This is part of a series on the Lord’s prayer, culture and spiritual warfare in which we look at the subversive prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples and how that prayer engages in the war of ideas with the philosophies that pervade our age.
Part 4 – Self-Assertion and ‘Your Will Be Done’
Often when people are in conflict, the issue comes less down to who can make the best argument and simply a battle of who has the strongest will and will most stubbornly insist on their own way. Whilst it may be easy to see some downsides of a strong will, it is a trait that is increasingly prized in our culture. A Washington Post editorial articulated it this way:
“Though there are plenty of times when parenting a strong-willed, sometimes disobedient child is a difficult, exhausting endeavour, it turns out there are plenty of benefits to a little bit of naughtiness or disobedience. Research shows that disobedient children earn more as adults and are also more likely to be entrepreneurs. As it turns out, some rather intelligent children who defy authority or challenge the status quo tend to think more outside the box, lending them to a certain creative upper hand when it comes to new ideas and starting businesses. Entrepreneurs tend not to play by the rules.”
‘My will be done’ is a fight song of our time, and we are encouraged to go get what we want and remake the world around us after our own image. And whilst being weak-willed (‘my will be dismissed’) is no better option, there are some clear problems with this focus on the strength of will:
Firstly, it over-emphasises the importance of the self (which ties in to the previous post on narcissism and ‘hallowed be Your name’) as though all that matters is what I want and others must fit in around that. Secondly, it ignores the fact that you do not always know what is best. Despite Michael Gove’s claim that ‘the people of this country have had enough of experts’, often the best thing we can do is yield to the opinion of somebody who knows more than we do. Thirdly, it promotes conflict and division, since as each is pursuing their own will it is inevitable that sometimes those wills will run contrary to each other. Fourthly, it erodes the idea of the heroic and sacrificial, where the preference of the self is laid down for the good of another.
So was Jesus strong-willed or weak-willed? The answer is that he was neither. The image of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ who wouldn’t say boo to a goose runs contrary to the portrait we see of him in the gospels, picking fights with the religious leaders, reaching out to the excluded and bringing kingdom authority into situations. On the other hand, we do not see Jesus bulldozing all before him to insist upon his own way, but being willing to lay himself down to serve the good of others, as he did when he washed the feet of his disciples.
Jesus’ attitude was neither ‘my will be dismissed’, nor ‘my will be done’, but ‘thy will be done’. His life was lived in communion with his Father, and from this relationship, he both knew and relentlessly pursued his Father’s will. In John 5:19, he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” In the garden of Gethsemane, after pleading for the cup to be removed from him, he then prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”
For Jesus, the priority was not his own will being asserted, but rather God’s will being done, and this is what he taught his disciples to pray in the Lord’s prayer. Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
When we talk about ‘God’s will’, it is important to be clear about what we mean. God is omnipotent, so in one sense what he desires will always come to pass. This is known as God’s will of decree. We see it spoken of in verses like Psalm 115:3 and Matthew 10:29, and illustrated as God creates and heals with just a word. Secondly, we could talk about God’s will of command. These are instructions given by God that express his preferred ways, but that may or may not be followed by other agents. The 10 Commandments are an example of God’s will in this sense of the word. Thirdly we could talk about God’s will of desire. These are things that God has revealed that he wants (e.g. that none should perish) that still may not come to pass. Even on a human level we know that sometimes we lay down certain things that we desire for other things that we also desire, and so it is with God as well.
When we pray ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, we are acknowledging that we live in a world in which God’s will (of command and of desire) does not always get done. The moral choices made by people and angels, the consequences of the fall and the curse in the world (such as sickness, crime, loneliness and war) run contrary to God’s will in this sense. We are also acknowledging as we pray these words that God’s will is better than ours. Rather than striving to assert our own will in the world, we are recognising that it is God’s will that is best and God’s will that is needed, and we are pleading with him that things that accord with his will more and more come to pass in the world. You could say that when we pray this prayer, we are asking that God’s will of desire becomes God’s will of decree.
Sometimes this means praying fervently for things that you already know are God’s will. Other times it means praying for uncertain situations with a trust that above all God’s will is what prevails. It will involve praying very broadly and also about very precise situations. It will involve praying for God’s will to be done in and through you, and also in and through others. ‘Your will be done’ is not a get-out at the end of a prayer in case it isn’t answered, but a declaration of faith that God knows best and God will do best and so we approach our prayer and all of life with a ‘God’s will’ mindset.
We were not made to be strong-will or weak-willed, because our will was never supposed to be central. Instead we were created to be radically strong and radically focussed on God as the only sovereign, the one who knows best and who can truly lead and guide us in all things.
Jesus taught us a subversive prayer. We pray it in a world that jockeys over self-assertion, that competes for control, and we pray it as both a laying down of arms and surrender to our good and all-powerful God, and also as a rallying cry that things can and will be different as we call for God’s goodness and glory to break into our lives and our world and for pockets of heaven to burst into our fallen earth.
Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name.
Your kingdom come; Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven