Scenario 1: You’re discussing Divine Providence with your friends over a bottle of wine and mention that, in a strict sense, the Holocaust was “God’s will.” Your Jewish friend stuffs the cork up your nose.
Scenario 2: An unchurched fellow wanders into the local revival meeting where he hears the preacher say, “You could have been any place tonight, but it was God’s will for you to be here.”
Scenario 3: A college boy finds himself alone on a bus with an attractive young lady who’s reading a Bible. He says to her, “Before the world began God planned for us to be on this bus tonight. I think we owe it to God to have dinner tomorrow and figure out why.”
The tension in each scenario results from the confusion over the meaning of “God’s will.” Does it mean His secret Providence by which He governs all things, or does it refer to His revealed preference, upon which we must base our decisions?
For God to be God, He has to be in control of everything (else why pray to Him?), so we have to affirm His Providence over every detail of life. But it’s equally crucial that we not assume that the bare facts of history represent His desires, as if “His will” in the sense of Providence means the same thing as “His will” when we’re speaking of His guidance or calling.
God knows the effect of every action, and He works all things so that they fulfill His purposes in the end. As a simple example, we may curse a flat tire without realizing that it kept us from an accident down the road. How God will turn something as unspeakably evil as the Holocaust to serve His ultimate purposes is a huge mystery, but that’s what our faith tells us: “God works all things for good” (Rom 8:28).
God’s ultimate plans are hidden from us, and we’re treading on dangerous ground when we presume to know them. Scenarios 2 and 3 have that in common—making an unwarranted leap from “this event is part of God’s secret Providence” to “I can (or should) discern God’s plan for this event.” That kind of insight requires the gift of prophecy.
Someone will object that we should look for God’s purpose and guidance in the events of our lives. Yes, we should, but we have to hold to our assumptions very lightly. Did the tower of Siloam crush those people because they were more wicked than others? And who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind? Jumping from “this happened” to “God did this because” is a dangerous enterprise.
I recently discussed this distinction with my daughter on a ride home from a weekend retreat she attended. It seems that some of the people in this group (let’s call it ABC) like to say things like, “God planned from all eternity that you’d be at ABC tonight.”
I’m sure these folk have the best intentions, but that kind of talk is not only unwarranted, it’s a form of psychological manipulation that Christians ought to avoid. It relies on the confusion between God’s secret Providence and God’s prescriptive will.
In the sense of God’s secret Providence, yes, we can say that it’s “God’s will” for my daughter to be at ABC tonight. It’s also “God’s will” for somebody to die in a car accident, and “God’s will” for somebody else to have an abortion. But we dare not make conclusions from those circumstances about what God “wants.”
When a serious Christian goes to church, he’s trying to discern “God’s will” for his life in an entirely different sense than the “God’s will” of Providence. The Christian knows that God ordains all things, but he seeks God’s desires—the things he should strive for to be a good disciple of Christ. To confuse these two—to use the providential fact as an argument for some sort of divine calling—is a sloppy error that borders on dishonesty.
Greg Krehbiel is a former Presbyterian seminary student and a convert to Catholicism. He lives with his wife and five children in Laurel, Maryland.