“Your will be done”: powerful not pathetic
In CS Lewis’ well-known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, something that appears to be so very familiar turns out to be utterly extraordinary. A wardrobe—very much ‘part of the furniture’ in both senses of the phrase—reveals itself to be a portal to the magical land of Narnia. (Sorry if you’re one of the few for whom that was a spoiler.)
In a similar way, being over-familiar but in reality unfamiliar with some phrases can cause us to drift past the extraordinary in our prayers. Sadly, “Dear Heavenly Father” and “in Jesus’ name, amen”—phrases which encapsulate truths of limitless depth and richness—can be uttered with almost zero thought. And perhaps next on the list of words most mindlessly or misguidedly prayed would be a phrase referring to God’s will, like “if it is your will” or “your will be done”.
For some, praying that God’s will would be done is force of habit; they’ve heard it said by other people on so many occasions that they adopt it without much thought.
For others it can be something of a cop-out, an escape clause. You pray for something really important, something you really care about, but you:
- suspect that it’s beyond God’s capacity to handle, or
- think God may not be particularly interested, or
- doubt that you have sufficient faith for your prayers to actually do
So you tack “if it is your will” onto the end of your prayer. That way, when the thing you’re praying for doesn’t happen—because you suspect it won’t—you don’t feel too bad about things. You still theoretically believe that God is powerful and personal and values your prayers.
But praying that God’s will be done doesn’t need to be pedestrian or pathetic; it can be powerful and purposeful. Jesus makes this clear.
When Jesus preaches on prayer and gives us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, what is the third request? It’s “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). Jesus is unlikely to have inserted a cop-out clause into a prayer like that.
And consider how Jesus practices what he preaches! Move a few chapters forward to Matthew 26. It’s the night before the crucifixion and Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane. A more stressful, mind-crushing situation can scarcely be imagined. The writer tells us that Jesus “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (v. 37), and he laments: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 38).
Jesus, the Son of God, is being pushed to the limit. Why? It’s not merely the looming betrayal, abandonment, battering and excruciating death. It is the fear of dying as the bearer of world’s sins and facing the wrath of God the Father. This is suffering at a level we simply cannot comprehend.
And, at a time like this, Jesus turns to prayer:
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
Now, here is the really challenging point: he prays that the unimaginable suffering he is about to face would be taken away—then says “but as you will”! Jesus here is the opposite of Adam. Adam in the Garden, in effect, said: “Not as you will, but as I will”. Jesus, in another garden, says: “Not as I will, but as you will”. This is no escape clause: it is a powerful act of submission. He expresses a powerful desire—“Can you take away the cup of suffering?”—then says he wants to submit to God’s will.
What are our prayers like? Adam’s or Jesus’? Do we find ourselves saying: “Why haven’t you done what I want yet? Where’s my girlfriend/better job/virus-free world/model family/ideal ministry position?” It can be so easy to fall into this trap.
As Christians, we will want to pray like Jesus, and so we can pour out our hearts to God just like him. We can pray that a family member would be healed, or a marriage would take place, or a child would be born, or a job situation would improve. But can we, like Jesus, pray, “Yet not as I will, but as you will”?
Given Jesus’ preaching and practice, it is not only right and proper that we should do this, but a relief that we can. It is far better to have God’s will than ours. Just imagine if God actually did whatever we asked? Imagine who you might have married! Imagine how many families would now have ponies in their backyard! Imagine the over-abundance of boys who would have grown up to be firemen!
And think about all the situations we encounter where we just don’t know what to pray. Relational dynamics can get so messy that, other than praying generally that all people would be saved and treat each other in a loving manner, it is hard to know exactly what to hope for. Thankfully, we can pour our hearts out about the situations—whether they be in the home, workplace or schoolyard—pray that God’s will would be done, and then rest in the confidence that he will do what is best.
Praying that God’s will would be done is not pathetic or pedestrian, it is powerful and purposeful. And it is something solid upon which we can confidently rest, now and always.