What Does God Want?

What do Christians mean when we talk about the will of God? On the one hand we talk as if God has control of all things, he wills all things. On the other hand we talk about things being against God's will, what we call evil. This sounds like an inconsistency, if not a contradiction. Perhaps we say these things without really thinking about it. It might be okay if there was nothing wrong with the world, no evil, but, as it is, it appears that God doesn't get what he wants. How can God both will evil and yet not want evil?

Recently, Senate Candidate, Richard Mourdock, raised the hackles of many when he appeared to suggest that God somehow willed the occurrence of a pregnancy and even the rape that produced it. (see here for an article): “I came to realize life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Father Tom Reese, among many others, was troubled by the comment because, he said, "God does not want rape to happen. Someone getting pregnant through rape simply means biology continues to function. That doesn't mean God wills it. If we look at the Scriptures, we see a God who weeps with those going through pain, who is compassionate for those who suffer and condemns those who do injustice.”  Then, amid objections, Mourdock said, “The God that I worship would never, ever want to see evil done.”

There must be some confusion. It appears that Mourdock contradicts himself. At first he says that God intends something and then that God does not want something. But is this inconsistent or do we need a little theology to understand what is going on?

Before going on I should say that I believe rape to be wrong, to be an evil act carried out by human beings and contrary to God's law. It is intrinsically evil. In other words, there is no rape that escapes the category of evil and it is in that category because the act itself, not merely the consequence of the act, is a defiance of a moral law. More specifically it is contrary to God's moral law (and, by the way, I don't think that there is any other kind of moral law). I also think that governments have a responsibility (given  to them by God) to demonstrate the value of the victims by punishing the perpetrator.

I should also say that the problem of God's will is not easy. It is neither a simple problem to solve nor an easy solution to live with. The latter problem--how one lives in an evil world with a sovereign God--is not something I will focus on. That does not mean it is an unimportant question. Rather, I hope to provide some theological clarity on what we mean  by God's will. You might be wrestling with pain as you read this, looking for an answer to how God, who is supposed to be good, might answer your question "Why?" Although you may be helped by what I suggest, I am not sure if what I say will provide much help for you. I have written a little on Job and would point you there .

So now we are clear on that, let's clear up a confusion at the heart of the apparent contradiction. On the one hand Mourdock suggests that there is an event that occurs because God intends it to occur. On the other hand, it sounds like Mourdock is suggesting that God did not want the event to occur.

The difficulty is in what Mourdock meant by "intend." If he meant that the pregnancy, but not the rape, was intended, then he may also have to conclude that the rape was a necessary means to obtain the conception of the child. This doesn't sound right since God could have arranged things so that the child was conceived within marriage.  The evil act of rape was not necessary in order to produce the gift of life.

Instead, Mourdock may have meant that events such as the one he described, indeed, perhaps all events, are a result of God's intention. But does he then contradict himself when he says that God does not want the event to occur. The answer is: not necessarily.

If we assume that Mourdock means something different by intend and want, we should ask what such a difference might be. The distinction that he may have in mind (note that I do not claim to be sure about what Mourdock had in mind) is the distinction in the will of God. This is sometimes referred to as God's two wills. The first kind of will is more like a plan - a series of events (all of history since creation and all the future) is determined by the "will" of God. This is sometimes referred to as God's decree. It means that God is in control of all that comes to pass. In this respect God's sovereign will was not violated by the event. In this sense we might say that all that happens is "intended" by God - all that happens is determined by God. Contrary to one commentator, who said that this is an archaic belief, it is a fairly traditional Christian, Jewish and Islamic belief. God, being omnipotent, determines all things. It is, by the way, determinism that most scientist believe in as well even if, for many of them, all is determined by a physical cause and effect and not a divine will.

The second kind of will is his revealed will. It is what God demands of his creation. I mentioned that I think rape is wrong. And it is wrong because it violates God's moral will, his command. Human beings have continuously violated this kind of will. And this might be what we mean when we say that God does not want evil to occur. Rape is in breach of God's moral will. To call rape evil, one would have to believe in some kind of standard by which evil is recognizable  Evil is recognizable as evil because human beings are made in the image of God and have, as an essential property (even if a diminished property), a conscience.  The human conscience, writes Paul, reveals God's moral law (Rom 1).

Some theologians point to a third kind of will. The third kind of will is more like desire or approval. Does God approve of a man raping a woman? No, God hates sin, as the Bible tells us. Rape is a sin and, therefore, God hates rape. Evil provokes the anger of God, his wrath. This too is revealed to us in our conscience as we hear the law of God. We are aware of the displeasure of God and are led to hide from God or repent. It is, perhaps, this kind of will that Father Tom has in mind when he says, "If we look at the Scriptures, we see a God who weeps with those going through pain, who is compassionate for those who suffer and condemns those who do injustice.” 

If this distinction in the will of God is what Mourdock means by "intend" and "want" then it appears he has taken a fairly traditional line (negatively referred to as "archaic"). On the face of it, then, Mourdock does not contradict himself. However, we might ask a deeper question: does this present a contradiction between God's wills? God decrees all things, sets out his law and yet does not get what he desires. Either, then, God is in two (or three) minds, which contradict each other, or he is not powerful enough to achieve what he wants.

The question, first, is not how we resolve this apparent contradiction, but how do we even know that it might exist? It is surely not guesswork that leads theologians to distinguish God's will. Theologians rely on a supremely authoritative source in order to make these kinds of statements. The Bible, it appears, describes God in those two/three modes of willing. God is describes as sovereign over all history. His law is revealed to human beings (and yet disobeyed by human beings). And he is said to display his displeasure against human sin. Since the Bible is considered to be the inspired, inerrant word of God, it is also considered to be God's description of himself. In other words, we begin thinking about the will of God from what God has told us about his will.

If we assume the truth of scripture, then God's self-description is, because the Bible describes God as one who does not lie, absolutely reliable. Consequently, although we might not understand how God could both will all things that occur to occur and not desire or want some of those things, we can rely on the truth of those statements. God, being all knowing (something we know because he tells us) presumably does know how his will fits together even if he intends, wants, desires not to tell us or design us with the intellectual facility to fully comprehend how it all fits together.

The problem, for Jonathan Edwards, was epistemological. Do we know that God has a will of decree and a will of command? Yes, says Edwards. The following is an abbreviated version courtesy of Tyler Kenny over at desiringgod.org (full article here):
The Arminians ridicule our distinction of the secret and revealed will of God, or more properly expressed, our distinction between the decree and law [of God], because we say he may decree one thing and command another; and so they say we hold contrariety and contradiction in God, as if one will of his contradicted and was directly contrary to another.
But however, if they will call this a contradiction of wills, we do certainly and absolutely know there is such a thing, so that it is the greatest absurdity to dispute about it.
  • We and they [know it was] God's secret will that Abraham should not sacrifice his son, but yet his command was to do it.
  • [We] do certainly know that God willed that Pharaoh's heart should be hardened, and yet that the hardness of his heart was his sin.
  • We do know that God willed that [the] Egyptians should hate God's people.Psalms 105:25, "He turned their heart to hate his people and deal subtilely with his servants."
  • We do know that it was God's will that Absalom should lie with David's wives.2 Samuel 12:11–12, "Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes and give them unto thy neighbor; and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun."
  • We do certainly know that God willed that Jeroboam and the ten tribes should rebel.
The point that Edwards makes is that the position that God decrees all that occurs, and what God decrees occurs because God decrees it is known to us. He also points out that equally known are the commands of God even though those commands are often disobeyed. The Bible assumes no actual contradiction and, argues Edwards, that is enough reason for us to assume that there is no actual contradiction.

Furthermore it is clear from the first will that God does indeed get exactly what he decrees. He determines all things. Thus we are precluded from saying that God does not get what he decrees (wills). Yet if God also commands (issues a moral law) then the fact that this is disobeyed by human beings in the outworking of the decree does not a contradiction make. Edwards points to occasions when the disobedience that occurs is ultimately a result of God's plan.

Another way to think about God's will is by reflecting on God's transcendence and immanence. God, according to the Bible, is both. He is both above all things and at the same time involved with his creation. Immanence also involves a personal involvement with people, it involves relationship. As D.A Carson comments, this has implications for how we interpret references to the will of God:
At the risk of simplification, it appears that when the Bible speaks of God's will in an efficient or decretal fashion, that use of the language belongs to the assumption that God is transcendent and sovereign; when the Bible speaks of God's will as his desire, quite possibly unfulfilled desire, that use of language belongs to the assumption that God is a person who interacts with other persons. To appeal to such usage to deny that God is sovereign is as irresponsible as it is to appeal to the first usage to deny that God is personal (Carson, How Long O Lord, p. 199).  
Again, Carson has to assume the truth of scripture and treat is as authoritative on the nature of God. But this is back to the question of how we know who God is. If we know who God is through his having revealed himself in creation and authoritatively in scripture, then it is very difficult to avoid coming to this conclusion.

However, it might be suggested that alternatives should be attended to. What if, for example, God did not have the first kind of will, that he did not determine all events? What would determine them? Father Reese suggests that just because God creates does not mean he controls. Perhaps biology does its work without help. God, in this case, creates beings that function and sustain on their own accord. He has no need to keep the heart pumping, only to make a heart that is capable of pumping. In the same way, conception is not controlled by God; each particular conception is not a gift - only the ability  to procreate in general is a gift. How we use such an ability is up to us. In the case of a rapist the ability is used poorly, against how God originally designed it. Nonetheless, like Mourdock, we could say that life is a gift however it came about.

The are several difficulties with this solution, but let me mention a couple. First, this idea is not far off a kind of deism, whereby God sets the world up according to the law of nature and lets it follow its course. This makes any kind of intervention in creation appear at odds with God's intention. If there is nothing that necessitates intervention then sin naturally followed from God's setting up of creation. If that is the case, then God's will in the act of creation was thwarted since things have evidently gone awry.  More importantly, if God could intervene to correct his mistake, why did he not intervene to prevent rape? Surely if his design was flawed at its origin there is no reason (like a sovereign will and plan) why he could not have made adjustments.

On the other hand it might be said that God, by his own will, decreed that human beings would obtain a will that would allow them, if they so desired, to disobey God. Creating human beings with such a will, although costly, was a greater good than creating humans without such a will. Evil, then, would be the result of human beings straying from God's law, but because God had given free will human beings were able to thwart God on that front. God, believing that free will was this important  would not have been obliged to intervene since to do so would violate human free will.

This, perhaps, makes the most sense internally. However, it may be objected to on external grounds. For if God foreknew the events (and the people in those events) that have transpired in history, then those events are certain to happen (otherwise God would be mistaken). Since I think the Bible teaches that God does know all future events, I think that means that those events could not go otherwise. In other words they are determined. Short of a factor outside of God that could cause those events in such a way that God would know all of them in advance, I think God's will is behind all events in history. If all human actions are included in those events (including evil actions) then those actions are determined by God. Those committed to human libertarian free will propose a number of solutions, but, at least to my mind, are insufficient in dealing with the problem. Perhaps a future blog will be a about free will (I am re-reading The Oxford Handbook of Free Will as we speak), but I won't attempt to tackle it now.

The most obvious problem with my position is that if God determines all actions, then God appears to be responsible for all actions. And if God is responsible for all actions, then God is responsible for evil actions of human beings. However, this is to equivocate on the term responsible. For God to determine a human action is not necessarily to be morally responsible for it. Again, the Bible is clear about who is responsible for sin - human beings, Satan and his cohorts. The Bible is equally clear about justice - sin is ultimately punished and dealt with. We know this because Christ, being the Son of God, bore the wrath of the Father on behalf of repentant sinners, even rapists.