The Unconventional Will of God

Eight lessons on walking the road not taken and swimming against the tide when it comes to obeying the will of God.

The Unconventional Will of God
Photo by Manikandan Annamalai / Unsplash

"Not my will, but your will be done" is the famous prayer of our Lord Jesus that we all parrot, but very few of us are sincerely willing to do it. Doing the will of God is costly and sacrificial, especially if it involves going against the conventions of this world. What if the Lord is calling you to do something that is not the expected convention of this world or even the accepted path of worldly church folks? How should a disciple stick to this path of obedience, often lonely, and swim against the tide?

One passage of Scripture that illustrates well this scenario is found in the book of Acts chapters 10 and 11, where Peter obeys the Lord and does something very unconventional. In these two chapters, we have the Lord transitioning the church into another fuller realization of the New Covenant which is distinct from the Old Covenant - the inclusion of Gentiles. Peter admits it to both the Lord and to his Gentile audience at Cornelius' house as to how unconventional and out of step with his normal Jewish behaviour it is to go to a Gentile house (Acts 10:14, 28). Yet out of his obedience to the Lord, he went, and the rest, as they say, is history. From this passage of Scripture, let us observe and meditate on eight lessons regarding how the Lord works when he calls us to do the unconventional will of God.

1. When the Lord initiated this episode, both Peter and Cornelius were involved in their daily discipline of prayer

Regarding Cornelius, we read that he was a devout man who "prayed to God continually" (Acts 10:2) and the angelic visitation happened when he was in his house and praying in the ninth hour of the day, i.e., 3 pm (Acts 10:3, 30). Regarding Peter, we find the Lord giving him the vision and the subsequent command of the Spirit when he went to pray during the sixth hour of the next day, i.e. 12 pm (Acts 10:9).  In other words, both these men, one a Jew and the other a Gentile, were disciplined and committed to daily and regular times of prayer. The traditional Jewish hours of prayer were maintained by both of them. More than a dead habit, it was a time of intimate fellowship with the Lord as revealed by the subsequent events of this episode.

The Lord initiates unconventional obedience with those who are obeying the Lord in matters already revealed to them. In other words, we are not talking here about people who rarely pray or fellowship with the Lord coming up with some ludicrous and subjective nonsense and labelling it as "radical Christianity." The Lord urges greater obedience only from men who are already obeying Him in daily and normative matters of the faith like a healthy prayer life. For it is through such daily disciplines the Lord moves His people to do the will of God, whether conventional or not.

2. Unknown to both Peter and Cornelius, the Lord was preparing the other side

In chapter 10, we read that Cornelius got a revelation from God to invite Peter. The next day, Peter gets a vision to go to Cornelius' house. When Peter arrived at Cornelius' house, Cornelius had invited his relatives and close friends (Acts 10:24) and he tells Peter, "We are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord" (Acts 10:33) suggesting their readiness to receive the preaching of Peter. Without their knowledge, the Lord prepared Cornelius to invite Peter, Peter to go, and Cornelius' household to receive Peter's preaching of the gospel.

When the Lord initiates His plan, He works all aspects of it without our knowledge. He calls us to obey Him and as we make progress in swimming against the tide, He prepares even the other shore for us. Peter could have caved into his own fears regarding going into the house of a total stranger and a Gentile. Peter himself confesses he doesn't know why he is being invited by Cornelius or being sent by God (Acts 10:29). Despite his fears and ignorance, he says, he did not raise any objections and obeyed the Spirit of the Lord (Acts 10:29). Unknown to him, the Lord was working behind the scenes preparing a whole household to receive his preaching. Doing the will of God involves trusting the Lord with the unknown. All we can rest upon is the confidence that He who called us is faithful. All God expects from us is implicit obedience to His immediate command, not comprehensive knowledge of every detail concerning His whole plan.

3. At Cornelius' house, the Lord publicly intervened and validated His plan

Up until this story, all we have are two men doing certain things based on their subjective experiences with the Lord in private. However, as Peter preaches the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord pours out His Holy Spirit upon the Gentile household and publicly validates His plan of including the Gentiles in the church. Here we have the seal of divine approval that the heavenly vision Peter saw and the angelic revelation which Cornelius heard were not figments of their own imagination, but real objective communication from the Lord Himself. However, it came four days after Cornelius got the revelation and three days after Peter got the vision (Acts 10:30). In other words, there was a time period between the reception of the guidance from the Lord and the divine act vindicating that guidance. During that time period, doubts could have assailed Peter's mind regarding the propriety and lawfulness of what is being considered as the will of God. The Old Covenant with its dietary regulations for ceremonial cleanliness hindered Jews from associating with Gentiles or going to their homes. Genuine arguments, hence, could be raised by Peter to withdraw from this risky and unconventional thing the Lord was asking him to do. But once the Lord sends His Holy Spirit from heaven and approves the preaching of Peter in Cornelius' house, there is no more room for such doubts and scepticism.

When we embark on this journey to obey the unconventional will of God, be assured there is coming a day when it will no longer be known as a mere subjective matter we heard in prayer, but as the public work of the Lord whereby He has declared for all to see His ownership of this entire plan. All doubts and fears must bow down and acknowledge the Lord's hand.  It may have started with a revelation or a vision or a counsel from the Spirit in private, but today it is a public reality vindicated and validated by the hand of the Lord. None can now question whether it is indeed the will of God. None can stand against God (Acts 11:17).

4. When the Lord vindicated His will, He surprised Peter and his friends

Neither Peter nor Cornelius had any idea as to what the Lord was going to do when they met. Cornelius knew he should hear a message from Peter (Acts 10:22) which would save him and his household (Acts 11:13-14). Peter knew the Spirit was asking him to go without any doubt or hesitation (Acts 10:20) and started preaching the gospel after he reached Cornelius' house after learning from them why he was invited. However, neither Cornelius nor Peter was expecting the Lord to fill the Gentiles with the Holy Spirit. It was a surprise. Peter probably expected Cornelius to become a proselyte as there were many Gentile proselytes in Israel even during the Old Covenant. But there is no sign that he expected that Gentiles would be given the same Spirit as they received on the day of Pentecost (Acts. 11:15, Acts 10:44-46). Amazement filled the hearts of Peter and his Jewish believers with him (Acts 10:45).

Here we have something that is so typical of our Lord. When He calls us to obey Him, He hides certain exciting details of what is awaiting us at the end of the journey when He completes His will. Hence Paul says our God is a God who does all things "far more abundantly than what we ask or think" (Eph.3:20). They that pay the price to obey the will of God get to taste such amazing, exceeding, surpassing and surprising grace of God.

5. Peter was criticised for his obedience to the will of God

Not all joined in the amazement and joy over Peter's unconventional plan to go to a Gentile. We read that apostles in Jerusalem and Jewish believers in Judea took issue with him (Acts 11:1).  They had in mind the Old Covenant stipulation to be ceremonially clean and argued that by associating with the uncircumcised, Peter had in fact violated Scriptural boundaries.

Even today, it is very possible that when someone endeavours to obey the Lord against the accepted norms and conventions of the world or the church, they will be met with criticism from others. Some will even quote Scripture and misapply it to prove that the path one is embarking on is not the will of God, but sheer disobedience. However, as in our passage, Peter was only obeying the Lord's word and he was in no way violating Scripture. It is true that under the Old Covenant Jews should be careful to maintain their ceremonial cleanliness. However, the New Covenant has no such stipulation and the people who criticised Peter did not understand the transitory phase in which they lived. As the author of Hebrews says, the Old Covenant with its external temple and ceremonial law is obsolete and was soon going to vanish away (Heb. 8:13). Thus this circumcision party that criticised Peter was clearly misapplying Scripture to find fault with him. Our adversary, the Devil, is a master when it comes to twisting Scripture in order to hinder obedience to the will of God. So when we are called by the Lord to obey His will, especially His unconventional will, be expectant of criticism from others who even might misquote Scripture to dissuade us from obeying the Lord.

6. Peter boldly testified the work of the Lord and it silenced all criticism

When the Jewish brethren took issue with Peter, we read that Peter began to give an orderly sequence of events concerning his obedience (Acts 11:4). He begins with the vision he received in prayer, then the counsel he heard from the Spirit, and the angelic visitation of Cornelius as leading him to go and preach in Cornelius' house. If he had stopped at this point, Jewish men could have argued that Peter was deceived by subjective experiences to go against the clear directions of Scripture. However, as we already noted, the story does not end there. Peter in his orderly account then speaks of how the Lord publicly poured out the Holy Spirit upon these Gentiles. With this one divine act, all accusations and criticism are silenced. As Peter argues, "If God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?" (Acts 11:17). In other words, if God does not consider these Gentiles as unclean to even give His most Holy Spirit, then who are we to call them unholy? Now, the matter at hand is no longer some subjective experiences of Peter and Cornelius, but as Peter says, it is  "God's way". Call it unconventional or improper, this is His will and His way of doing things. Hence we read that all men became quiet (Acts 11:18).

When we are also confronting criticism for our obedience to the unconventional will of God, be ready to boldly testify the work of God, the divine vindication by which the Lord has proclaimed His ownership of His will. Be assured that He will silence all mouths when we boldly testify His work of vindication. In fact, we read that the same mouths that criticised Peter were changed by the Lord to glorify God for His ways (Acts 11:18). Church history is full of men and women who obeyed the Lord against the norms of their time at the cost of much dishonour, but later on, have been heralded by the same world as heroes of the church. The Lord silences all mouths full of criticism against His obedient men and in due course of time has caused rather Him to be praised on account of such men.

7. Peter did not embark on this journey of obedience all alone

In his defence before the Jewish men, Peter says he went to Cornelius' house along with six other Jewish brothers (Acts 11:12). Although the Spirit told Peter alone in private to go and the invitation from Cornelius was specifically for Peter to come, he was wise to include six other men with him. Later in Jerusalem, when Peter makes this defence, these men are eyewitnesses of all things Peter testifies as having happened in Cornelius' house. Everything Peter experienced at Cornelius' house, he experienced them with these six men. Hence no one can question the credibility of Peter's testimony.

When we embark on this journey of obeying the Lord's will, it is wise to include a handful of faithful men to walk alongside us. This company of intercessors, mentors, and close friends would be a great asset in this journey. They could pray with us regularly, keep us accountable to the will of God, encourage us, and defend us when criticism comes our way. When God calls us to do the unconventional will of God, don't do it alone.

8. Peter's obedience became an example for others to obey the will of God

Immediately following this account of Peter's defence, we read in Acts 11 about believers scattered from Jerusalem going to many places, but preaching the gospel to the Jews only (Acts 11:19). However, we read that some men of this same group upon reaching Antioch decided to change and preach to the Gentiles also (Acts 11:20). What happened between these two verses for these men to change their mind? Though the reason is not explicitly stated, it is fair to deduce that these men must have heard about Peter going to Cornelius' house and his eventual vindication before the Jerusalem brethren. There is no other possible and satisfactory explanation for why the same group of men who up until that time preached the gospel only to the Jews suddenly when they reached Antioch decided to include the Gentiles also. In fact, Luke begins verse 19 to start this passage on the planting of the church in Antioch with the participle οὖν (therefore) expressing a consequence of verse 18 which says Jewish believers rejoiced in Gentile inclusion by God in the New Covenant. So we here find a group of Jewish men scattered from Jerusalem now imitating Peter's obedience to the unconventional will of God.

When we also obey the will of God, we need to remember God has a plan to make us an example for others to follow suit. Even though it all began as a subjective experience in the private prayer of Peter, God had a wider mission in mind. Every time God calls us to obey Him in our personal walk with Him, He always has a mission to reach more people in mind. The Lord does not desire the obedience and glory He wants to accomplish in our personal walk to be confined just to our lives alone but rather wants us to become a pattern that others can imitate. When God wants to destroy unbiblical and worldly conventions and customs that have crept into the church, He begins with one man to go against all such conventions and make him a pattern for the next generation to obey. Today, no one in the church loses their sleep even for a second over Gentile inclusion in the church. Through Peter's example and the imitation of it by the men who planted the church in Antioch, and the apostolic missions from that same church in Antioch through the labours of Paul and others, what was once so unconventional - Gentile inclusion - has become so normative today. Could it be possible that the Lord is desiring to make a drastic change in the obedience of the church, breaking its shackles to set it free from worldliness, by asking you to walk the unconventional path of His will in some area? Would you be that one man or woman daring enough to stand alone if need be in this generation for the will of God so that one day many will follow suit and the church will rise to a new day where this aspect of God's will has become so normative in the church? Would you join hands with God to be that prototype of obedience, that example, that pattern, that mould He could use to change His church radically? When He calls you to obey His unconventional will, He has a global mission in mind.

In conclusion, let us remember the eight lessons we learned when it comes to obeying God's unconventional will.

1. Maintain spiritual disciplines on a daily basis
2. The Lord will prepare the other shore as we swim against the tide
‌3. The Lord will publicly intervene and validate His plan
‌4. Divine vindication will be full of surprises
‌5. Expect criticism from others even using Scripture against us.
‌6. Boldly testify God's work by which He has vindicated His will and He will silence all mouths.
‌7. Do not do it alone, but with a small group who can defend your credibility.
‌8. God has a wider mission in mind to change the church by influencing a   generation that follows your example in obeying His will.