it for good. God does not cause the evil, but will use it in some way and bring some good out of it. As Christians we believe the Scripture that says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Certain circumstances are important for the order of the world. God created the laws of nature. Insurance companies call the destruction caused by storms “acts of God”, whereas it is actually just nature (which God has made) doing what nature does. Winds blow, tectonic plates shift, oceans respond to wind and earthquakes with waves that can destroy, but God does not intentionally direct them to Japan, Haiti, New Orleans or New Jersey (though some have suggested it), and to stop these things would men that God would have to suspend the laws of the universe. Can God use these disasters for some good? Yes, even though the good that comes may not equal the evil that was done, that is, in this present world. No amount of good can balance the evil done at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, although a lot of good may come from it. There is a great deal of good being done in Haiti after the natural catastrophe that took place there. But it will probably never balance out, in this present life, the suffering caused by what took place. But we have the assurance that ultimately God will right all wrongs, heal all suffering and bring joy to the hearts off all people in his new world. There is coming a time when God will turn this world right side up and put things to right. The Bible says that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4 ). That has been his ultimate will all along.

God’s permissive will is like that of a parent. When you teach your child how to ride a bike you know that there will probably come a time when they fall or hurt themselves, but you still permit them to learn. There is even the possibility that they might be hit by a car. There are even bigger dangers in teaching them how to drive a car. But you know this is an important part of their development which you decide outweigh the possible dangers. Your perfect will is that they never be hurt, but you want them to have certain skills which are important in life. You want them to be independent and learn new things. Riding bikes and driving cars are necessary in life and they can also bring a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment. Could God, in his sovereign will, protect us from all dangers? Yes, but where would the growth be? Where would the excitement of life be? Would a protected life really be worth living? As Christians, we believe that suffering can be redemptive — even in this world. We are just as sure of that as we are that suffering will be removed from the world to come. We live in the hope of God’s grace and care in this world, just as we live in the hope of God’s new world which is to come. The apostle Paul wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39 ).

The story of Joseph speaks to the permissive will of God. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him. They hated him and plotted his death. Instead, in the end, they decided to sell him to slave traders and he was taken to Egypt. They thought that they were rid of him. He languished for many years in prison, and he must have thought his life was ruined. But through God’s leading, he became one of the rulers of Egypt, and in that position he saved his family, and many other people of the world, from starvation. When he met his brothers again, he could have acted in anger and revenge and had them killed or imprisoned, but instead here is what he said to them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20).

What was true for Joseph can also be true for you. Life will bring many twists and turns, some of which will be so personally harmful and painful that you think you will never recover and that your life is ruined. But God has another plan. He has permitted only what he can ultimately use. He can even make your life more useful and productive than it was before. There may be those in your life who have intended what they have done to do you harm, but God has taken those same events and is using them for good in your life. The Bible says, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Paul wrote: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). And tht is good news indeed.

Rodney J. Buchanan

January 20, 2013

Amity United Methodist Church