This story came up in a recent class: a grieving someone was told at a funeral that their deceased loved one passed away because God willed it so. The cringe factor on this story is high. As Solomon once said, there is a proper time and season for everything. There is a time to have knotty doctrinal discussions about hard subjects, and there is a time to just give someone a hug.
But it's good for us Christians to understand what we're talking about when we say "the will of God." The Scripture uses that phrase in different ways. It's wise not to mash them up.
The Scripture speaks of God's commandments and promises as the "will" of God. For example, 1st Thessalonians 4:3 says, "This is the will of God, your sanctification." It is God's will that unbelievers come to Christ. Romans 12 lists a whole series of God's commandments about many matters. Theologians often call this God's "moral" will. They tell us what we should or could do.
Wisdom is a part of God's moral will. The Bible tells us to be wise (Proverbs 8:33). Biblical wisdom gives us more decision-making leeway. It's never okay to commit adultery. But choosing which college to attend, or what house to buy, or the best strategy to approach a difficult conversation, may allow more options.
We can make a list of pros and cons. There might be more than one acceptable choice. God promises to give us all the wisdom we need for these situations, in James 1:5.
God's "will" can also mean His preferences. Read Ezekiel 18. God's moral will was for Israel to repent. Otherwise God was going to inflict severe judgment on the nation. God draws no pleasure from the death of the wicked. We know from other passages (like the Parable of the Prodigal Son) that He draws great pleasure from repentance. Nevertheless, in spite of His preferences, He will pass judgment. Some theologians in past centuries called this God's will of "disposition."
Lastly, God's "will" can refer to His eternal plan. In Ephesians 1, Paul said that God works all things according to the "counsel of His will" (verse 11). Peter said that Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, did whatever God's hand and plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27-28).
Christ's death was no accident. Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Romans, and the unbelieving Israelites all played their parts. They did what they did out of their own reasoning. But God and His plan were in control. This is often called God's sovereign will.
The paradox here is that God includes human decisions in His eternal plan that, on the moral level, He condemns. God is morally against kidnapping. But He planned to use Joseph's kidnapping to save Jacob's family from famine (Genesis 50:20).
Or, in reverse, sometimes a person does the right thing, but God proceeds with His own plan. The priest Eli did the right thing to warn his wicked sons. But God hardened their already-rebelling hearts, because God had already decided to kill them (1 Samuel 2:1-25).
This is what I mean by being clear. The fact that God plans includes humanity's sins, and then He uses those sins in mysterious, paradoxical ways to bring about His secret plan, never means He causes or approves of sin.
There are at least two more errors to avoid. One is to say that God has nothing to do with bad things that happen. That's not true, God isn't a helpless by-stander in His own universe. The other error is to mix up God's moral, preferential, and eternal wills into one big lump.
A perfect example of this is the death and resurrection of Lazarus in John 11. Lazarus got sick and died because God planned for it to happen. Christ could have healed Lazarus from a distance; He chose not to. Christ deliberately waited extra days, so that Lazarus would definitely be dead by the time He got back.
Christ did this, even though He knew the emotional suffering this would causes Mary and Martha. Christ then reminded Martha of His moral will (meaning, His promises of everlasting life to those who trust in Him). Then, in spite of His sovereignty and knowledge, Christ still wept. This showed the disposition of His heart.
Every dimension of God's "wills" -- God's all-powerful sovereignty following through on the plan, spiritual teachings that call for response, and Christ's heart-sentiment -- can be found in this story.
Thank the Lord we're only responsible to know and follow what God has told us in His word, and to live wisely! God will take care of the secret plan by Himself!