We all want to understand what the Bible teaches about God’s will, but where do we begin? I think it’s important to start with language, because God’s nature and loving heart is further revealed when we understand the biblical meaning of the word “will.”
Not comprehending language can lead to some embarrassing or misleading moments, and I know first-hand what that feels like. When I was sixteen years old my mother moved our family from a little town in the mountains of Puerto Rico to Hollywood, California. As I tried to become proficient in English, I often spoke it even though I was unsure what certain words meant. One day, a young man offered to buy me a Dr Pepper. I had heard other people make funny remarks about drinking this soda and, in an effort to sound cool, I repeated their line, “ Dr Pepper makes me horny.” At this the young man stepped back in shock, “I can’t believe you just said that!” He quickly walked away and left me standing in front of the tower of sodas wondering what I had said. I thought that “horny” referred to the horn-like sound one makes when sneezing because of breathing in pepper. (I know, it sounds silly now.) When I went home, I immediately looked up this word in the dictionary, and boy was I surprised!
You don’t have to be a foreigner to be challenged by the English language. English contains homographs, words that share the same spelling. Some homographs are at least pronounced differently and give us a clue to their different meanings (for instance, he wound the bandage around the wound). But more challenging are the words that have the same pronunciation and spelling, but have different meaning (tire = fatigue, tire = car wheel). The word will is this type of homograph.
Just as when I was learning English I made wrong assumptions about certain definitions, I’ve made the same mistake when reading the Bible. For instance, when I started studying the topic of “God’s will,” I assumed that “God’s will” always meant God’s divine plan, something that shall happen because God is all-powerful and directs it to happen. This gave me the impression that God is a supreme killjoy, bossy, in control of everything and ready to punish me at the slightest disobedience. There were plenty of people in my life like this and I did not want to follow a God that was like them. To my surprise, after a little bit of reading, I realized that sometimes the English word “will” means “counsel, plan, purpose, intention,” and sometimes it means “desire or wish to happen.” What a difference that makes!
More than sixty verses in the New Testament refer to God’s “desire or wish that something would happen” when speaking of God’s will and twelve refer to his “counsel, plan, purpose or intention.” It is not always easy to detect which definition of “will” is intended. Can you tell which “will” is being used in the following verses?
- “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” John 6:38 KJV
- “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:” Acts 13:36 KJV
Answer: John 6:38 refers to God’s desire while Acts 13:36 refers to God’s plan or purpose.
One way to determine which ”will” a verse is using is to consult the original languages of the Bible: Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. There are two primary words for will in Greek, thelēma (θέλημα) and boulē (Βουλή). Thelēma refers to “what God wishes or desires to happen.” and boule refers to God’s “counsel” or “purpose.” We cannot resist God’s boulēma, as Paul points out in Romans 9:19, but we can resist his thelēma as Adam and Eve did in Genesis 3. Sometimes the Biblical writers accentuate the divine sovereignty by combining two or more of these equivalent words into a single expression (Romans 12:1; Ephesians 1:5, 11, and Hebrews 13:21). Therefore, the specific definition of God’s will depends on the specific situation, verse and usage of the word.
The theme of God’s will, His desire (Gk thelēma), is almost central to the teaching of Jesus as that of the kingdom of God. Many passages speak of “doing” God’s will, what God desires or commands (Mark 3:35, Matthew 12:50, Luke 12:47, John 4:34, 6:38). In God we see the characteristics of desiring, or delighting in, certain things or people. Does God exert his commanding will to force the resolution of his desires? Not always. Both the Old and New Testament demonstrate that God expects his people to do his will, but he gave us a free will to choose (Genesis 2:15-17) and we don’t always do what God desires (Genesis 3).
I pray this study of the language will help you get a glimpse of God’s loving heart instead of fearing His authoritative hammer of justice and judgment.
Our loving God desires for His creation and His people to be redeemed (John 6:40). This is consistent with Jeremiah 29:11, he has plans for our welfare, not for evil. It draws me to sing with the Psalmist, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” Psalm 143:10 NIV.
I wish to do what God desires. Don’t you? In order to do God’s will, we must know Him and His desires. On my next post I will discuss the three most popular methods used to discern the will of God.
Q. How does your view of God change when you realize that many NT passages that speak of God’s will are actually talking about what God desires?
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