Thy Will Be Done.....

The Will of God as a Way of Life

Rich Vincent

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A Clash of Wills

A personal God is an offense to most people. Why? It is relatively easy to acknowledge a God who smiles down upon all we do with little interference in our lives. This kind of God is personal, but only in the most superficial sense of the word. However, a God who has a definite will, purpose, and plan, and calls us to align our wills with his will is not so readily accepted. It is this aspect of God that is the most offensive feature of a personal God – especially to those who want nothing to do with God’s will. We cannot truly encounter this God – a personal God with a personal will – unless we are willing to be changed.

The first kind of God – the God who smiles down upon all we do from a safe distance – is, in reality, an apathetic God. He cannot truly be good. He has no real interest in who we are, what we do, and why we do what we do. What would we think of parents who treat their children this way? Parents who had no interest in their children’s choices, character, motivations, and direction in life would be labeled negligent, apathetic, unfit, and unloving.

God, the perfect parent, is intensely interested in our choices. The God of the Bible has a purpose that he seeks to accomplish in his creation. Put simply, God has a will. Certain behaviors, attitudes, and intentions align with his will. Others do not. The execution and accomplishment of God’s will brings God pleasure. Apathy and outright resistance to God’s will brings God disappointment and displeasure. God wants us to do what pleases him – for his sake, for our sake, and for the world’s sake. By desiring this, God is doing what any good parent does. God is interested in our choices and is pleased when we do what is wise, good, and loving in his ordered and purposeful creation. When we say that we believe in a personal God, we are declaring that God has a will that he is accomplishing, and that he desires us to align ourselves with his will for our good and for his glory.

The best measure of faith in a personal God is to want what God wants. It is this petition – “Thy will be done” – that “is the ultimate yardstick of faith, the measure by which one can discern, in oneself first of all, profound from superficial faith, profound religiosity from a false one.”[1] The challenge of practicing God’s will is that we rarely want to do so. Observance of God’s will conflicts with our innate selfishness, our desire for control, and our tendency to distrust God. God’s will forces us to ask ourselves what we really want in life. It challenges us to consider whom we really serve.

Jesus knew of this conflict. For this reason, he taught us to daily pray, “Thy will be done.” We must regularly pray that our will would align with God’s will – our wants with God’s wants, our purpose with God’s purpose. If we do not keep this ever before us, our natural tendency is to go our own way rather than God’s way.

Perspectives on God’s Will

In order to practice God’s will we must possess knowledge of it. What is the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase, “the will of God”?

Some hear this phrase in a very individualistic way. The will of God is primarily perceived as “the will of God for me.” It is assumed that God’s will revolves around “me and my interests.”[2] When God’s will is understood in this manner, the goal of practicing God’s will is self-improvement, individual fulfillment, and personal happiness.

Others hear this phrase in a fatalistic fashion. God’s will is understood to be an arbitrary fate to which we must resign ourselves. “What will be, will be,” regardless of anything we do. We have no choice in the matter. We are merely pawns on the divine chessboard with a predetermined outcome. When God’s will is understood in this manner, the goal of practicing God’s will is stoic acceptance. We don’t have to “want it” or even “like it.” Our duty is simply to resign ourselves to whatever “will be.”

Others view God’s will as something that only matters for the “big decisions” in life. The will of God is primarily about seeking the answers to the big questions in life: “Where should I live?” “Who should I marry?” “When should I change jobs?” It is assumed that God is only marginally concerned about the bulk of our lives that consists of the simple routines of daily living. When God’s will is understood in this manner, the goal of practicing God’s will is to be wise enough to discover it in order to keep from making major mistakes in the big decisions of life. The rest of life – indeed, the bulk of life – is exempt from the struggle of “discovering” God’s will.

Though there may be morsels of truth in the perspectives above, none of these ways of understanding God’s will gets to the heart of the matter. God’s will is not primarily about individual fulfillment, stoic resignation to fate, or uncovering clues concerning major life decisions. God’s will is much more pervasive and practical. God’s will is intended to inform and shape our entire life. God’s will has to do with the kind of person God wants us to be – with our character formation. When God’s will is understood in this manner, the goal of practicing God’s will is christlikeness in all things.

The Will of God is Not…

When God’s will is viewed in this light, the weaknesses of the first three perspectives are exposed. We are in a better position to clearly state what the will of God is not.

The will of God is not primarily individualistic.

God’s will is God’s purpose for all creation, and not simply for individuals within God’s creation. God’s will is global, universal, and all-encompassing.[3] The will of God has to do with God’s grand and cosmic plan to redeem, renew, and restore all creation to glorious perfection (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20; Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:21; Romans 8:21-22; 1 Peter 3:13; 1 Cor. 15:28; Rev. 21:1-4). Through Christ Jesus and by the Spirit, God is removing all things that would get in the way of his purpose for this world. God has given his people insight into the mystery of his divine plan (Eph. 1:9-10; 3:4-11). It is this mystery – this “open secret” – that we possess in Christ and are called to share with the entire world. It is our privilege to know God’s will by God’s grace; it is our responsibility to share God’s “open secret” with all people.

All things are being made new in Christ! God’s kingdom has come and is coming. Since God’s kingdom has been established in Christ, we now, in the Spirit, await the glorious consummation. Jesus’ victory is complete and, thus, cannot be stopped or thwarted. All the evil powers of this world – sin, evil, violence, demonic forces, and even death – have been disarmed. They can do nothing to undermine Jesus’ triumph (Romans 8:37-39). Now, all things in heaven and earth are being brought under the headship of Christ. Since the glorious end of all these things is certain, it only makes sense to align our wills with these redemptive realities in the present. In this way, God’s universal will of cosmic redemption is the basis for our individual response. We must align ourselves with God’s will, for only God’s will will triumph in the end.

The will of God is not stoic or fatalistic resignation.

In light of God’s universal will, we might conclude that since God is going to do what he wants anyway, we had better just grit our teeth and accept it. This is an unwarranted deduction. God does not want us to dispassionately accept God’s will. God, like a good parent, wants us to desire God’s will. God does not want fatalistic resignation, but passionate participation.

Certainly, God’s purpose will be accomplished. God is God after all. Jesus has secured this victory through his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. But this is not the issue; it is our participation in God’s will that is the issue. It is not stoic acceptance of God’s will, but active participation in God’s will that God desires.

In this present time between the establishment and consummation of God’s kingdom, things are not as they ultimately will be. We admit this when we pray, “Thy will be done.” We acknowledge that God’s will is not always freely accepted in this world. In spite of the establishment of God’s kingdom, God’s will continues to be opposed. Not everyone is interested in participating in God’s kingdom purpose. When we pray that God’s will be “done on earth, as it is in heaven” we are asking that God’s will would be willingly done in this world as it is joyously and freely accomplished in heaven.

The will of God is not a crystal ball foretelling the future.

Many people act as if God’s will for them is a deeply guarded secret that is only discovered with great difficulty. God’s will is like a maze with only one way out. Every other way is a dead end. The right series of choices brings blessedness, happiness, and success. One wrong choice results in missing God’s will altogether. Doing God’s will involves an unbroken string of right choices. It only takes one wrong choice – one wrong turn in the maze – to halt the whole process. Every choice, especially those having to do with major life transitions, is undertaken with great anxiety and fear.

Although there is a future dimension to God’s will,[4] it is certainly not the most important dimension when it comes to practicing God’s will. Indeed, this dimension receives little attention in the Bible. Biblically speaking, the will of God is not primarily about the future; it is about the present! Practicing the will of God is not about discovering a cleverly hidden secret, but living what has been revealed.

This is the conclusion of pastor Gerald Sittser in his book, The Will of God as a Way of life: “I discovered that the Bible says very little about the will of God as a future pathway that we must discover and then follow. Instead, the Bible warns us about anxiety and presumption concerning the future, assures us that God is in control, and commands us to do the will of God we already know in the present.” [5]

The Will of God as a Way of Life

Instead of understanding God’s will as stoic resignation to fate or as something only relevant to the big decisions in life, Sittser calls us to something much more practical and all-embracing. By focusing on the future, we fail to live God’s will in the present. Our search for God’s will in the big concerns of life causes us to fail to live God’s will in the small things – which, if we are honest, is the subject matter of the bulk of our lives! Sittser challenges us to reverse our thinking concerning God’s will: “Perhaps our attention to these little things is the will of God, and our preoccupation with the future a foolish distraction.”[6]

The tumultuous five-year dating debacle of my good friend, Bill, exemplifies how a distorted perspective of God’s will can wreak havoc. Bill understood God’s will to refer primarily to the future big decisions of life. After dating Jill for a few months, the future big decision of whether to marry her or not was foremost in his mind. For five years he agonized over whether Jill was the right girl for him. Bob and I spent countless hours working together through this decision and examining every possible twist and turn his relationship with Jill could take. He broke up with her numerous times during this period. For five years, Jill suffered rejection and emotional mistreatment from Bill. Meanwhile, Bill’s job suffered as did his personal ministry to others. His self-absorption caused him to hurt others, to be unpleasant and anxious, and to fail to live up to his daily responsibilities. Bill did all this in the name of seeking God’s will for his life! He allowed his future aspirations to do God’s will to be an excuse for ignoring God’s will in the present.

If searching for God’s will concerning the future big decisions in our lives keeps us from living God’s will in our present daily routines, then we completely negate what it means to practice God’s will in the first place. Instead of leading us to a future-oriented, big-issue view of God’s will, Jesus calls us to a completely different emphasis. Anxiety about the future is not God’s will for us in the present. And yet, this kind of anxiety is common to those who hold to the crystal-ball, or mouse-in-the-maze view of God’s will. Instead of anxiety about the future, Jesus calls us to establish right priorities and put first things first (Matt. 6:25-34). In other words, we are to view the will of God as a way of life.

When we approach the will of God as a way of life, we live for God right where we are. We recognize that a concern for God’s will is not primarily about big events or future decisions. We discover that God’s will is about life in the present – the big and the little events. Therefore, it our wisdom to be “attentive and responsive to God along the way, even in matters that appear to have little significance.”[7] By expanding our view of God’s will, we recognize how God’s love is the basis for all our lives. “What a shamefully small view of God’s love! Can God’s dreams for us really be limited to a few moments in life – isolated decisions and major transition points? Is God really irrelevant to our experience of daily existence, to the rhythms of our daily life?”[8]

God’s will as a way of life opens us to greater possibilities in spiritual formation. It is not the big decisions in life that shape us most, but the accumulated power of many small decisions practiced routinely:

For example, we think long and hard when we choose a college, a job or career, or a spouse. This makes good sense, considering how consequential these choices are. But we give little thought to how much TV we watch or how often we talk on the phone or how seldom we praise our children. Yet the little choices we make every day often have a cumulative effect far exceeding the significance of the big choices we occasionally make about the future.[9]

God’s Revealed Will

God’s will is plainly revealed in the sacred Scriptures. God’s plan to redeem, renew, and restore all creation in Christ and through the Spirit is the universal expression of God’s will. Every commandment God gives is an expression of God’s will on a personal scale. More often than not, our problem is not discovering God’s will, but actually practicing it in our daily lives.

In order to limit ourselves, we will simply look at the handful of New Testament passages which plainly state God’s will in order to get a sense of the kind of person God wants us to be. If we simply set our minds to embody these commands every time we pray “Thy will be done” we will have a lifetime of work ahead of us. It is God’s will that

We live sexually pure lives: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3). A crucial part of sanctification is growth in sexual self-control. Lust objectifies and uses people for one’s own purposes. Love honors and respects others and builds them up, regardless of the personal benefits (or lack thereof) to ourselves.

We are peaceful, sensitive, good, joyful, prayerful, grateful people: “But we request of you, brothers and sisters, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all people. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men. Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:12-18). Joyful love expressed to leaders, fellow believers in all manner of personal situations, and all people is God’s will for the believing community.

We willingly submit to authority: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:13-15). This holds true for human government in general, and not just government that we prefer. Peter wrote this during the time that Nero ruled – hardly a paragon of virtue!

We practice suffering love: “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong… Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Peter 3:17; 4:19). This is cruciform, suffering love – love that refuses to withhold love simply because it is not being returned.[10]

Understanding God’s will in this manner may not help with every decision of life (for this, we need a biblical view of discernment), but regardless of our choices, we will become the kind of people God wants us to be: pure, spiritual, grateful, humble, peaceful, hopeful, and loving! We will be kingdom people in a fallen world.


We must make the will of God a way of life. We must willingly choose to live God’s will where we presently are, and not excuse ourselves from it because of where we would like to be. This prevents us from using God’s will as an excuse for self-absorption. “Too many of us conclude in the face of difficulty and suffering that we must have made a choice outside the will of God. Then we spend the rest of our lives wishing that we had chosen differently. Ironically, we waste the opportunity we do have, however severe our circumstances, to do God’s will right where we are and to build our relationship with him.”[11]

Our difficulty is not in discovering the will of God but in doing it.[12] Gerald Sittser puts it starkly: “the weightiest choice we make [and we make it every day] is never between two future options… but between two ways of life, one for God, the other against God.”[13] We either live to please God – live God’s way – or to please selfish interests!

Jesus is our pattern. Doing God’s will was food for his soul: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). He plainly stated, “I do not seek my own will, but the will of Him who sent me” (John 5:30; cf. 6:38-40). When we live as Jesus lived – for the will of God – then we experience a kinship with Jesus.[14] We share the same passion, the same heart, the same mission, for we serve the same purpose – the manifestation of the kingdom of God by living God’s will. Right here. Right now. In big decisions. But mostly in the small ones that make up the bulk of our daily lives.

[1] Schmemann, Alexander, Our Father (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 46.

[2] “What do we together and individually really desire from Christ? Let's admit it - the fulfillment of our will. We desire that God would assure our happiness. We want him to defeat our enemies. We want him to realize our dreams and that he would consider us kind and good. And when God fails to do our will we are frustrated and upset, and are ready over and over to forsake and deny him.” Schmemann, Our Father, 48-49.

[3] “God’s will cannot be separated from God’s kingdom. Establishing the divine reign of love on earth is God’s big plan.” Benner, David, Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Our Hearts with the Heart of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 39.

[4] Romans 15:32; James 4:15.

[5] Sittser, Gerald L., The Will of God as a Way of Life: Finding and Following the Will of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 16.

[6] Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life, 14.

[7] Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life, 14.

[8] Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 59.

[9] Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life, 18.

[10] “True Christian love is not just a feeling or a pleasant disposition of the soul. It is a self-sacrificing, ceaseless, life-long act of heroism unto death. It is fiery yet dispassionate, not dependent on anything, not on being loved in return or having a kinship of blood. One no longer thinks of receiving something for oneself. One can be spat upon and reviled, and yet in this suffering there is such a deep, profound peace that one finds it impossible to return to the lifeless state one was in before the suffering. One blesses life and all that is around one, and this blessing becomes universal. Such love can only come from God. This is the only love that Christ is truly interested in the love He came to earth to show and teach humanity. With this love He gave up His Spirit on the Cross.” (Monk Damascene)

[11] Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life, 21.

[12] “If we sense any agony in the heroes of Scripture, it is not in discovering the will of God but in doing it.” Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life, 29,

[13] Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life, 34.

[14] Matthew 7:21; 12:50; 21:31; Mark 3:35; Luke 12:47; John 7:17; 1 John 2:17.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2005

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