Is it okay to say “God willing?” When should I say it? Or am I supposed to say “Lord willing” like it says in James 4:15? Or is that just an attitude of heart, and it doesn’t matter if I actually say it? Also, where do the letters “D.V.” come from, which people sometimes write in place of “God willing?”
Good questions! The pattern of saying “Lord willing” or “God willing” is an area of Scripture that has very little direct text. You referenced James 4:15, which is the only passage I can think of that directly speaks to this question. For context, the passage reads:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin”.James 4:13-17
Let us review that passage for a minute, then look for the general principle in other Scriptures.
The Instruction We Are Given
First point: the book of James is a plainly spoken, “live it out in your practical life and don’t be a hypocrite” kind of book. When James gives an instruction for action, it is usually best to look for a direct application and simple symbolism.1
Second, who is the focus of this instruction? It is anyone making plans, whether near term (“today”) or long term (“tomorrow”). Okay, what kind of plans? According to these verses, it might include moving to a new place, a duration of time I hope to be there, and finding a job or starting a business. In other words, all the normal activities as you and I try to make lives for ourselves.
Next, why can this be a problem? It is because we don’t really know what will happen in the future, and our entire lives are just puffs of smoke compared to the scale of God’s plans. Finally, what is the outcome? It may lead to boasting and arrogance. It may even result in knowing that I need to do something different for God’s ultimate honor and glory, yet failing to do so – which is sin (v.17).2
Here is what James does NOT say: that it is wrong to make plans! We need plans, but we need to submit them to the Lord, since He might change them. I think we really should say “Lord willing,” because that’s what James instructs us to do. Why is that? Perhaps because God knows that we are weak creatures. Good habits serve as necessary reminders in a busy life.
Perhaps the greatest of these practical reminders is summarized in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Our Lord gave us the simple eating of bread and drinking of wine as a remembrance (vv.24-25) of His body and blood given up in sacrifice. We see from reading in Acts that the apostles and early Christians honored this tradition daily at first, then settled upon doing it on the first day of the week. It is a “remembrance” for us; and it is a “showing forth” to others, which serves as a reminder to them. We are doing something important to the Lord! They are missing out on an important relationship! Remember!
So, we need reminders to help reinforce things that we are likely to forget, and saying “Lord willing” when we make plans is one of those reminders. However, everything in our lives arises from an attitude of heart, whether good or bad. To say the words without meaning them is an empty ritual. The two sides – inward attitude, and outward actions – must go hand in hand (compare Luke 6:43-49).
The Instruction Neither Given Nor Prohibited
Now then, what about “God willing” and “D.V.”? Should we use these terms to express the same thought? I want to be careful not to give a legal opinion, because we don’t have a lot of direct text in Scripture. But the following discussion might help.
Assuming I didn’t miss anything, I find the phrase “God willing” or “if God wills” (depending on the translation) just once in the New Testament, in Acts 18:21. Unlike James 4, where there is a direct instruction, “God willing” was spoken by Paul in a conversation. At that time, Paul was preaching among Jews and practicing Jewish customs in order to appeal to unbelieving Jews. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews” (1 Corinthians 9:20). Paul’s unbelieving Jewish audience would not grasp that Jesus is Lord, since they had already rejected Him as their Messiah. They could at least understand the idea of God’s will.3 Later, in Acts 21, when there was disagreement among Christian brothers (many of whom were believing Jews) about Paul’s future travel plans, we read, “since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, ‘Let the will of the Lord be done’ ” (Acts 21:14).
A related phrase, “the will of God,” does appear throughout the New Testament, especially when Paul expressly introduces himself as an apostle. About half of his letters begin with a statement similar to 1 Corinthians 1:1: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” The phrase also appears when Paul describes other sovereign actions of God that are beyond question, such as in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:18.
Of course, any true Christian should readily acknowledge the sovereign will of God. But I believe this does not describe the personal way in which the Lord’s will directs our activities, if we are willingly subject to His leading. That “if” is important. In His permissive will He may allow you to pursue a plan that is not according to His directive will, so that you can learn the futility of pursuing your own plans and ideas.4 You will experience God’s will regardless, but you may sometimes miss the benefits of being in the Lord’s directive will. Also, you could examine the life of Peter for several examples. He had to learn to trust in the Lord’s personal, directive will for his walk and ministry before he could be properly useful.
To finish answering your question: the expression “D.V.” is from the Latin phrase “Deo Volente,” meaning “God willing,” and is sometimes used to replace “God willing” or “Lord willing” in written correspondence. Perhaps there are times where that is appropriate; but for reaching a large audience, my opinion is that the principle underlying 1 Corinthians 14:19 and v.28 is worth considering. When following a Scriptural instruction, is it good to use a foreign word or expression that may cause confusion for some, if the word of God directs us to a plain phrase that can be understood by everyone?
Wrapping it up…
I believe that acknowledging “God’s will” is not unique to true Christian believers. Millions of Jews and Muslims do the same, for example, and even use Old Testament passages to justify their belief. But they do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord. James 2:19 comments on a related point: even the demons believe that God is One and it frightens them. Business contracts, especially in older times, sometimes refer to “acts of God” to indicate that nobody controls the weather. Unbelievers sometimes curse the will of God when they see the effects of sin on earth, because they want to avoid taking personal responsibility as sinners.
In contrast, to acknowledge Jesus as Lord requires the unique enabling of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), and it follows that nobody can genuinely acknowledge “the Lord’s will” except by the same path. Finally, in Philippians 2:9-11, we see that everyone on earth will someday be compelled to acknowledge “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” There is something special about that title “Lord” which goes beyond a mere nod to Jesus’ divine rights. For us who believe now, the Lord is a personal reality! For everyone else, that bowing will be mandatory.
I hope that helps with your question. I can’t present a final rule on “Lord willing” versus “God willing,” because as far as I can tell, God’s word doesn’t give us one. However, to openly bring the will of our Lord to bear upon our plans, is definitely a Scriptural instruction. It’s generally safe to stay close to Scripture in what we say and do. Do you acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord? Does James 4:15 provide a useful instruction? Would you then have any reason not to follow the instruction as it is written? Let me just leave it at that, and may the will of our God and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, direct your future actions.
To all my readers today: Thanks for joining me in this challenging discussion. The team at Patterns of Truth wants to hear your thoughts, comments, and criticisms in the discussion forum below this article. Tell us what you think!
1. That being said, it is also possible to be too literal when reading the book of James. We should always use wisdom for instructions that are commented upon by other Scriptures. For example, see James 5:14-16, then ask: Should we anoint a sick person’s head with oil? Some people do take this literally, but it helps to know that “anointing with oil” appears several times in Scripture as a standard practice for hospitality. The oil would refresh a guest after they had been walking from place to place in the desert climate (compare Luke 7:40-46). Symbolically, oil often represents the Holy Spirit. In that light, “anointing with oil” could be seen as provision for the sick believer’s refreshment, both physical and spiritual. For example, food and medicine for the body; companionship, scripture, hymns, and prayer for ministering to the soul and spirit.
2. Years ago, I was offered a job near San Jose, California. I live in Colorado. After an exploratory phone call with a brother in Christ in northern California, I concluded the business location and wage I was offered would require me to live more than an hour from the business, and more than an hour from the local assembly (church) where I could find immediate fellowship. It looked bad but I was conflicted, since I desperately needed a job. But with prayer I turned it down, stayed in Colorado, and worked in several temporary positions before finally receiving and accepting a local job offer. A few years afterward, the company in California went through a tumultuous bankruptcy and reorganization, and the CEO was later indicted for financial fraud! Meanwhile, I still work at my Colorado job nearly 15 years hence. The Lord’s will is not always obvious from circumstances, but it is always sufficient for one more day. That’s my story; it may not be your story, but hopefully it provides encouragement!
3. Today, Christians from Arabic-speaking countries sometimes say “God willing,” possibly because it is a phrase their Muslim family members or neighbors might understand. Muslims acknowledge the God of Abraham at a surface level, but do not believe in the trinity. As such, they generally will not recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as the true Son of God unless they first hear and receive the testimony of Scripture regarding the true God.
4. The permissive will and directive will of God would be material for an entire series, but in short, there are things God allows (permits) to take place that do not hinder His general plans, and there are things He directs that fulfill His plan in the best possible way.