Throughout the month of August, we’re taking a close look at 23 verses of the New Testament. They comprise Ephesians chapter one, which paints one of the Bible’s most comprehensive pictures of what it means for ordinary people to be “in Christ.”
How can we know God’s will?
That’s one of life’s most perplexing questions. And one of the most important, too.
Paul alludes to its centrality in verse nine: “He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.”
“God’s will” has become a kind of catch-all term for at least four different ways of looking at reality.
First, theologians speak of God’s Original Will. That’s a way of describing what God always wanted this world to be. According to God’s original will, things like heartbreak, betrayal, genocide, and despair would never have been part of the human experience. Ancient Hebrew poets and prophets proclaimed that this is now a fallen world – fractured in all respects because human beings have abused God’s precious gift of freedom. In other words, astonishingly, God’s original will has been subverted by our will.
Therefore we must pay close attention, secondly, to God’s Prescriptive Will, which is an expression of God’s stated intentions for men and women who live in this fallen world.
God’s prescriptive will is closely aligned to everyday issues of right and wrong. For instance, is it God’s will that I add phony academic honors to my resume, lie to my family about what I was doing last weekend, or steal cash from someone’s wallet? We can answer those questions with confidence: No. The consequences of such behavior generate experiences of suffering which we can avoid by choosing to be honest.
Our third category is what theologians call God’s Ultimate Will. Followers of Jesus believe that certain things are going to happen, and there’s no way they are not going to happen. It is God’s ultimate will that justice shall be done. Wrong shall be made right. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The world and all of its pain shall be healed.
So what does Paul mean by the “mystery of his will”? In Bible times, a “mystery” had nothing to do with Agatha Christie whodunits. It’s often equated with “an open secret” – something that was hidden for generations, but which has now been brought into the light. Paul appears to be saying that it was always God’s intention to heal this broken world through Jesus. That news has finally gone public, and it’s just a matter of time before the whole world hears the message.
To put it another way: God’s original will has not been lost. It will ultimately be fulfilled. And everything God originally designed for this world will be on display in the new heavens and new earth.
So where does that leave us in the meantime?
Every day we live within the fourth reality, known as God’s Permissive Will. On our way to the world’s deep healing, God permits countless things that are clearly at odds with his stated will – whether original, prescriptive, or ultimate. Why does God allow so much pain – especially the kind of suffering that seems to have nothing to do with the choices we make? This is where our convictions concerning God’s goodness and God’s power may be severely tested.
How can we ever say that sexual abuse, cataclysmic earthquakes, the death of a child, or mass shootings are “God’s will”? How can God bear such things?
Pat answers will never do.
Therefore Christians point to history’s most unexpected moment: God did bear such things. On the cross. The worst thing that could ever have happened to Jesus of Nazareth – the violence that ended his life – was simultaneously the best thing that could ever have happened to us.
In the midst of our own pain and suffering, there’s always more than meets the eye. God is at work. Even when we can’t imagine how.
But if we keep our eyes on him – eyes that are sometimes filled with tears – we will one day make out the future that he has always prepared for us.
Such thoughts undergird The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy of good, evil, suffering, and redemption. Tolkien was a faithful Catholic. Biblical theology permeates his writing. Some of the humblest creatures in his tale – hobbits – are called to perform the most difficult task. Samwise Gamgee, or Sam, must accompany his friend Frodo to carry the Ring of Power to its demise in a churning volcano.
Along the way they endure incredible suffering. It seems certain they will perish in the attempt to do what is right.
In The Two Towers, the second of the three films based on Tolkien’s books, Frodo has reached the end of his endurance: “I can’t do this, Sam.” Sam responds with the most moving statement in the entire Lord of the Rings saga:
“I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
“But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.” Frodo asks, “What are we holding onto, Sam?” Sam responds, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
Check out the stirring way director Peter Jackson staged this conversation in the film.
Apart from a Story that gives meaning to our existence – one that assures us that God’s ultimate will is being done – our present circumstances can seem unbearable.
Scripture tells a Story – the greatest of all the great stories, as Sam might put it – in which the darkness will pass. It will be only a passing thing. A shadow. And a new day will come.
Here’s how the Story ends: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Revelation 21:1,3,4).
Between now and the finale of God’s incredible Story, what are we supposed to be doing?
Our call is to hold on, even when we have chances to turn back.
Because there’s some good in this world.
And it’s worth fighting for.