Pastoral Perspectives

Discerning God’s Will

The year (2009) began for me with a talk on Discerning God’s Will at YAM. I guess this is one of those topics that are of interest to many in the congregation. So allow me to briefly share something presented in the talk in order to highlight one key thing that most of us probably struggle with. It is widely accepted that God’s will may be categorized into his general will and his permissive or providential will. There are different ways to present these two. Allow me to give you my version.

First and upmost, God’s general will refers to his eternal counsel that he has put forth and which cannot be foiled by others. It culminates in the revelation of Jesus Christ as the only way by which man can come back to him. God’s general will can also describe his desire, e.g. “it was not his will to destroy you” (Deut 10:10), “It was the Lord’s will for him (i.e. Christ) to suffer” (Isaiah 53:10) and so Christ in the garden prayed, “Not my will but yours.” Paul writes, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified, that you should avoid sexual immorality…” (1 Thess. 4:3). These are things that God desires and so general will are God-centered, given in the indicative form and for us to know or follow.

Permissive will refers to his provision to satisfy man’s desires. For example, when King David said to Israel, “If it seems good to you, and it is the will of the Lord, let us send word far and wide to the rest of our brothers… to come and join us” (1 Chronicles 13:2) and when Paul said to the Ephesians, “I will come back if it is God’s will” (Acts 18:21), both David and Paul were not sure how events would unfold and if it did turn out the way they desired, then it was the sovereign God’s permissive will that allowed it to happen. So God’s permissive will is centered on man’s desire but dependent on God’s permission. They are often given in the subjunctive or conditional form.

Permissive will however takes on a different perspective when man’s desire is secondary and he wants to fulfill God’s desire first, like Moses judging the cases brought to him (Exodus 18:13-16). I guess it is here that we are really interested in when we talk about discerning God’s will, i.e. we want divine help on making specific choices, like which university to go to, which company to work for and who to marry. So is there a program or mechanism given in the Bible that offers us a way to seek God’s will in specific circumstances, like saying a special prayer, casting a special lot or fleecing?

The answer can be found in Moses. He was able to judge and advise because he was a man of God who knew and was obedient to God’s law and desires. There is no short-cut. We need to know this God too and to obey what he has already commanded in his words. Else we cannot say that we want to know what his will is so that we may obey and satisfy his desire and not ours when we are already not doing what he has first made clear. Simply put, a life of discipleship will help us discern what his will is for whatever circumstances in our lives.   

Now allow me to focus on a question raised during the talk because I believe it is the same question many of you are also asking, i.e. how can I pray for the sick since I do not know what God’s will is for the person and I do not want to sound like having little faith? I guess you know what I am talking about. So how can we pray with wisdom and biblically? Allow me to give you the answer I gave to the person who raised it.

When we pray for the sick, are we asking for God’s general will or permissive will to be done? Permissive will is man-centered and expressing one’s heartfelt desire but recognizing the sovereignty of God. We do desire and pray for the person to be healed, if God is willing because we sincerely do not know his will and not because we have lack of faith. This is how we normally pray and it is biblical. Of course it will not sound powerful to others but the prayer is to and for God to hear. That is the important part. Else we are praying for the people to hear.

Yet on the other hand, if God should somehow impress upon us, whether through dreams or whatever means, that the person will be healed, then it becomes God’s general will and we should pray as God so desires. Woe to us if we still pray as if we do not know. So what if others think we are charismatic or out of our normal mind. The important thing is that we know God has spoken and we are now his spokesperson. The problem with the charismatic is that they always read into signs and dreams to support their claims that God has spoken to them.

Therefore, if we want to be true and biblical in our prayers for healing, submit to God’s authority and not fear how others might say about our prayers. If God keeps his silence, pray permissively to him what our heartfelt desires are and trust God to do what is best and according to his good timing. He is the sovereign Lord, not us. If God has indeed spoken, proclaim his words boldly in prayer as if we are his prophet of the day. This is my theology concerning prayers for healing. Whatever it is, we need to exercise discernment and be sensitive. If the sick is terminally ill but has peace and is ready to go, let us not be praying as if he is lacking faith in God and challenging him to believe and be healed unless we have God’s words. He probably has greater faith than us. We can and should still pray for miraculous healing if God is willing but let us exercise care with the words we use. At the end of the day we must be people of God with a desire to pray so that our theology of praying is truly a part of our spirituality.

First printed in Feb 2009.


Rev Ronnie Ang

October 4, 2020