God's will

How is it possible that God is in control of all things and their will is always done, assuming that we are free?


First, why are we free in the first place?  Because God wants us to be free, and he always gets what he wants!  (Unless he wants something else more which conflicts with it; then he gets that instead.)

Some theologians distinguish between God's permissive will and his perfect will.  If God wants you to freely choose to love him.  Since he wants you to be free, that means his permissive will involves creating a world in which you are allowed to love other things instead of him, and even to become enslaved by these things and lose your freedom for a time.  So our Father permits people to love e.g. pornography and greed, but his perfect will is that we should turn to him and become pure and holy through his Son Jesus Christ.  God "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4)

So there is one sense in which God's will is always done—nothing happens unless he permits it to happen, according to his wisdom in accomplishing his ultimate goals.  But that does not mean he is equally pleased by everything that happens.  "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? says the Lord YHWH.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their wicked ways and live?" (Ez 18).

Hence we need to pray every day that "your will be done", because our Father has freely chosen (it is his absolute, iron will) that some graces will be given only when we ask for them, and cooperate with the lavish grace which has already been given, before we even knew to ask.

In the end times, after Jesus comes back, God's kingdom will come and so his perfect will is going to extend throughout the entire universe, just as it is now in heaven.  But even then, there will be some rebels who refuse to give up their hatred and pride, who will end up being excluded from the Lord's perfect will, because he permits them to be the kind of person they want to be, instead of the kind of person he wants them to be (Rev 22:15).  So God will not, in fact, get every single thing he wants.

Yet he is clever enough to work everything which happens towards the final blessedness of those who love him, according to his plan from before time began.  "For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29).

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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12 Responses to God's will

  1. TY says:

    Like that insightful distinction between the permissive and the perfect will that open to all (John 3: 16).

  2. Duc says:

    Hi Aron,

    Its interesting that you talked about God's free will. I've been reflecting on this for quite awhile and while I have read Plantiga's "God, Freedom, and Evil", I'm not sure if I'm absolutely convince that the free will defense is a sufficient theodicy.

    My contention is this: Let's take for example the case of rapes. The free will defense usually asserts that God allow rapes to happen because he doesn't want to intrude in impeding the exercise of our free will. However, I don't see the contention at all. If God intervenes in stopping rapes from happening, He is simply exercising his free will. His free will in stopping the rape from happening has not somehow limit the exercise of the rapist's free will. By free will, I meant free choice. Obviously the outcome of that free choice would be limited as the result of God's intervention. But the rapist has already 'decided' to rape and therefore, has already exercise his free will.

    Of course when we talk about free will, we're not talking about immutable free will because not even God cannot do that. For example, God do not have the free will to make a square circle (which is illogical, nonsensical and contradictory). So in the case of the rapist, we should expect that he too would not have immutable free will in that even though he freely choose to rape, whether he is able to rape or not is a non-necessity. Therefore, God, in theory, should be able to stop all rapes from happening and not impede on our free will whatsoever.

    But let's go a little further. Suppose God have some sufficient reasons for allowing the rape to happen because of some greater good / accomplishing the divine plan. Is that the kind of ethic we could expect from a "being that which no greater can be conceived"? We would have to assume that the rape would become some sort of trigger for a later good. This degenerates into an argument which states the end justifies the means. If that is so, then rape would somehow be considered good because it brings about the greatest possible good.

    Another objection might be, "well, couldn't we assert that God is not concern about human suffering insofar as that His ultimate goal / plan is not human well-being in the sense of comfort but that all should come to know him and know the fullness of His love. In this regard then, he allow sins and suffering so that the cross may be made known and that the fullness of his love is manifested. In the end, the infinitude of blissful joy will reduce this momentary affliction to tiny speck that isn't even worth considering!" This seems to be William Lane Craig's position as I hear this kind of reasoning in many of his debates. However, I would posit a world in which God gives us super-intellect so that we become super empathetic or that we become super aware so that we can think thoroughly about sins and sufferings without limited vision in its consequences and by doing so, we would always 'freely choose' what is right. If this is the case, this is not the best of all possible world and therefore, God in his infinite wisdom could've created a better world with reduce amount of sins or even no sins at all.

    Anyways, this post is long enough. I'm curious to what are you thoughts on it. You're somebody I highly respect and it would be good to have an opinion from you.

  3. Carmel says:

    I would suggest that the world you would posit is the one you are living in. You speak about this less-than-perfect world as if God created it exactly as it is right now. But remember that the world began billions of years ago, and it looked a lot different then to what it does now. When God rested, He wasn't done. The world may have been 'good' but it wasn't perfect. It's a work in progress, and so is humanity. This super-intellect, super empathy and super awareness you speak of I would suggest He has already given to us (in His likeness), but it takes time to develop that kind of potential. We have had to gain so much in knowledge, in wisdom and understanding about this world and every living thing in it, including ourselves. That takes literally thousands of years. It also takes a mentor who can show us the way (if only we listen).
    If we make use of what we have gained to 'think thoroughly' about the choices we make with guidance from one without limited vision in their consequences, then maybe we would 'freely choose what is right' more often, and then help to 'create a better world with a reduced amount of sins or even no sins at all'.
    The more I learn, the more I believe that we're generally heading in the right direction.

  4. willie says:


    “The world may have been 'good' but it wasn't perfect. It's a work in progress, and so is humanity.”

    Exactly. Progress would have been much further down the road in creating 'heaven on earth' , the expression of a material world with godlike features, was it not for the Adamic default. The road to perfection is the ultimate goal of God (“Be perfect even as I am perfect”), be it the individual or humanity/mankind/the whole. Humanity is endowed by ability and will to be co- creator towards this goal.
    Embedded in Christianity lies the cocoon (the teachings of Jesus) waiting to act as the catalyst in transforming mankind into “a kingdom of God/Heaven/ Life on this planet earth" where the Father's will, will truly be done, as in heaven.

  5. Carmel says:

    Hi Aron,
    In thinking about free will, I wonder if we can imagine the logical possibilities of our world without it, as a way towards a closer understanding of God's will or His ultimate plan.
    Firstly I should point out my own understanding of free will, rather simply, as an awareness of choices other than evolutionary instinct.
    So, given what we currently know and understand about the natural world, about biology, evolution and the laws of physics (and I'm going to need your help here because my grasp of science and especially physics is comparatively limited), if we hypothetically took the world back to when it was 'good' (ie. before Adam), and then allowed it to proceed without Adam (that is, without humans and their capacity for abstract thought, self awareness, awareness of God, or free will), I wonder if this world could ever logically reach a stable and sustainable 'perfection'?
    Or perhaps we should keep humans and their super intellect in the picture but simply remove any awareness of God and/or awareness of choices other than evolutionary instinct? Would the world be able to reach a point of stability, or would it descend ultimately towards self destruction?

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for you comment. I don't think the existence of free will is a complete explanation of why God allows evil in the world, but I would say it forms a partial explanation. That is, there are some evils which are explained by it, but not all. Free will is not the only good thing in the universe. If it were, one would expect the world to be optimized to maximize the amount of free will in it, but that's not what we see (or, for that matter, what the Scriptures say about the human condition--Jesus and St. Paul talk about people being enslaved by sin, and becoming free only in becoming adopted as sons of God.).

    God valuing free will may not fully explain all of the evil in the world, but of course it does explain why there is free will! That is the question I was trying to answer in the original post.

    In response to your first objection, I would distinguish between the existence of a capacity for free will, and the meaningful excercise of that power. A prisoner has as much power of free will just as much as a free person, but the domains in which they are allowed to excercise that capacity are curtailed compared to everyone else. Just as, if you are sitting in a pitch black room, you still have the power of sight, but nothing particularly interesting or worthwhile to see. A person whose only available choices in life were whether to have chicken or beef for lunch would have some excercise of their free will, but they would be much less of a free individual than somebody who had the choice to meaningfully influence the world around them, choosing between good and evil. When we say that God values free will, I think this is shorthand for saying that he values the meaningful excercise of free will, not just its mere existence.

    Thus, if God prevented all rapes from occurring by force (as opposed to mind control), the rapist would still have free will, but not the ability to (in this one respect) meaningfully excercise this choice. Certainly, if God prevented all immoral choices, we would not be free in the way that we are now. In order to be meaningfully free, we need the ability to make morally relevant choices, and at least in some cases to actually reap the consequences of those decisions. (If we knew in advance there would be no adverse consequences, the decision to act immorally would not really be a viable option.)

    But do we really want would-be-rapists to be able to meaningfully exercise the choice to rape? Wouldn't society be better if he didn't have it? The example of rape is particularly apt here since, by definition, rape involves taking away the ability of another person to meaningfully consent to an important activity. Thus it is hardly obvious that rape increases the amount of freedom in the world; since it curtails the freedom of the victim in a far more severe way than it increases the freedom of the perpetrator.

    In fact, it is not a good thing for the world to be set up so that rape is possible. That is why human beings have the responsibility to prevent rape (if necessary, by using force), and to deter and punish it should it nonetheless occur. Why then, does God not organize the world in a way that prevents rape?

    I think the answer is that he has delegated the responsibility for this task of government to human beings. So the question of freedom also takes place at one higher level up. God commands us to create a just society that prevents rape (among other things), but it is his will that it be prevented by human institutions, designed by fallible and limited people seeking justice in the world. He could have done it all himself, but apparently he thinks we should learn how to do it ourselves. It is this freedom, not just the freedom of the rapist, which is in question here.

    I do think that the ends justify the means, in the sense that when we understand the world well enough to know that doing some harmful thing will lead to more good in the long run, we ought to do that. For example, when a surgeon cuts somebody open in order to remove a cancer. Sometimes the only alternative to picking the lesser evil is to pick the greater evil, and that does not seem like something a moral being would do! The catch is that our understanding is limited, and we need to be careful and humble lest moral compromise lead to damage later down the road. People are always worrying that a consequentialist approach to ethics will lead to some sort of slippery-slope slide down to some dystopian future involving things like organ harvesting all the dissidents. But I would say that if consequentialism leads to bad consequences, then you aren't doing it right!

    What I want to say is that God permits the sins of evil people to advance the greater good---for example, if a rape victim uses his or her harrowing circumstances to freely identify with the victimhood of Christ and become a martyr for the cause of forgiveness and justice, leading other rapists to repent and other victims to be healed---without therefore implying that we should "sin so that grace may increase", or that we as a society have no obligation to prevent such injustices. God has the wisdom to bring good out of evil, but we humans have to act according to our own limited sense of justice and mercy in the here-and-now, and trust God to take care of the big picture, in which every wrong will eventually be righted by divine power.

    With respect to your last point, I agree with Sts. Carmel and willie that God is producing a world of smart, super-empathetic people (his saints), he's just doing it the slow and hard way. What is the clay to say to the potter, why are you making me in this way? So "let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Gal 6:9).

  7. Aron Wall says:

    It's obviously pretty speculative to wind the clock back to before the origins of human beings and then ask what "would have happened" had human life as we know it not evolved.

    We do know enough about the history of life on earth to know that there were things like death and carnivorousness and parasites and disease, and sometimes mass extinctions, for a long time before human-like creatures came along. So everything was not completely "perfect" for the lives of animals before the Fall. In the absence of intelligent life, I suppose there would have continued to be a bunch of plants and animals doing plant and animal things, until finally the planet became uninhabitable. (If for no other reason, after the sun runs out of fuel and becomes a red giant star... In the long run, absent divine intervention, the 2nd law of thermodynamics dooms us all, whether or not there are intelligent beings.)

    We human beings have a commission from God to be caretakers of our planet, and garden it until it becomes a more perfect image of the kingdom of heaven. Unfortunately, our fall from grace means that for now, the more urgent task is reconciling ourselves and other human beings to God through the work of Christ. But we should also try to mitigate the ecological catastrophes and exitinctions currently being caused by our abuse of the planet's resources.

    I am not sure it makes sense to imagine a being with the intelligence of humans but not the awareness of choices besides those given by instinct. What would be the point of having intelligence, if you couldn't even imagine making choices different from instinct?

    I can certainly imagine human beings with no awareness of God, since such people seem to actually exist. However, we know that in reality such people are in relationship to God whether they acknowledge it or not. Even the most savage and depraved cultures retain the broken image of God.

    In the absence of divine grace and help, fallen human history is bound to be a continual progression of oppression and tyranny. There are of course atheists with a sense of morality (which also comes from God), but I think you are asking about a world in which people like that don't exist either, but there is still a race of hominids (I am not sure we should call them humans) with technology and politics and so on. I see no reason to believe it would end well. It might be better for God to wipe them off the face of the earth before they could do any more harm!

  8. Duc says:


    I really appreciate your well thought out response. And just to clarify, I asked these question not in doubt but in the word of Anselm, "Faith seeking understanding". I am a believer and follower of Christ. One of the hardest thing for me to understand though is how to reconcile the amount of evil in the world and God's work in the world. There's just simply so much evil in the world. While we do witness moral improvements, as well increased knowledge of God in recent time, we are still plagued with 2 world wars, and countless of atrocities that are still happening today. This is really troublesome to the heart and soul. My questions really arise out of a deep lament for all the things I hear in the news. As Walter Brueggemann stated in his article The Costly Loss of Lament, "A community of faith which negates laments soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise." With that said, let me lament a little more...

    I totally agree with you that the meaningful exercise of our free will is what God actually want. However, how do you propose we reconcile to the idea that God has a plan and therefore, created a world which has all the right conditions so that we would freely act according to his plan? Do we really meaningfully exercise our free will in this case? If that is the case that God is omniscient and that He does indeed have a plan, could his plan not include creating a possible world in which evil is possible but not actualized because all the condition are set so that it maximized knowledge and love for God as well as minimized evil? So what I'm suggesting is that He doesn't have to intervene personally in stopping rapes from happening but merely created the initial condition just right so that people naturally wouldn't rape (He knows all the variable and therefore can create an environment where people can be tempted to rape but not actualizing it).

    By doing this, I believe we can still be free, make meaningful moral choices, and at the same time committing far less evil (or even not committing any evil at all). But is it possible to create such a world? I don't see why not at all. It is not logically contradictory to create free creatures that would always choose good freely (given the right condition). There's no escape from omniscient. God knows everything beforehand and cannot escape being biased toward creation. Creation always has a goal and God created with this goal in mind and set the initial conditions so that his goal will be accomplished. So it seems to be if the goal is to create free creature who would freely choose to love, worship, and adorn him and each other maximally, there doesn't seem to be a contradiction to set up a world with all the right conditions to foster the development of that kind of creature without evil being involved. Because whether we like it or not, we only exercise the free will in the condition we find ourselves in (and that condition is set by God), whether it is the actual world or the possible world in which I'm advocating for.

    Secondly, I do agree with you that the end justifies the means on a cosmic scale. I do believe that it was a "good" thing that Christ died even though he died horribly. Yet, let's bring it down on a personal level. Is it fair from the perspective of the victim to suffer for a good that they may never experience? Let's take the case of rape for example again. You suggest that the woman use this horrible experience to exercise extreme moral goodness by forgiving the perpetrator and somehow win them over to repentance and reconciliation with Christ and this would be a worthwhile experience to go through. And I do agree with you that it would be if this was the case. But what if the woman becomes distraught, question the existence of God because of the trauma that was inflicted, close herself off to the goodness of God and died without turning to Christ? Let's say because of this event, 100 people somehow were saved 5 years down the road. However, the fact still remains that personally, the woman was lost because of this event and from her view it didn't seem fair that she had to suffer and died lost simply because 100 person were saved because of this event. It reminds me of the Holocaust victim that wrote, "Wenn es einen Gott gibt muß er mich um Verzeihung bitten" on the wall of the concentration camp. Translated it as, "If there is a God, He will have to beg for my forgiveness."
    For him personally, no amount of good was worthwhile to go through such atrocities. For me, God is a sovereign God with a plan but also a personal God filled with love... How can we reconcile his plan for all of humanity that includes permitting evil be done to a person for the shake of many and at the same time, be personally loving to the one that suffers? I have no idea.

    I can only hope that by voicing out these concerns that God, through the community of faith, would give me a glimpse at the reason in which He permits evil from happening. Even if no reason is given (as in the case of Job), I hope to sit among friends who share in the laments and wait for the day "when He appears, and we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is." (1 John 3:2)

  9. Duc says:

    Camel and willie,

    Thank you for responding to my comment. I do agree with you that the Christian hope is the in-breaking of God's kingdom in the here and now. And indeed there is abundance of evident that confirm that He is still working in the world and for its sake. However, I do think that Scripture also mentions that corruptions and evils will rule in the last days. In fact, the world will be so corrupt in the last days that it would perish if not for Christ's imminent return (I'm not advocating a pre-tribulation view or anything of the sort but I think most eschatological views adhere to this).

    I guess I don't really have a problem with evil being done to Christians (because I feel like we should expect the world will revel itself in hating godliness in any form). First, I think that we have the greatest hope and I agrees with St. Paul when he said "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving us eternal glory that far outweighs them all." (2 Cor 4:17) Second, I think Christians, who follows in Christ's examples, can have their sufferings redeemed for a greater good (namely, character development). We can learn to forgive the evil that's been done to us and we can learn to empathize with those suffers and there's tremendous value in doing so.

    However, I do have a huge problem in trying to understand sufferings when no apparent good comes out of it for the victim (i.e non believers whose heart are hardened by evil or believers who suffered so much that the trauma causes them to turn away from God). You can refer to my reply to Aron's comment for more details.

    All in all though, I know that our God is a redeemer and that He will redeems all the evil and wrong-doing that the world experienced. We see this in the cross and we will see this when Christ returns. My contention is that it would be nice to have some sort of satisfying intellectual answers to some of the possible reasons as to why God would allow these type of evil and suffering to persist in the meantime.

  10. Carmel says:

    Our free will doesn't just give us the ability to act freely, but also the freedom to think freely, and find ways to transcend the limitations placed on us. A prisoner, therefore, has the ability to think beyond the walls of his cell, and also to find ways to reach beyond those walls to continue to have an effect on the world. This ability and scope is increased when he believes in something/someone that transcends all limitations and can therefore connect him to the world beyond his cell. The physical limitations placed on him therefore, are hardly limitations at all, are they?

    Everyone is subject to circumstances beyond their control. We can't choose where we were born, into what family, religion, culture or political regime. We can't choose the many experiences, good and bad, that contribute to how we make sense of the world. What we can choose is how we think at any point in our life, how we act and what we say. Our capacity for abstract and creative thought and our awareness of and ability to interact with a God who transcends all limitations gives each of us the 'freedom' to accomplish anything we put our mind to. Those who choose to act without God feel limited necessarily by the many physical, political, cultural and even religious boundaries that exist in our world.

    A person who is the victim of rape has been subjected to terrible circumstances that can have devastating effects - ie.
    " the woman becomes distraught, question the existence of God because of the trauma that was inflicted, close herself off to the goodness of God and died without turning to Christ."
    But she still has free will, and therefore the ability to choose how she thinks and acts in these circumstances and what she does with her life from this point on. Like the prisoner, that freedom has not been taken from her. As someone who has been a victim of abuse, I agree the path back to God from this point is rarely an easy one. It took me over twenty years, but I know now that He was with me every step of the way whether I acknowledged it or not, and that where I am now in terms of my ability and desire to do His will actually, surprisingly, does justify the means.

    The person who commits rape on the other hand has likely made a number of poor choices in his thoughts as well as his deeds that have led him to this point, as well as being subject to a number of circumstances that all led him to perhaps think that raping a particular woman was the most effective choice for his own selfish ends. That's extremely sad and distressing, but I would hazard to say it is not entirely unredeemable. It would take the unconditional love and courage of at least one or perhaps many saints active in his life to help repair the damage to his soul, and it would take him choosing to listen and accept God's help and then asking for forgiveness - it may even take the intervention of science, medicine or psychology, law enforcement, the penal system, or the malicious act of someone else, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible.

    God's plan is insanely complicated to involve every tiny choice made by trillions of people across countless generations so that humanity as a whole can grow in wisdom, understanding and knowledge about who we are, why we act with fear, hatred and divisiveness towards each other and how we can overcome it to follow Jesus' example more closely, and work together towards a better world.

    Perhaps we should to stop thinking of evil as something 'out there' that we have to build limits to protect our righteous selves from, and start to accept that the potential for evil exists in every single tiny choice we all make inside our minds every second of every day, then I think we might start to understand the 'problem of evil' a little better.

  11. willie says:

    The issue regarding evil and suffering (and God).
    In an evolutionary imperfect order like ours, wisdom is the result of acquisition of knowledge/fact, synchronized by experiencing truth.
    In the process of acquisition of wisdom, it is not only possible, but likely to err/make mistakes. This is the nature of an order where material sentient beings, endowed with the power and freedom to choose between truth and error, operate. The error of evil then is likewise the measure of the imperfectness of obedience to the Father’s will.
    Thus, the repercussion of eliminating that freedom, means a sterile order with no potential in development of wisdom, nor the actualization of a god-like material realm.
    IMHO God took the risk and responsibility (the buck stops here) with His endeavour of creating an evolutionary order where the potential exist for matter to become god-like with sentient matter playing a role as co-creators in the divine plan.
    The divine plan is that the material world eventually reflects divinity.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for all the insightful comments, everyone.

    When faced with terrible circumstances, we have to get back to the Cross, where the sins of the whole world were atoned for. In principle, it covers every evil which has or will be committed, but God wants the effects of this redemption to unfold with time, at first gradually, and then suddenly when Christ appears. Eventually, every evil will be covered over and the whole universe remade, except for those who by their own voluntary choices choose to be excluded from forgiveness. In the meantime, we groan with all creation as we wait for the redemption of our bodies.

    What do we really want when we seek "satisfying intellectual answers"? Suppose that God gave a complete and total explanation for all evils right now, would it actually make life any easier to bear? I do not mean that we shouldn't seek intellectual answers, but maybe we are really asking for something that a purely intellectual analysis cannot provide. If what we want an emotionally satisfying answer, what if the answer cannot be understood on those terms until after we have built up our character through the experience of suffering?

    (For example, when an intellectually minded person has a romantic break-up, they naturally want to know exactly why it happened, but it's not like answering this question will bring the other person back. As they say, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.)

    Suffering is easier when we know that we are suffering alongside Christ, who makes us holy through that very suffering. As for the people who don't know or accept this, well God isn't done with them yet either. That is, I think, sufficient emotional satisfaction to bear whatever he gives us, if we are simple enough to accept it. Goodness knows I'm not always simple enough.

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