Discerning God's positive and permissive will

Question: Which of the following events were God’s will? 

The Fall of man? The Crucifixion? The most recent car accident you were in? Last month’s breakup with your significant other? 

Answer: They were all God’s will … at least in a way. 

How’s that for clarity? 

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for short, simple answers to questions about what events are and are not God’s will, that’s often about as clear as they come. Frustrating though it may be, the answer to whether or not the great events and minor happenings in human history are divinely ordained is rarely simple. Usually, the answer hinges on what one means by divinely ordained. And to that there are two possible meanings. There’s God’s positive (or ideal) will and God’s permissive (or conditional) will. 

Understanding the distinctions between those two is important, and not just for theologians with proclivities for debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The distinctions matter to all Christians because of the very practical implications that flow from them — distinctions that, when properly understood, can help us know God, the world and ourselves better, leading us closer to him and closer to heaven. Or that, when misunderstood, can confuse us about God, the world and ourselves, leading us away from him and away from heaven. 

To prevent that from happening, let’s break out our Catholic lexicon and start defining. 

Divine definitions

First up, God’s positive (or ideal) will, which essentially means what God desires for us and the world. It’s what, in a perfect world, we would always do — loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s always good, never evil and leads those who do it along the straight and narrow path to righteousness, fulfillment and joy. 

Abraham
Abraham trusted God’s will. The Crosiers photo

Jim Gontis, director of religious education for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., explained, “Because God is infinitely good and has no evil within him, he can only will that which is good and holy.” 

That’s why events such as the Crucifixion can’t fall into the category of God’s ideal will. They can, however, be understood to be part of his permissive will, which broadly defined, is everything that happens in the world. 

“God’s permissive will is what he allows,” said Gontis. “If he didn’t allow it, it wouldn’t happen.” 

That’s true on multiple levels. 

On one level, God’s will is what holds the world and everyone and everything in it in existence. Each of us exist because God wills it. Each of us moves, thinks, breathes and acts because God wills it. As such, everything we do, for good and for ill, is made possible by God’s will. 

Of course, you and I get to make choices about how we move, think and act, because of a thing called free will. 

“God is omnipotent. He’s all powerful,” said Father Edward Connolly, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. “But, in a way, he decided to limit his own omnipotence, or limit the exercise of it, when he created angels and human beings. It was a profound decision on the part of God. He said, ‘I’m going to create beings who can freely defy me and freely love me.’” 

Unfortunately, we do choose to defy him. We choose to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We choose to crucify the Son of God. We choose to hate our neighbor, drive recklessly and run from responsibility and commitment. Those choices, time and again, thwart God’s ideal will. 

Again, however, the only reason we’re able to make such choices, is because God willed to give us free will. Man’s sinful choices and the consequences that flow from them, while not God’s ideal will, are still within God’s permissive will. 

In giving man free will, God didn’t wash his hands of his creation; rather he remains intimately involved in every decision his free creatures make. As such, the nature of God’s permissive will goes even beyond the gift of free will. 

Michael Sirilla, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, explained, “God doesn’t will sin. We can’t say that God makes people sin. But you also can’t say that somebody is committing a sin totally against God’s will, and God’s will has nothing to do with it. He permits it. He manages it. He doesn’t lose control over the whole universe. 

“He keeps sinners on a short leash,” he added, “channeling, guiding and directing sin so some greater good can come out of it.” 

Consequences for actions

So, to sum up. God’s positive will: What God wants. God’s permissive will: What God allows. 

And those distinctions matter because they determine how we feel about God. 

“We get angry with God for things that have little to do with God and a lot to do with us and our own bad choices,” said Father Connolly. “It’s like walking up to a stranger on the street and saying, ‘My shoes are too tight. I’m angry at you.’ We must stop blaming God for things he didn’t cause.” 

They also shape how we think about God. 

“If we don’t understand the consequences of free will, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of God as a cruel or arbitrary dictator, willing all sorts of bad things in the world, even sin,” said Gontis. “On the other hand, if we downplay his omnipotence and involvement in the decisions we make, he can become like the deist’s ‘watchmaker God,’ removed and inconsequential to what’s happening in the world.” 

That in turn, he added, can lead to a great deal of moral confusion about our obligations to self and others. 

“The deist sense of God can lead to people making their own moral laws,” he said. “If God sets everything in motion and says, ‘You take it from here,’ the conclusion is I can do what I want to do. Might makes right. 

“The other conception of God — God as an arbitrary dictator — can lead us to think of ourselves as puppets on the string. We can become passive about our responsibilities, even chalking our own sins up to ‘God’s will.’” 

Given all that, what is the proper response to questions about God’s will, suffering, grace and human choice? 

According to Sirilla, St. Augustine (or St. Ignatius, depending on whom you ask) may have had the best advice. 

“We’re told to pray like it all depends on God, and act like it all depends on us,” said Sirilla. “In other words, recognize that God’s will is sovereign, but then step out in confidence, avoiding sin, fulfilling the duties of your state in life, and meeting the needs of others as God presents them to you and prudence guides you.” 

In the end, he advised, it all comes down to trust — trusting that God is working out all things for our good. 

“Look to the saints who trusted against all odds,” he said. “Joseph gets sold into slavery. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son. Mary watches her son die on the cross. How painful and traumatic [those things] must have been for all of them. But they knew God, and although they knew they couldn’t see the fullness of his plan — where it was all leading — they trusted it was leading to some greater good, and they did their best to obey him in all things. We need to trust and do the same.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.