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. Instead, we discover that God’s will is about life in the present – in the big and the little events that comprise the bulk of our lives.
Having recognized this, we now wrestle with the question: Why is God’s will so hard? What is it about us and our world that creates an obstacle to accomplishing God’s will? I will highlight three factors that contribute to this: (1) Our egocentric tendencies; (2) the impossible standard of perfectionism; and (3) the real risk involved in authentic faith. The first factor rises from how we view ourselves, the second relates to our view of God, and the third has to do with the very nature of trust within a relationship.
Egocentric vs. Theocentric
God’s will challenges our natural tendency to egocentrism (self-centeredness) and calls us to a theocentric (God-centered) perspective of life. We tend to harbor the illusion that the world revolves around us and our desires. After all, our experience is more real to us than anything else. This causes us to be skeptical and dismissive of what we do not experience. Tragically, this is our sin. God’s will, on the other hand, invites us to live for something greater than ourselves, that is, God’s kingdom.
In order to walk with God we must align our will with God’s will. This is at the heart of what it means to answer Christ’s invitation to “deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). By following Jesus we share his heart, his life, his passion, and his vocation. Jesus’ vocation can be summarized in this way: by manifesting God’s grace, truth, and love he was a blessing to others. In this way, God’s kingdom was manifested in and through Jesus’ life.
The fundamental orientation of Jesus’ life was others-oriented rather than self-oriented. Through self-denial he gave himself away for the good of others. In the gospel, Jesus invites us to renounce our natural bent of selfishness and follow his call to self-denial and cross-bearing. Only by living in this fashion can we manifest God’s kingdom to others.
Ultimately, God’s will is not about us, but God’s kingdom. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples begins, not with a focus on the disciples’ needs and desires, but on God’s kingdom: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Too often, we begin our prayers with our needs and desires and then, if there is room and time, we consider the concerns of God’s kingdom. By reversing the original order, we reduce God’s will to our own personal matters. James Mulholland describes how “we often bring the same selfish tendencies to discerning God’s will. We make seeking God’s will into another selfish act. What does God want me to do? What is his perfect path for me? How can I assure my happiness and success? Some even define God’s will as giving health, wealth, and ease to his favorites.”
Our natural tendency is “to see God through the filter of my needs, my desires, my kingdom, my will… The god we encounter when we fail to get beyond our self is the god of our wishes and projections, a god seriously lacking in transcendence.” As David Benner warns, a god “that is merely a projection of our deepest needs and longings is [not] worthy of surrender of our soul.” When we recognize how we often reverse God’s order – placing our will before God’s will – we realize how ridiculously self-serving our prayers often are.
The Christian is called to be filled with the Spirit of God. Consequently, we cannot be full of ourselves and welcome the divine Other. If we want to welcome God, we must come humbly, empty, and hungry. This is the only way to answer Jesus’ call to “deny yourselves, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” True freedom is not individual autonomy but freedom to give ourselves to others in love. It is freedom from the tyranny of the self and the self-absorption that accompanies it. “The paradoxical law of God’s kingdom is that it is only when we give up what we clutch most desperately that we will receive it. Grasping destroys. Surrender restores and transforms.”
The egocentric way is the most immature way to live. Obviously, it is a necessary step along the path of personal development. All of us as children begin our lives as full-blown egoists. But we certainly should not stay here! By casting off egocentrism and embracing an others-oriented (and further, a theocentric) perspective we grow up to Christian maturity: “Grown-ups are people who understand ‘It’s not about you.’ It is about something bigger than you. It is about some larger purpose or mission, project or vision. It is about the work. It is about some whole that is more than just the sum of the parts... There’s something at stake that transcends me. ‘It’s not about you.’”
The call to live beyond ourselves is not accomplished by eliminating our wills, but by reorienting them to harmonize with God’s will. Thomas Merton describes this goal: “A saint is a person who when he does his own will, is doing the will of God… The root of his willing is in God… The greatest glory of a creature is to act freely as the instrument of God… His acts are Christ’s.” Catholic theologian Scott Hahn compares this to the way we align our wills with our spouse’s will: “I don’t lose my will in God’s, any more than I lose my will in my wife’s. I unite my will to His.”
Perfectionism vs. Grace
Another problem in doing God’s will arises from our view of God. Too often, we view God as a judge demanding perfection rather than as a father desiring a love relationship with his children. When we view God primarily as a judge, we reduce God’s will to a matter of keeping rules. God’s will becomes a matter a law rather than grace. Perfectionism rather than relationship drives us.
But God’s will is a matter of grace, not perfectionism. Speaking of “God’s perfect will” causes us to despair of ever really practicing God’s will for any extended time. We turn it into an impossible achievement rather than a gracious engagement with our loving God. Unfortunately, this “fevered search for perfection can take on a harsh and self-deceiving face.”
We must never forget: God does not desire perfection. God desires a relationship. Anthony Robinson points to the creation account where the author repeatedly describes the execution of God’s will as “good” and “very good.” He writes, “God seems content with good.”
It’s a good world, a stage for an unfolding drama, a work in progress. But it’s not a finished world. Perfection and perfectionism labor under the illusion that we can attain completion, that we can get it absolutely right, and that we are in charge and in control. That’s misleading and crippling.
It is impossible to do God’s “perfect” will, but we can seek to do God’s “good” will.
This becomes even more important when we realize that God’s will often involves living in the tension of paradox. Jesus’ teaching is full of paradoxes such as: “The first shall be last.” “We lose our lives to gain our lives.” “The greatest shall be the least.” “The weak are strong.” “We give in order to receive.” “The humble are exalted.” “We die in order to live.” Certainly, these statements have to do with how God’s will turns conventional wisdom on its head. Learning to dwell in the tension of these paradoxes – paradoxes that communicate the mystery of God’s kingdom – often creates more problems than we are willing to admit.
Christianity is so regularly presented as the solution to our problems that it does not usually occur to us that it is also and more often the problem for our solutions. That is, the Gospel raises questions about the ways we have things put together, the ways that we have explained ourselves and others and the world to ourselves.
We are called to indwell and embody divine grace. This is a far cry from an endless list of rules. We must never forget that our response to God’s will is a response to grace:
First comes grace, then our response. Whenever and wherever Christians and the church have forgotten this, Christianity has turned into something that is moralistic and legalistic and joyless. It turns into a religion that is all about keeping the rules, or pretending to, about appearances, about our deciding who’s in and who’s out. It turns, in other words, into a religion that is all about us and our doing, and not a bit about God and God’s amazing grace. It turns into a religion of good works and achievement and ceases to be a religion of grace.
Practicing God’s will is not like performing a to-do list. Checking off an inventory of rules does little to nurture a relationship, but sadly, often leads to self-righteousness and spiritual pride. Furthermore, there is no end to the list of rules one might need to adequately deal with all the different possibilities life may bring.
In the past, I received training in a certain form of counseling that provided a list for discerning God’s will that includes no less than fourteen steps! Another chart reduces the list to four steps. Both lists effectively reduce the Christian life to Bible study, prayer, and witnessing. Everything else is questionable – it may not be “God’s best” for us!
These “recipes” for doing God’s will are misleading at best, and dehumanizing at worst. They contribute to graceless legalism rather than liberating grace. Doing God’s will is more like obeying a tender and loving father than a rigid lawyer. Today my four-year old Adam was drawing a picture. He has certainly improved in his artistic abilities but they still fall far short of a Da Vinci painting. However, his immature attempts to create give me, his father, great pleasure. No museum will be calling me soon to display Adam’s works of art, but I will prominently display his pictures with great pride and joy. I recognize his limitations, but I also take joy in his growth. God looks at us in a similar way – but with an even greater grace!
Control vs. Trust
Another problem arises in performing God’s will when we forget how relationships are rooted in trust rather than control. At the heart of our engagement with God’s will are the polarities of trust vs. fear, surrender vs. control, willingness vs. willfulness, and love vs. apathy.
Our world prizes mastery and control. For this reason, we often miss God’s will. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but a demand to control our lives. Faith is not certainty, it is trust. When we trust another person, we give ourselves to them without fear. This is a vulnerable and risky position to be in. We are called to do exactly this in our relationship with God. We are invited to surrender to the unexpected and unknown – to risk ourselves for the sake of an authentic relationship with the divine Other.
Life is a great mystery. There is much over which we have no control. “Our preoccupation with what lies ahead betrays a desire to control a future that simply cannot be controlled. We want the security of knowing what the future will bring rather than risk trusting God as the unknown future gradually unfolds before us.” This truth lies behind our desire to find God’s will in a crystal ball, rather than in the plain statements found in biblical revelation. But faith renounces control over the present moment.
If we do not learn how to give ourselves over to God in faith during the course of our lives, we will eventually have to learn this lesson at the end of our days. Ultimately, we can do nothing about death. If we have learned throughout our lives to give control over to God, we will gladly give ourselves to God at the moment of our death – the moment over which we have the least control and must demonstrate the greatest trust if we wish to cast ourselves completely on God’s care.
Perhaps the distinction between willingness and willfulness can help at this point. Willfulness is a self-propelled, stubborn, “grandiose, inflated self acting as if it is master and commander of the universe.” On the other hand, “The act of willing surrender is a choice of openness, a choice of abandonment of self-determination, a choice of cooperation with God.” Ultimately, this is what God desires from us: “What God desires is our consent, not our willpower.”
The Pain and the Pleasure
Doing God’s will is not easy, but it is rewarding. It does not always bring personal peace. It often takes us way beyond our comfort zone. Like Paul, we are called “to die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31). The Spirit of Christ leads us in a process of mortification – a death to our own self-will. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption by which we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:113-15). This is a painful process but its fruit is the knowledge that God is at work in our lives through the Spirit.
It is a consoling truth to recognize that doing God’s will was not always an easy option for Jesus: “There is no reason to feel guilty if you find it difficult to surrender to God’s will. Even Christ found it hard. He who knew the depth and dependability of the love of God better than any human also struggled to surrender to the demand of Love that he lay down his life.”
After much struggle, Jesus prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.” William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas remind us that “[t]he ending of all truly Christian prayer is the same that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane: Not my will but yours be done.” This is what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. It is a prayer of total commitment to God, regardless of what it may bring to our lives. “Prayer in Jesus’ name is lifelong training in taking God’s will a little more seriously and our own will a little less so.”
James Mulholland describes how Jesus’ struggle with God’s will can comfort us:
His words are so human. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Daddy (Abba), everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). I know that prayer. I prayed it when my mother was dying of cancer. I prayed it when my marriage was on the rocks. I prayed it when my daughter developed a tumor. I suspect we’ve all had cups we’ve asked God to take from us.
Ultimately, there are two sides to our performance of God’s will – a passive side and an active side. The passive aspect is found in Mary’s prayer: “May it be done to me according to your word.” This prayer welcome’s God’s kingdom transformation in our lives. The active side is found in the psalmist’s prayer: “I have come to do thy will, O Lord.” This is a prayer of self-offering for the purposes of God’s kingdom. Both aspects are found in Jesus’ prayer: “Not my will, but thine be done.”
The joy of doing God’s will is experienced when we remember that it is our Father’s will that we embrace. Our tender Abba loves us passionately, perfectly, and eternally. This love moves us to embrace God’s will. Our fears are relieved by remembering that God’s will is the will of a loving, merciful father: “Apart from duress and fear, nobody voluntarily submits their will and surrenders their autonomy for any other reason than love.” It is not simply that we desire to do God’s will, but that God desires us: “We may be tempted to feel that the desiring of God is all on our end. But our desiring originates in God’s desiring of us.”
More than anything else, God wants us to want God’s will. We may not always be certain, but we can always trust. For this reason, I have found great consolation in Thomas Merton’s prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and will never leave me to face my perils alone.
We must change our perspective on God’s will: We “are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a good strategy for getting what we want… This prayer is not getting what we want but rather for bending our wants toward what God wants.” By aligning ourselves with God’s desire for us, we become the kind of people God desires us to be. We may not always get it right, but we know that we are continually involved in a process that is transforming us – making us more like Christ. As always, the question is not “What am I supposed to do?” as much as it is “What kind of person does God want me to be?” Tom Stella makes it clear: “I am in union with your will when I cease to be at odds with my neighbor and myself, and when I share in your divine passion that desires the good of all.”
Armed with the desire to bless others as God has blessed us, we are equipped to “make the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5). We recognize that we often fall short, but we also remain aware of God’s grace at work in every event of our lives.
we are a mixed bag. We are capable of great courage and great cowardice. We do wonderful things, and we do things that are selfish and terrible. And it tells another truth as well: Despite our own flaws and failures there is a gracious power, sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, steadily at work for good and healing in the world. If we give it half a chance it will work through us. When we don’t give it a chance, it keeps on anyway.
God’s will is hard because it constantly challenges us in respect to our natural tendencies to egoism, our list mentality that imagines an impossibly high standard – a “perfect” will – and our fear of the vulnerability and risk involved in an authentically trusting relationship with another.
Throughout our entire lives we will vacillate between the extremes of egocentrism vs. theocentrism, perfectionism vs. grace, and control vs. trust. None of these tendencies will be resolved immediately. The journey of learning to orient ourselves in confident trust toward our gracious God is life-long. It is not an easy process. In many ways, it is a painful process. But in the end, it brings great reward. It is, after all, the way of Jesus.
Appendix: Two Prayers
Along with Merton’s prayer above, I offer the two following prayers as guides to making the will of God a way of life:
Prayer Of Abandonment
O God you are both Mother and Father,
You are more than I can imagine,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever happens in my life
I desire to discover you through it
I thank you for whatever will be
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures ...
I wish no more than this.
Into your hands I commend my soul.
I offer myself to you with all my heart.
I love you, my God.
I desire to surrender myself into your hands
and with boundless confidence,
For you are my God and my all.
-- adapted from Charles de Foucauld
At The Beginning Of The Day
O God, I find myself at the beginning of another day,
I do not know what it will bring,
Please help me to be ready for whatever it may be.
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently
If I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
I pray just for today, for these twenty-four hours,
for the ability to cooperate with others
according to the way Jesus taught us to live.
"Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
May these words that he taught us become more than words.
Please free my thinking and feelings
and the thinking and feelings of others,
from all forms of self-will, – self-centredness, dishonesty, and deception.
Along with my brothers and sisters, I need this freedom
to make my choices today according to your desires.
Send your Spirit to inspire us in time of doubt and indecision so that, together, we can walk along your path. Amen.
-- adapted with thanks from an unknown source.
 James Mulholland, Praying Like Jesus: The Lord's Prayer in a Culture of Prosperity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 50.
 David Benner, Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Our Hearts with the Heart of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 35-36.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 37.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 40-41.
 Anthony B. Robinson, Common Grace: How to be a Person and Other Spiritual Matters (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2006), 103.
 Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun: Discovering the Lord’s Prayer with Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton (Cincinnati, Ohio: Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1993), 127.
 Robinson, Common Grace, 44.
 Robinson, Common Grace, 44-45.
 Robinson, Common Grace, 38.
 Robinson, Common Grace, 20-21.
 The steps are: (1) Do you know what the Bible says on this issue? (2) Does the Bible expressly forbid or allow this? (3) Is the Bible indifferent on this issue? (4) Could this cause someone to stumble? (5) Would enslaving allow for proper spiritual boasting? (6) Will enslaving improve my opportunities to witness? (7) Is my body involved? (8) Could exercising this liberty endanger me spiritually? (9) Am I just wanting to please self? (10) Am I being proud? (11) Am I losing hope? (12) Will this tear down others? (13) Will this glorify God? (14) Final comment: If in doubt, it is always wise to take the more conservative option. (From Faith Baptist Church in Lafayette Indiana)
 (1) Excess. Is the activity or habit necessary, or is it merely an extra that is not really important? (2) Expediency. Is what I want to do helpful and useful, or only desirable? (3) Evangelism. Is my testimony going to be helped or hindered? Will unbelievers be drawn to Christ or turned away from Him by what I am doing? (4) Edification. Will I become spiritually stronger? (John MacArthur in his 1 Corinthians commentary)
 Gerald Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life: Finding and Following the Will of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 22.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 23.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 23-24.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 72.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 41.
 William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 69.
 Willimon and Hauerwas, Lord Teach Us, 69.
 Mulholland, Praying Like Jesus, 63.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 37.
 Benner, Desiring God’s Will, 82.
 Willimon and Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us, 19.
 Tom Stella, A Faith Worth Believing: Finding New Life Beyond the Rules of Religion (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), 89.
 Robinson, Common Grace, 214-215.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007