Thy Will be Done
The third petition of the Lords Prayer, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt 6:10), brings into sharp focus that God is the chief the concern of this prayer and not us. Three petitions exalting God come first: his name, his kingdom, his will are to be our preoccupation whenever we come before him. This, in itself, brings much of our praying into sharp relief, revealing our prayers to be ѕ too often ѕ self-centered, egotistic, turned in on what we think are our needs rather than Gods glory. The Lords Prayer criticizes our praying, saying: "Too often, you put yourself in the center forgetting that God may have something entirely different in mind for you." A failure to give God all the glory is at the heart of our sin-misshapen lives.
Trying to get a handle on what Gods will is can be difficult. Theologians, whilst insisting on the ultimate unity (or simplicity) of Gods will have talked about two wills in God. Some have distinguished between the necessary will (those which God has to do because of his nature) and the free will of God (those things which he wills but does not have to from any determination of his nature). Others have distinguished between the secret and revealed will of God, or the decretive and perceptive will of God. It reflects Deuteronomy 29:29: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law" (Deut 29:29).
Here the distinction reflects those things which God is determined to do but about which he may not disclose to us, and the way in which that will (or a part of it) is disclosed to us who live in space and time. We need not be detained by these distinctions here, except to see that in this third petition, there is a recognition that a part of Gods will is done on earth and another part in heaven. Ultimately, as the petition hints at, Gods will is one; there is no contradiction between what is true in heaven and what is revealed to us on earth, even though it may at times appear to us as though there may be. The third petition is primarily concerned with Gods revealed will.
Though this petition covers the totality of Gods will on earth, it will be helpful to focus on what that will may be as it concerns ourselves. In this case, Gods will brings us face to face with the issue of guidance: how can I know the will of God and follow it?
There is an interesting study which we can do. Take down any book written before the twentieth century and glance through its index to find what former preachers and teachers taught regarding guidance. The result of this study, you will find, is that our forefathers were not obsessed by the issue of guidance in the way we modern folk are. Look at conference schedules today and many will be geared to the issue of guidance. Modern Christians are confused about Gods will and its relation to their lives and are in constant need of help and reassurance. Why should we be so different from our forefathers here? Is it because our lives are far more complicated than theirs? Is it because we have far greater variety of employment opportunities than they did? Or, is it because of the importance we give to leisure, thus raising moral issues of complexity that would never have occurred to past generations. All these have some truth to them, no doubt, but they fail to grasp the essential reason for the relative silence of past Christians on the issue of guidance.
So, what is the reason? What it is not is any notion that suggests that previous generations of believers were any less concerned with doing the will of God than our own. If anything, and here we speak generally, they disclosed a far greater desire to be conformed to Gods ways than we are. The Puritans, for example, who seemed never to have preached on the subject of guidance in any form that we would now recognize, were so concerned to discover the application of Gods truth to the individual lives of Gods people that they were derogatorily called "precisionists"ѕ a charge which one Puritan, Richard Rogers, responded to by saying, "I serve a precise God!"
No, the answer to this conundrum does not lie in the desire for guidance, but in knowing how it can be ascertained. Modern Christians are confused as to how guidance comes to us. It is at the level of how the will of God may be discerned that the difference emerges. Past generations seemed to have an answer to this that seems hidden to many of us. This leads us to consider the following:
I. How can the will of God be known?
"Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land " Thus wrote William Williams, in the middle of the eighteenth century and thereby reflected the longing of every sensitive Christian heart. But, how can we know the will of God?
There are all kinds of answers that can be given here. Some think that the will of God can be discerned through impressions made upon the emotions, suggesting that one course of action is better than another. Usually, this leads to thoughts about Gods will in terms of what best pleases us. Others think they have direct lines of communication with God and are therefore the subjects of impressions (on mind or spirit) that enable them to speak with confidence about knowing what the will of God is for their lives. Others read into unusual events the voice of God directing them in one way or another. Others try to obliterate the confusing noises all around them by making their minds "blank" so that God may fill them. And many are just plain confused, unable to arrange the messages that come into anything that makes coherent sense: like "white noise" or static in radio signals, the messages do not seem to contain anything that is clearly perceptible. The problem seems to be one of trying to point satellite dishes in the right direction in order to pick the signals that God is sending. Some seem to have the picture clearly, or so they think; others do not.
But is guidance really this confusing? Does God intend for us to discern his will through a variety of impressions, urges, dreams and goadings of conscience? Is life really meant to be that subjective?
The answer here, as in everything else, has to do with how we view the Scriptures. Putting the Bible first will keep us from error in thinking and error in practice. Pauls view of Scripture, or rather, the Bibles view of itself, is this: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17). The goal of inspiration (or better, expiration, since this is the meaning of the word "God-breathed") is to instruct, convince, heal and equip us so that we might live the life God intends. It is Scripture that does this: Scripture read, Scripture preached, Scripture interpreted, Scripture applied, Scripture hidden within our hearts, Scripture lived out in our lives.
It is interesting that the Westminster Divines caught this whenever they came to write what was to be the first chapter of The Westminster Confession of Faith:
"The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture " (1:6)
The totality of faith and life is to be deduced from "the whole counsel of God set down in Scripture." There isnt an aspect of our lives that doesnt fall beneath the umbrella of what the Bible teaches. Gods will is to be discerned from the Scriptures, either expressly or by inference. "But wait a minute," I hear you say, "the Bible doesnt tell me which pair of shoes to put on in the morning, or who I am to marry, or whether I am to be a baker or a bricklayer, postman or physician!" True, it doesnt. At least, not in so many words. But, it does give us principles by which we are to make these decisions, that our lives are to be ordered according to set of rules that conform to the image of Jesus Christ. It does tell us to use our common sense, and seek the advice and fellowship of others, and heed the voice of conscience. What regularly goes for some subjective nudge, this way or that, when it boils down to it, is no more than a conscience which has been trained to recognize Gods way from the worlds way. "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it" (Isa 30:21). Yes, there are certain thingsѕ things we might call vocational issuesѕ in which guidance does not come as a Bible verse saying, "Walk this way " Many issues in life will involve using our best judgmentsѕ judgments which have been honed by constant contact with Scripture and its principles.
Discovering Gods will involve the following four things:
1. Asking what most glorifies God in any particular action and always choosing the best.
2. Studying Scripture to see what it has to say, either directly or by good and necessary consequence.
3. Using our minds and rational faculties: that is, employing the maxim of Psalm 32: "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you" (Psa 32:8-9). Too many errors come at this very point
4. Only having done these three things first should we then ask what "burdens" God may have placed on our hearts, or what providence may have "cornered" us into allowing no room but to go in a certain direction.
Several things need to be added to make this a more comprehensive plan of operation. We should, for example, always be patient when trying to ascertain the will of God. That God leads is a promise (e.g. Psa 25:9, "He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way"); but there is no promise that such guidance is always instantaneous. "Wait on the LORD " is the Bible constant refrain here (e.g. Psa 27:14; 37:34; Prov 20:22). Then again, we must always be prepared to discover that Gods will may be the opposite of what we desire. Our emotions are not a safe guide here and the wise Christian will not trust the voice that always speaks of ease and safety. That is why, by the way, it is never wrong, or an expression of unbelief, to add to our praying for the healing of the sick, "If it be Your will." Praying, as Calvin taught us long ago, is a covenantal work in which we pray for that which God has promised. When we have no promise, as in healing, for example, it is a sign of meekness, not weakness, to add "If it be Thy will."
II. "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do"
It is one thing to know what the will of God might be, another to do it! What the third petition of the Lords Prayer asks is that Gods will might be done. The issue is one of submission and obedience on our part. There is a sense in which Gods will is always done, and our part in this is to accept it. Praying, "Thy will be done" in this case is asking God to give humble hearts that we might find ourselves complaining at the particular expression of his will as it unfolds in our life. But there is a sense, too, in which the will of God calls upon us to do something, to be obedient to a particular directive. Praying, "Thy will be done" in this case means asking for purpose of mind and resolve of spirit, strength that is, to do as God bids us.
Both of these aspects emerge in the life of our Saviour in the Garden of Gethsemane. When He cried, "Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42), Jesus was revealing something intensely personal. Having withdrawn to pray, He had thrown Himself prostrate on the ground and become so exhausted by the ordeal that we read of angel appearing to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43). Resuming to pray (the Greek speaks of Him being in "agony" (agonia)) sweat falls like drops of blood from His brow (Luke 22:44). The book of Hebrews, reflecting on this passage, speaks of the poignancy of Jesus struggle (Heb 5:7). It is a depiction of man at the end of his tether as he reflects on the full implications of the will of God for the Servant of the LORD. We dare not minimize the reality of Jesus request that, if it be possible, some other way be found for the redemption of Gods people! Discovering afresh that there is not, Jesus resolves to both submit to and be obedient to the demands now made upon Him as Gods will is made clear, and the words, not My will, but Yours be done" are some of the most sublime in the entire corpus of Scripture.
III. Several important truths emerge as a consequence:
First, the instinctive recoil upon discovering how difficult the will of God may appear to be is not necessarily sinful. There is nothing masochistic about Jesus own handling of difficulty and trial. We are to take up a cross, He insists, thereby denying much modern thought offering health and wealth upon following Him; never does He suggests that taking that cross will be anything but difficult and, on the surface at least, undesirable. Paul could pray three times for the removal of the thorn in the flesh, before learning that it was not Gods will.
Second, acquiescing to Gods will is hardly ever instantaneous; it is often a process of submission that takes some time. True, in our case, there is the intrusion of sinful responses: stubbornness, distrustfulness, anger and resentment, all of which make the process even more difficult. In Jesus case, none of these are present, and yet, there is a perceivable process whereby, through much conflict, He yields to the will of God. That is sublime! God does not disapprove of that part of the struggle whereby we are determining for sure that this is His will. There is nothing Stoical about Christian character in the face of trials.
Third, the will of God for our lives is hardly ever given in full at any one time. There is a sense in which Jesus knew the demands of his mission from the time of His birth. Certainly from the time of His public ministry his assurance of the demands of service as Gods Servant were clear: He unleashes three assaults on the Devils kingdom in the wilderness. Though it may appear as though the devil assaulted Him, it always Jesus who is in charge: the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness in order that He might announce war against the kingdom of darkness (Matt 4:1; Luke 4:1). But the full reality of his mission did not become apparent until Gethsemane. It is only here that awful reality becomes crystal clear. God gives us sight of only so much of his will as we are able to take in at the time. It is the principle of the kingdom of God: "Todays trouble is enough for today" (Matt 6:34 New Living Translation).
The issue, then, is whether we are willing to be submissive and obedient to that expression of the will of God that has become clear to us. In heaven, as the petition so wonderfully reminds us, Gods will is perfectly done. There is no sin there to impede his will. But we are not in heavenѕ not yet! We are "on earth"ѕ code, that is, for that realm where opposition and frustration abounds. Hence the prayer that this world might more and more conform to that perfect pattern of heaven. It never will be true, not totally, that here on earth Gods will is done perfectly. But in so far as it touches our lives, we long that it might be so. That is our longing.
It is a matter of putting God first.
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