The following article first appeared on January 18, 2010 on sbcIMPACT!, a blog I regularly post and comment on.
*All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version
Some people like to refer to two wills in God—perfect and permissive. For instance, we know that God is “not wishing (‘willing’ in other translations) that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9).” We know that not everyone does reach repentance, and therefore some perish. Does this mean that God’s will is thwarted? In one sense, perhaps, but not really. It says in Daniel 4:35, “…he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand…” In Job 42:2, speaking to God, Job says, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
In order to reconcile the apparent contradiction between God accomplishing all that He wills and something that God wills not taking place, some have proposed what is called God’s “perfect will” and God’s “permissive will.” God’s perfect will is the action or state of being that would most conform to the commands and character of God so as to bring Him pleasure. We attempt to describe our own perfect will when we say things like, “In a perfect world…” or “If I had my way…” or “Wouldn’t it be great if…” Similarly, we could impose the first phrase into a passage from 1 Peter 2:15 to show God’s perfect will: “[In a perfect world], by doing good, you [would] put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Nothing indicates that this is how things will necessarily turn out, and many times they don’t in Christian contexts. That lack of perfect conformity to the will of God takes us to the permissive will of God.
The permissive will of God is the action or state of being that actually occurs, whether in conformity to the commands and character of God or not. References to the permissive will of God usually deal with the issues of sin, sickness, wars, and natural disasters—things for which God doesn’t usually offer a mark of approval. Other terms are usually used to refer to the specific things that God brings about or that actually conform to His commands and character, but since they are included in the way history plays out, I include them in the permissive will of God. Why? Because we know that history is not up to par with God’s perfect will, even with God’s perfect will playing out alongside his permissive will. For instance, if a soldier accepts Christ while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, we could say that was according to God’s perfect will (since God desires that all would be saved), but since war is part of God’s permissive will, ultimately a conversion during armed conflict would have come about according to the permissive will of God. That is an interesting observation and forms part of the basis for my dislike of the terms “permissive will” and “perfect will” in this context.
A “Hands Off” God
The terms “perfect will” and “permissive will” are inadequate for a thorough treatment of the issue of God’s will for the following reasons:
1) With the exception of the time prior to the Fall in Genesis 3, everything we could link to God’s perfect will is actually His permissive will because it was precipitated by a permissive will event in the past (like the war conversion example).
2) Following the first point, having a perfect will and a permissive will implies that God is not getting His way in the universe. It suggests that He is settling for second best, since “permissive” is necessarily not as good as “perfect.”
3) If God is settling for second best, we seriously have to question God’s ability to carry out His purposes or to question His eternal satisfaction with second best. This is a dangerous path to follow and has led some to deny of many of the attributes of God including His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnisapience (being all-wise).
4) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it presents us with a “hands off” God that is not as active (or perhaps as effective) as the verses in the Bible (such as in Job and Daniel) would have us to believe.
This “hands off” God presented in the perfect/permissive will is not the God of the Bible. There are many passages that present both an active and effective God. Perhaps one of the most thorough treatises on God’s activity and efficiency is in Job 38. I used to like to think that God set up the seasons and the laws that govern the universe to act in His stead, but this passage gives Him credit not only for creating the “natural laws,” but also for actively holding the stars together and for actively sending each bolt of lightening. The Bible does not paint for us a picture of an inactive God. It is not so great a thing to ask God to make the sun stand still when you know it is He who actively holds it in place. Perhaps Ephesians 1:11 sums up God’s activity and efficiency best by saying God “…works all things according to the counsel of his will” (emphasis mine).
An inactive or ineffective God is not a God who can be blamed, which is why the perfect/permissive will of God remains a popular view for many Christians today. In effect, the argument is that God has tied His hands on the issue by giving us freedom, and He has decided to let arbitrary natural laws determine the consequences of our free choices apart from His direct activity. But if that is the case, then God must have known what the result would be from the beginning. This position, while trying to protect God from blame, offers no real defense and only distracts from the question of why certain things happen to certain people. If God knew about it in advance, he certainly could have prevented it from happening.
The Active God
An active and effective God who controls and ordains everything, including who suffers from sickness, who dies in war, and the devastation of natural disasters, must also control whether or not sin will happen, who will do it, and what the consequences will be. Even someone with an Arminian base to his theology must admit that if God is omniscient and all-powerful, He could have chosen to act in such a way as to prevent any illness, war, or disaster without infringing on our “free will.” He therefore must have approved of it in some sense or it never would have happened.
Some object to this train of thought, saying that God never approves of sin nor enjoys suffering, but we are then pulled back into the issue of God settling for less than optimal or God lacking the ability to “work all things according to his will.” If God truly is working all things according to His will, then in some sense it must be God’s will that children get sick, Christians suffer, and tsunamis and earthquakes (think Haiti) strike. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This verse means nothing to us if we don’t believe it was part of God’s plan for all of our life’s circumstances to turn out the way they did. If we prefer to read this verse as a comfort when we’re suffering, why is it not a comfort to us when we’re not?
Even though we don’t necessarily understand how God can ordain evil things for good, we have to trust that He does. An all-powerful and all-knowing God must have decided it was “best” or else He is denying Himself the pleasure and glory He deserves.
Allow me to explain this point. Perhaps the best example of this is the story of Joseph in Genesis. Here we see that Joseph’s brothers sold Him into slavery. While in slavery, he rose to a position of prominence and then was imprisoned for something he didn’t do. After he rose to a position of prominence by warning the Pharaoh of pending disaster, he saved his entire family from famine and faced his brothers once again, as their superior. Some preachers have said that God turned a bad situation around for good. Here is what the scripture says, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Genesis 45:5-9, emphasis mine).”
The point here is not that God made the best of a lousy situation. The point is that God’s purposes are greater than the purposes of sinful and wicked created beings. In a limited sense, God is like an author, telling a story, using evil characters and good characters to ultimately bring Himself glory, only the difference is that God interacts with His creation. Must the Author carry vile intentions for His characters to carry vile intentions? Must the Author be wholly evil for His characters to be wholly evil? There is no contradiction between saying that God is good and that he willed both good and evil to occur in His story. This is partly because God exists on a different plane than His “characters,” but also because sickness, suffering, and disaster can show both God’s wrath and judgment as a holy God and God’s mercy and grace in bringing us through these trials. Ultimately this brings glory to God. And God is the one who orchestrated it. The prophet Jeremiah summed it up in Lamentations 3:37-38: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”
The Good God and His Perfect Will
But how can God be justified for His sovereign inclusion of these evils in His plan? Paul answers a similar question in Romans 9. He says, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory? (Romans 9:19-23).”
I used to think that Paul’s response was avoiding the question. After careful prayer and seeking, I discovered that Paul really does have an answer. God is God. Who are we to question His motives or His actions? If God is the ultimate authority in the universe, and He says that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” who are we to doubt Him? I don’t think we’re called to fully understand how God has ordained everything that happens and we are responsible for our actions. But let’s not throw up half a defense and claim that God has a perfect will and a permissive will. He does have a perfect will, and He’s working all things according to its council.