15 December 2017


raThe will of God is sometimes a mystery.  Many scriptures speak about the importance of doing the will of God, even about accepting it in difficult circumstances.  Peter writes, “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:17  He clearly sees situations where suffering may be part of the will of God.  The will of God rules in the Kingdom of God and we are to submit to it.  However, in trying to understand God’s ways with us, we sometimes find it difficult to understand God’s will and we ask why and why not.  That should not cause us too much concern, for we find the same thing in Scripture.  Perhaps the classic example in the OT is Job who in the middle of his great suffering cried out,

“Oh,that I knew where I might find him,

that I might come even to hisseat!

  I wouldlay my case before him

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would know what he would answer me. 

and understand what he would say to me. Job 23:3f ESV

This struggle to understand should not surprise us, since as humans we are limited in understanding, just as our vision is so limited that we can only see a little of the picture and only a short way ahead.  Isaiah expresses this contrast well for us –

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

Neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

So are my ways higher than your ways

And my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV

In the New Testament we see the same mystery, as humans try to understand God’s will.  Jesus in Gethsemane struggled with the will of God for Him, and it was mind-blowing, for we are told that He was greatly distressed and troubled, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  We now treasure His words in that struggle, “Father, if you are willing, removethis cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Luke 22:42 ESV  But it is clear He was torn apart by it.  We also see the Apostle Paul struggling with the mystery of God’s will.  He has great understanding of the purpose and will of God, which we see in passages such as Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1, Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15.  Yet, in his letter to the Romans, in writing about how God chooses some for salvation and rejects others, he speaks of the mystery of God’s will.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault?  Forwho can resist his will?” But who are you, O man,to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lumpone vessel for honoured use and another for dishonourable use?  What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patiencevessels of wrathprepared for destruction, in order to make knownthe riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which hehas prepared beforehand for glory” Romans 9:14f We find the same thing two chapters later where He deals with how the Gentiles have been chosen for salvation and the Jews rejected and he concludes,

“Oh, the depth of the riches andwisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  Forwho has known the mind of the Lord, orwho has been his counsellor?” Romans 11:33f ESV

All this teaches us that God is sovereign in His kingdom and that His subjects should accept His will, however hard that may be.  And it has been hard from the beginning.  Jesus foresaw this when He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24 ESV.  Cross-bearing is part of the deal. Christ was the pattern for those who were to follow.  That suffering in the will of God continued.  Few of the apostles died in old age.  Tradition tells us Peter was crucified, Paul was beheaded, Thomas was martyred in India.  Some were crucified, some were speared to death and there is a tradition that Bartholomew was flayed before being beheaded.  In more modern times too pioneer missionaries were tortured and killed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on Hitler’s orders in the closing days of the Second World War.  In many countries of the former communist bloc Christians were arrested and tortured and in some parts of the world today the suffering of God’s people continues.  We hear of churches being bombed and Christians being killed in Nigeria at present. In our own country some have been dismissed and brought before the court for expressing their faith.  Of course there are difficulties in the Christian life that do not arise from persecution and some of them can cause great heart-wrenching and distress also: business failure, unemployment, illness, bereavement, depression, marital problems among many others.  But suffering has been part of ‘bearing the cross’ right from the beginning.

Society today doesn’t like this idea.  It is a feel-good society, which likes to think of self and cosset self with as much pleasure as possible.  Much of today’s media is centred on the self: your stars, your health, your appearance, and dieting, exercising, fashion.  Sometimes it seems that everything else can go to the wall so long as we’re having fun.  The media have promoted a celebrity lifestyle where it seems that pleasure is the constant desire.  But the reality is that sooner or later everyone comes up against a rock face where there is no fun to be had, where painful realities kick in.

Our society is also an acquisitive society that likes to get more and more and expects to get it, even if we have to go more into debt to satisfy our desires.  It has been said that ‘we spend money we don’t have to get things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know.”  Christians are influenced by this culture all around us, so we may expect God to give us more and more, not to take from us, and to make us happy.  This culture around us may influence our thinking about the Christian life when difficulties come and may cause us to be easily broken and discouraged.  I knew a very exuberant Christian who said that she would stop believing if her sister was not cured of illness.  She expected God to do what she wanted.  How different that is from others in the past who saw difficulties as part of the challenge of life.  In the city of Cambridge is Holy Trinity Church where Rev Charles Simeon ministered for nearly fifty years.  He had terrible trouble in that congregation, suffering opposition, attempts to lock him out, humiliation, even disturbances in the streets around the church.  He was asked one afternoon by his friend, Joseph Gurney, how he had overcome all his troubles and all the great prejudice against him in his 49-year ministry.  He replied, “My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ’s sake.  When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs.  Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death.  Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory.”  We need a little of that same spirit today.

Yet, there are some things we can say which perhaps help us in our struggles with the difficulties of life and perhaps with unanswered prayers.

First, our understanding is limited.  It is undoubtedly a great blessing that we are able to know something of the mind of God, though much is still beyond us, as we have seen in the case of Paul.  God might have made us unable to understand anything at all of His thoughts but He has made us able to increasingly understand His thinking in creating our world.  These days we are discovering more and more of this.   In moral matters, too, we have an understanding of His will in the sense of right and wrong in conscience.  We also have an understanding of His thinking in the great matter of our salvation.  Seneca, Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist around the time of Christ said, “All my life I have tried to lift myself up from the pit of my besetting sins and I cannot and will not be able to unless a hand is let down to lift me up.”  This surely was an understanding of the need of a saviour.  God has also given us a grasp of His ultimate plan for the end of time.  Then He shall bring about what He originally intended to create – a race of people made in His image to populate His kingdom and have fellowship with Him.  He has disclosed much of His will in these matters to us but we need always to remember that this ability He has given is limited.  We are like students who sit at the feet of a most brilliant professor.  They can understand a little of his teaching which he has simplified so that they can grasp it, but they have no idea of the deep matters that go through his mind.  We are like those students in our relationship with God.


A significant part of our problem today is that we may have been misled by our great modern explosion in knowledge and do not realise our limitations.  We expect to know everything and, if we don’t know, we can always google for the information.  Yet, in the matter of the will of God we cannot do that, and there is much that lies beyond our comprehension – our antenna has limited reach.  There are great expanses of knowledge of God’s will and purpose far beyond the ability of our minds to discern.

Secondly, our vision as well as our thinking is limited.  We are like people living in a narrow valley who cannot see the outside world.  We just see our own world and have no idea what is going on elsewhere.  Recently, the historian and journalist Max Hastings wrote of the pleasures of being on holiday, enjoying everything around him but isolated from the great economic drama being played out in the world today.  We are somewhat like that, focused on our little circle of life but unaware of the great issues God is dealing with elsewhere.  So, we may make repeated requests to God over some matter but we do not know His big picture or how the different pieces in the jigsaw need to fall into place before He can answer.  He may even have some purpose to achieve through the difficulty we experience.  Joni Eriksson, who was paralysed in a swimming accident in her youth, later said of her experience, “I would rather be in this chair with Christ than on my feet without Him.”  God may have things which can only be achieved through our suffering, just as through Christ’s sufferings.


That doesn’t mean we are to be down in the mouth and live a sort of ‘woe is me’ Christian life.  Not at all.  Paul says something very profound in Rom 12:12 “Rejoice in hope,be patient in tribulation,be constant in prayer.”  The hope given to us by  our salvation can create a joy in the present that lies deeper than pain and trouble.  Many have found that in serious illness, bereavement or other difficulty there still is a deeper joy through God’s presence.  And that gives us the ability to be patient in tribulation and to endure.  This comes through the grace of God; it is not something we drum up or manipulate but we do get it through persistent prayer.  Paul’s statement is a very balanced statement; the three parts hang together – joy, patience, prayer.

Safe in the Shadow of the Lord, Beneath His hand and pow’r,
I trust in Him, I trust in Him, My fortress and my tow’r.

My hope is set on God alone, Though Satan spreads his snare,
I trust in Him, I trust in Him, To keep me in His care.

Strong in the Everlasting Name, And in my Father’s care,
I trust in Him, I trust in Him, Who hears and answers prayer.

Safe in the Shadow of the Lord, Possessed by love divine,
I trust in Him, I trust in Him, And meet His love with mine.

WORDS Sidlow McFarland