Hurricane Sandy has hit the shore and the damage it caused may be worse than was predicted. Property damage is now estimated to be in the billions; human suffering will be more difficult to measure. When a natural disaster such as this occurs, many thinking Christians will ask, “Why did God allow this?” The question assumes that God is essentially benevolent and loving, and therefore can’t or shouldn’t allow such bad things to happen. That they do, on an almost weekly basis somewhere, is disturbing to many Christian and non-Christian people.
In 1944, the Reverend Leslie D. Weatherhead, a British Methodist pastor and theologian, wrote a small book titled The Will of God. In this book, he set out to help Christians understand what is meant by the phrase, “God’s will” or “the will of God.” He believed that the problem was that the phrase is ambiguous and almost can’t help but create confusion. He used this example to make his point.
When a dear one dies, we call it "the will of God," though the measures we used to prevent death could hardly be called fighting against the will of God, and if they had been successful we should have thanked God with deep feeling that in the recovery of that dear one his will had been done. Similarly, when sadness, disease, and calamity overtake men they sometimes say with resignation, "God's will be done," when the opposite of his will has been done. When Jesus healed men's bodies and gladdened men's lives in Palestine, he was doing the will of God, not undoing or defeating it.
To help make sense of this term which can be used so differently, he posited that we could speak of God’s will in three different ways.
The intentional will of God is God’s ideal plan for his creation. God’s ideal plan would be that those who heard Jesus calling them into the Kingdom would respond and the Kingdom would be realized. “If the nation had understood and received his message, repented of its sins, and realized the Kingdom, the history of the world would be very different. Those who say that the crucifixion was the will of God should remember that it was the will of evil” people. Only in that circumstance was the cross the will of God. Since God’s ideal had not be realized, that is, creation’s redemption through Jesus’ life, then to assure redemption still was possible—God intent--the cross became necessary.
The circumstantial will of God is God’s plan within the framework of certain circumstances. Let’s suppose, Weatherhead suggests, that a father and son are planning the son’s career. Both are agreed the son will become an architect, a profession both believe will be fulfilling and give the son a sense of peace about his vocation. But, suppose a national crisis, such as a global war breaks out. The son determines he will join the military; the father, under these circumstances, is willing to support the son’s decision. He supports the decision because his son’s military service is something the son must do to feel fulfilled and at peace within the circumstances. The rejection of Jesus by the Jews of his time forcing the cross is another example. In both cases, however, the ultimate will of both father’s is done. So what is God’s ultimate will?
The ultimate will of God is the final realization of his purposes. “The Christian minister is continually confronted,[when visiting the sick] by the question as to whether the onset of disease is the will of God. The important answer is no. The will of God for [humankind] is perfect health. Other things being equal, God can use a body free from disease more effectively than a diseased body,” argues Weatherhead. So, why disease? It is the broken, natural order of things that existence isn’t perfect. Until the Kingdom is fully realized, this will continue to be so.
Weatherhead, at the end of Chapter 2 writes, “One final thought. If you say, ‘Well, it's a bit casual of God to allow these things to happen if they are not his intention,’ I agree that there is mystery there. It would be foolish to speak as if all the ways of God to [us] were clear. I should not like to give the impression that I could make a glib answer to any specific case of suffering that was brought to my notice.” He goes on to write that if a suffering child who is too young to put into words what he or she is feeling emotionally could think beyond his or years, the child might think, “There is much I don’t understand, but I know that my father both loves and cares.” In the same way, he writes, “There is much I cannot understand. There must be much that I cannot be made to understand until I have passed out of ‘childhood's’ stage. But because I know[God] through other means, and especially as revealed in Jesus, I know that although I cannot understand the answer to my questions, there is an answer, and in that I can rest content.”
Weatherhead offers this summary,
“If we can only trust where we cannot see, walking in the light we have--which is often very much like hanging on in the dark--if we do faithfully that which we see to be the will of God in the circumstances which evil thrusts upon us, we can rest our minds in the assurance that circumstances which God allows, reacted to in faith and trust and courage, can never defeat purposes which God ultimately wills. So doing, we shall wrest from life something big and splendid. We shall find peace in our own hearts. We shall achieve integrating in our own minds. We shall be able to serve our fellows with courage and joy.
Hope this offers some little help in facing this and other difficult situations where so much harm comes to God’s people. BTW, the book is still in print. A little dated, but worth a read.