“May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Trying to Figure Out God’s Will
“Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” — Matthew 7:21-23
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” — Matthew 7:24-27
One day my children were riding in the back of our car playing a game. My son had made up the game after hearing about ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). He was convinced that, if he tried hard enough, he could have ESP. So he told my daughter to think of a shape and a color, hold it in her mind without saying what it was, and concentrate very hard on the shape. Their conversation went like this…
My daughter, after much thought, “Ok, got it”.
My son, closing his eyes trying to picture what my daughter was thinking, “Purple triangle?”
My daughter, “No”.
My son, “Red Triangle?”
My daughter, “No”.
My son, “Red circle?”
My daughter, “No… it’s sort of a bluish blob with spikes”
My son, “Well, at least purple is close to blue”.
Yes, my kids are very cute, but the point is that human beings, like my kids, are often convinced that they can read minds – often despite very obvious evidence to the contrary. Couples in marriages tend to expect their spouses to be able to read minds, an expectation that causes great distress and upset. In the same way, believers are often convinced that their job is to read God’s mind.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, he was not suggesting to them that God had some secret, hidden, inflexible plan for them to figure out. Rather, Jesus was teaching his followers to pray regularly that the known will of the Father would be done – by them and ultimately, by the church. God’s will is not hidden, but made known throughout the pages of Scripture.
But unfortunately, discussions about God’s will, in our day and culture, have revolved around future plans and trying to figure out what God’s desires are when it comes to individual choices. We want to know whether it is God’s will to marry one person or another. We discuss whether going to the mission field or taking a particular job is God’s will. There is nothing wrong with these discussions, which show a concern for obedience and a desire to be blessed by God. Yet, there does seem to be an imbalance when this is all there is to the discussion of God’s will.
When Jesus spoke about God’s will his focus seems to have been more on the issue of submission and obedience than the future or God’s attitude regarding open choices. In fact, it is difficult to overemphasize how important this issue of submitting to God’s will through obedience, was to Jesus. His words in Matthew 7:21 make the question of obediently submitting to God’s will more important than impressive spiritual gifts and services. The point of Jesus’ words in Matt.7:21 (reinforced only a few verses later in Matt.7:24ff), are that he will not recognize any, on the last day, unless they have put the will of the Father, which he has just spelled out in Matthew 5-7, into practice. Put another way, those who know and experience the grace of Jesus Christ in reality will obediently put his teaching into practice, while those who do not put his teachings into practice will prove that they have never truly known the grace of the Son of God.
Perhaps our modern misunderstanding of God’s will revolves around our American understanding of the english word “Will”. We have tended to think of the definition of this word, in regard to God’s will, as intention. We want to know what God’s intention is – and that becomes an exercise in mind reading. But the word ‘Will”, also can be translated, “Decree”. If we substitute the word “decree” for “will”, then the sense of a passage changes – and is made clearer. For example… Matthew 7:21-23 ““Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father (Substitute “Decree of my Father”) who is in heaven.
“Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
This change makes the statement of Jesus much more concrete. It isn’t some unknown wish of the Father that we have to figure out, but rather what he has decreed as the way of life for his followers.
Recognize Distortions of God’s Will
Fatalism: For some God’s will is nothing more than a Christianized form of the Greek concept of the “Fates”. Their view of God’s sovereignty tends to be based less on the idea that God is a sovereign king who can do all things and who has a great design of redemption – and tends to be more in keeping with the belief that one’s life is already spelled out to the least detail before they have lived a day of it. This type of understanding has more to do with systems of theology than Biblical teaching. While it is true that Psalm 139 tells us, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.” (Ps.139:1-4) – this is not meant to imply that our fate is sealed. Scripture also speaks of God relenting and changing his mind (see Exodus 33:3-17).
For the fatalist, there is no meaningful choice. Life is set and all is predestined and unchangeable. Of course, fatalists may speak of choice in mystical language (eg. the gate of heaven says, “Come all you who are weary and heaven laden and I will give you rest” on the outside, and, “Chosen before the foundation of the world”, on the inside), but this is just a smoke screen to cover the tracks of their fatalism.
The great irony is that a doctrine intended to be a comfort for the church has, for the fatalist, become one of terror. Fatalists have no true way of knowing or measuring whether they are truly saved and chosen, or whether they are tares in the wheat.
My children have a game called “Pilgrims Progress”, modeled after the classic book by John Bunyan. The point is to cross over the river and come to the heavenly city, but near the end of the path of pilgrimage is a door in the side of the hill that leads straight to hell. This is the insecurity of the fatalist. They are never secure. Their understanding of grace is that one can desire to know Christ and try to follow him and yet make the fatal mistake and be lost.
Self Punishment: For others God’s will is necessarily unpleasant. Many believers have the vague sense that whatever God’s will is it is going to involve misery for its’ own sake. Consequently, there are many in the church who believe that God is calling them to do something which they fear, or that they would really hate – something arduous and unpleasant.
Missionaries have gone to the field in the belief that God’s will was to go somewhere and to do something which they had no experience, confidence or competence to do in order to be “God’s elite”.
The point here is not that God never calls us to do anything difficult, but rather that God is not a God who delights in misery, nor a God who drives us to do that for which we are not gifted. Those who believe that God is calling them to do what they fear or hate probably need to stop and deal with more important questions regarding their understanding of the goodness of God and the meaning of grace. God does not call us to earn back our salvation through arduous works.
It must also be said that those who take the way of self-punishment have a simplistic view of sanctification. In practice, the mortification of the flesh that comes from choosing to do what one fears and dislikes, misses the mark of true sanctification – which is redemption of the inner man – lived out.
Redemption is not self-punishment. The very word suggests a buying back, a remaking and healing of that which is broken so that it may be complete. This must include death to the destructive and sinful desires that warp our lives, but does not preclude the fact that there are good, God given desires. In other words, God does not desire to trample and disfigure the person, but find and restore what was lost and to complete the person to God’s glory.
Belief in the One Secret Path: Still for others, God’s will is the ultimate mystery – the riddle that every person needs to figure out. Meanwhile God sits back and withholds information. This understanding stems from the belief that there is a secret path which, once departed from, sets the life off course from that point until a person wanders so far from God that the only possibility of redemption is a complete turnaround and return to the point of departure. This view is driven by a perfectionistic fear and a belief in an inflexible, compassionless God.
But God is neither inflexible nor lacking in compassion. Romans 8:28, if it tells us anything, suggests that God turns our circumstances and even our decisions, towards his good purposes because of Christ Jesus. Certainly the course we take determines much about our lives. But God is sovereign and active. God is at work in us to redeem us. God is bringing about an eternal weight of glory as we follow him.
This means that we have the freedom to choose the course of our lives within the will of God. Scripture does not tell us that there is only one possible set of decisions for our lives, but tends to speak of God’s will in a more general way…
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like th eheathen who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.” — (1 Thess.4:3-6a)
“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” — (Eph.5:17-20)
“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed… in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” — (1Peter 3:13-17)
It should be clearly seen that each of these verses are about submission in regard to God’s will. We are called to submit to God in regard to sexual purity and defrauding one another, for this is God’s will. We are to submit to God’s will in regard to worship by worshiping in ways that build the church up and not in ways that lead to pagan debauchery for this is God’s will. We are to suffer, if we have to suffer, in hope, gentleness and respect so that we may have a clear conscience against our accusers, for this is God’s will.
How Are We to Prayerfully Submit to God’s Will?
The Beginning of Submission to God’s Will is the Recognition of Our Own Willfulness: The issue we have with God’s will is not that it is hidden from us – some secret future – but that we have our own wills and desires. Our issue with God’s will is the conflict that arises when we do not want to submit to God’s clearly spelled out will in Scripture. Our willfulness is a reflection of the belief in our hearts that we want what is best for us and that we know what is best for us much more than God does. There is a prayer from Anthony De Melo that I have adapted, and which we use in our prayer service…
Let us ask ourselves: What are the things we have lived for? What influences have shaped the way we live and think? What sufferings have matured us? What Biblical texts have shed light on our path? What blessings from the hand of God are we continually thankful for? And what sins have we repented of? Until we know those things which drive our own will, how can we understand what it must mean to submit to God’s will?
The point that this prayer makes is that we have often not asked ourselves what we have lived for. We have often not asked ourselves what drives our own will. We are wonderfully adept at ignoring the conflicts that exist between our own will and God’s will. But the beginning of submission is this recognition of our own willfulness and the acknowledgement of the claim of another will.
This understanding of prayer opens up for us the possibility of struggle and change. Prayer becomes a wrestling (like Jacob and the angel – Gen.32:22-30), between our will, which we find hard to submit, and the will of God. Prayer becomes the point at which we, with as much honesty as we are able to brandish, come into the presence of the Almighty and confess that we are willful and distrusting people – that God does mean us well – that his will is good – and that we find ourselves on a daily basis to be unwilling to live in the ways that he has called us to live. Prayer becomes a process of becoming willing and of learning to desire a will that is other than our own.
Submit Yourself, Through Prayer, to God’s Redemptive Will: God’s will is redemptive. Another way of saying this is that God’s will is restoration and recreation of the person. Through Jesus Christ, the Father claims those he has created in order to remake our lives as they were intended to be – with a beauty that was/is lost through our willfulness and sin.
We love stories of redemption – they connect with us on a very deep level. One of the best parts of Tolkien’s “Return of the King”, is the scouring of the Shire, (an episode which is left out of the recent movies). In the last chapters of the book, the hobbits return to their home, the Shire, only to find that while they have been gone factories have been set up, much of the beauty of the place has been ruined, an oppressive government has been set up and many people have been thrown in prison. The hobbits lead an uprising against the evil government and overturn it, setting up a good and peaceful rule. After the ugly factories and buildings are torn down, the land is cleansed, and replanted with beautiful trees. This is a redemption story.
This is what God desires to do in our lives. Obedience to God’s will, the direction of our lives as well as submission to Christ, is meant to be punishment but a beautiful remaking. We are polluted by sin, ruled by evil motives and corrupted by out of balance desires. But as we come to see and acknowledge the will and governance of God as a redemptive restoration of our lives, God’s will becomes no longer a threat but something we desire and long for.
Pray for Insight into God’s Redemptive Purposes in Your Life: It is one thing to acknowledge that God’s will is redemptive, it is quite another to come to see the direction or nature of that redemption – to see potential of beauty and meaning that God wants to unfold in our lives.
What gifts and abilities has God given you? How does God want to redeem your personality to use those gifts in a unique way? How is God calling you to love others? In what context does God call you to live out your life in a unique way? What distortions of your person is God wanting to cleanse and clarify and untwist? What are God’s redemptive purposes for you?
Obedience to the things God has shown us in his word – repentance from the things God has shown us to be destructive in our lives – these serve to clarify who we are meant to be and the nature of our redemption. God does not want to hide these things – God wants us to see the nature of our redemption. It is we who are blinded and hard hearted and difficult. It is we who are unwilling to see our excuses and defenses and appetites for what they are. It is we who say things like, “I can’t help myself”, rather than, “I keep choosing to do this thing, even though I am tired of it”.
We should pray that God would help us to see ourselves honestly in light of his word. We should pray that God would help us to be thoughtful and would expand our understanding of the shape of redemption in our own lives. What people has God put into our lives? What situations has God allowed us to be shaped by? What interests and desires has God given us to follow? How do these things allow us to live out the Gospel in the world?
Pray for a Growing Understanding of Your Need for Grace: Where we come face to face with our will and its opposition to God’s will, we hit a wall. We cannot change our own hearts. We cannot purify our own corrupt motives. Once we begin to pray for God’s will to be done we come face to face with our need for the Gospel.
At heart we are rebels. The followers of Christ are not former sinners, now ennobled, who now are able to do the right thing. We are sinners who have found grace in Jesus for our past and for our present. We are people who, as Romans 8:25 says, “hope for what we do not yet have, [but] wait for it patiently”. We are people as 1Cor.13:9 says, “know in part”. We are those, as Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, ”work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, [Recognizing that] it is God who works in [us] to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”. The power of God is at work in us, and yet, as Rom.7:15 says, ”[we] … do not understand what [we] do. For what [we] want to do [we] do not do, but what [we] hate [we] do.
Pray, then, for grace. Ask God to help you see the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the proclamation of a new regime in your life – the possibility of change and renewal where, before, without Christ, there was no possibility. Ask God to change your heart and your will. Believe, by faith, that God hears and will respond with mercy and help and wisdom, to turn your heart from willfulness.