What is God’s Will?
Part II of II: His Permissive Will
Taking Up the Cross
Editor’s Note: In Part I, we looked at God’s indicative will. Today we will examine God’s permissive will. Here is the question we are studying:
Dear Father John, Since I came back to the Church, I recognize my mistakes in following God’s will for me. Now, I want nothing more than to do His will. But, I’m not really sure what it is. How do I know what is God’s will for me?
SEEKING AND FULFILLING God’s indicative will in our lives—his commandments, his inspirations, and the normal responsibilities that we have simply because we are members of a family, a workplace, a community, and a society—is our sure path to spiritual growth. It unites us to Christ, who made his Father’s will the overarching rule of his life, and thereby deepens more and more our intimate union and communion with God. And that is the source of our happiness.
God’s Permissive Will
But the phrase God’s will also touches another category of life-experience: suffering. Suffering, of one type or another, is our constant companion as we journey through this fallen world. God has revealed that suffering was not part of his original plan, but rather the offspring of original sin, which shattered the harmony of God’s creation. His indicative will to our first parents in the Garden of Eden was for them not to “eat the fruit of ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil'” (Genesis 2:17, RSV). They disobeyed. Human nature fell; creation fell; evil attained a certain predominance in the human condition, giving rise to “the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 403).
Here is where the distinction between God’s indicative and permissive will comes in. God did not desire or command Adam and Eve to rebel against his plan, but he did permit them to do so; he gave them a certain degree of freedom that made disobedience to his indicative will (moral evil) possible. Likewise, throughout human history, God does not will evil to happen, but he does permit it. He certainly didn’t explicitly will the Holocaust, for example, but, on the other hand, he certainly did permit it. His indicative will doesn’t lead to the abuse of innocent children, but his permissive will sometimes allow his free creatures to disobey his indicative will and commit such evils.
The question of why God permits some evil and the suffering that comes from it, even the suffering of innocents, is an extremely hard question to answer. Only the Christian faith as a whole gives a satisfactory response to it, a response that can gradually penetrate our hearts and minds through prayer, study, and the help of God’s grace.
St. Augustine’s short answer is worth mentioning, however. He wrote that if God permits evil, it is only because he knows he can bring out of that evil a greater good. We may not see that greater good right away; we may not see it at all during our earthly journey, in fact. But Christ’s resurrection (Easter Sunday) is the unbreakable and undying promise that God’s omnipotence and wisdom are never trumped by the apparent triumphs of evil and suffering (Good Friday).
Thus, only by faith can we begin to understand why obedience to God’s will also include accepting the painful things that he permits, trusting that in our Christ-centered response to them (which often involves resisting and correcting evils) we will be contributing to building up his eternal kingdom in our hearts and in the world.
Take Up Your Cross
In this context, we can brave a brief comment on the one condition that Jesus lays down for anyone who wants to follow him:
Then [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23–24)
Growing in love requires self-denial, self-forgetfulness, self-giving. And in this fallen world, self-giving is often painful (in heaven it won’t be). It involves taking up the cross, just as Jesus took up his own cross in order to show the extent of his love for the Father and for us. The cross symbolizes the painful self-sacrifice that growing in love requires in this fallen world. If we truly desire to grow in loving God, to learn to love him with all our all, we will have to carry crosses.
The cross is suffering made fruitful through faith and love. When God’s indicative or permissive will in our life contradicts our natural preference (our self-centered, human will), we experience the cross. His will is like the vertical beam, and our natural preference is like the horizontal beam. When they are opposed, we are faced with a grace-filled opportunity. By choosing to accept God’s will when we would prefer something else, we exercise our faith, hope, and love more intensely than in any other possible situation. We show that we trust him, not because he fits into our limited, human calculations, but precisely because we believe and hope in his infinite wisdom, power, and goodness. That’s the supernatural virtue that unites us more fully to God, deepening our trust in him, the trust which is found at the heart of all interpersonal relationships. And when we exercise that virtue more intensely, it grows more quickly and surely, and our communion with God expands and deepens.
The High Road to Holiness
The Lord sends and permits crosses in our lives because he knows they are the high road to holiness when we live them in union with him, saturating them with faith, hope, and love. As Jesus explained to his twelve apostles, almost all of whom ended up dying martyrs’ deaths, he prunes the branches of his vine only so that those branches will bear more fruit:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. (John 15:1–2)
When we feel the pruning shears purifying our still-imperfect hearts, when we feel the weight of the cross pressing down on our limited minds and souls and strength, we know God is hard at work, and we can abandon ourselves to his care. It is then, above all, when we recognize that growth in love, holiness, and lasting happiness is only 1 percent up to us and 99 percent up to the Lord. And “therefore,” as St. Paul explained, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
It is through bearing our crosses with Christ that we enter into the indescribable experience of joy that comes with the Resurrection. For Jesus, the darkness and suffering of Good Friday blossomed into the brilliant light of Easter Sunday—as a medieval phrase put it:
per crucem ad lucem (through the cross to the light).
If we are in him, the same will be true for us.
Editor’s Note: This is the final excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read online.
Art: Bible of Lilienfeld, anonymous, 13th century, PD-US copyright expired; View of the Stara Gradiska concentration camp that was formerly an Austro-Hungarian fortress, 1942, *http://www.ushmm.org/photos/90/90183.jpg, United S; PD; Detail of Ninth Station, Jesus falls for the third time, Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, photographed by Berthold Werner, 24 September 2010, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported; Vine branch on the way “Algunder Waalweg”, Huberbe, 10 August 2012, CC; Resurrection of Christ, Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1875, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons; all Wikimedia Commons.