Why pray a single syllable beyond, "Thy will be done"...ever? Why did God give us anything besides the third petition of the Lord's Prayer? In the end, He's just going to do what He wants anyway, right? No matter what we've asked. No matter how desperately we've pleaded. No matter how many tears we've shed. The third petition trumps everything. It's the ultimate mic drop; nothing can follow it. We'll spend hours on our knees praying for healing from disease, peace for anxious hearts, and repentance for hellbent souls, but that pious little "thy will be done" we tack on at the end seems to cut the legs out from under everything uttered prior. For us, the third petition is more often a source of anxiety than comfort. Who can know exactly what "THY will" entails? After all: "How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable His ways." (Romans 11:33)
The issue we're wrestling with here is faith. And the question is this: Is it possible to truly believe God will give us a desirable answer to our prayers, and at the same time be OK if He doesn't? Or, are we doomed to a lifetime of hollow, throwaway prayers whose words carry no weight? To enflesh the question a little more, when I ask God to heal my cancer-ridden friend, can I genuinely believe that He will, or does the third petition preclude such absurd, starry-eyed optimism?
In Fear and Trembling, 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard addresses precisely this question. In this work, he takes a scalpel to the Biblical account of "The Binding of Isaac" (Genesis 22:1-14) with an eye toward faith. Kierkegaard is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the actions of Abraham—whom Kierkegaard regards as a "knight of faith." He simply cannot understand him. For Kierkegaard, Abraham's faith is a paradox; an utter "absurdity," because Abraham ultimately must make two paradoxical moves. First of all, he must relinquish all claims to Isaac, his beloved son, resigning himself to the fact that God has the right to do as he wills. In Kierkegaard's words, Abraham must first become a "knight of infinite resignation," unclenching all tight-fisted attempts to cling to that which he holds most dear. Secondly (and paradoxically), even as he surrenders his claim on Isaac, Abraham truly believes he will get him back again. As the author of Hebrews says: "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice." He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son. Abraham reasoned that God could raise even the dead, and so in a manner of speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death" (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Commenting on the passage, Kierkegaard says: “Even at the moment when the knife gleamed he believed that God would not demand Isaac... He believed on the strength of the absurd [i.e., faith], for all human calculation had long since been suspended.”(1)
According to Kierkegaard, then, Abraham's "thy will be done" was not a throwaway prayer, but actually bolstered His confidence in God. Yes, God could choose to take Isaac away. But this possibility in no way minimized the strength of Abraham's conviction that He wouldn't. Abraham was free to boldly trust that God would preserve his son's life, yet his faith would not be affected one way or the other if God chose not to do so. Such is the "absurdity" of faith that God's promises make possible.
Along similar lines, such "absurd," seemingly paradoxical faith is echoed in the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to King Nebuchadnezzar as they are cast into the fiery furnace for their refusal to worship false gods.
"If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve...will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up" (Daniel 3:17-18, emphasis mine). Even as they expressed an earnest belief that God would save them, they simultaneously relinquished all claims to their own lives.
We have no right to presume upon God's actions, yet we have every right to presume upon His grace. "Thy will be done" is not so much a last-ditch hail-mary when all other prayers have been exhausted, but rather a deliberate thrusting upon His shoulders the burdens that are too heavy for us to bear. It's a conscious acknowledgment that the God "who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things (Romans 8:32)?" Even in the midst of the direst and hopeless of circumstances, the paradox of faith makes joy possible, as Kierkegaard says: “Every moment to see the sword hanging over the loved one's head and yet find, not repose in the pain of resignation, but joy on the strength of the absurd [i.e., faith]—that is wonderful...the thought of it stirs my soul.”(2)
When we sit at the bedside of our chronically-ill friend who has battled sickness after sickness over the course their life, we can still offer up full-throated prayers for healing, believing in the depths of our souls that God will make all things right.
When we wait anxiously for years for the return of our prodigal, we can still come boldly before God’s throne of grace, trusting that the mercy of our Heavenly Father has already motivated Him to act first, to run down the path while His lost child was still in the distance, to draw them near, and to fully restore them even before they recognized the depths of their own lostness.
When the cloud of anxiety or depression or grief descends, and we cannot see clearly, we can still cry out in full-blooded sincerity, trusting in "the God who rides the storm"(3) is there with us in the midst of it, holding us close in His nail-scarred embrace, shielding us from harm, and reminding us that all manner of things will be well—even if right now they're not.
The paradox of faith is that even as we cling to God's promises, we always do so with open hands. This is the theology of the Cross, and it's entirely backward. In fact, it's utterly absurd, and it is contrary to human reason. Life through death. Victory through defeat. Clinging fast by letting go. But it is through this stumbling block—this scandal to human reason—that God chooses to graciously distribute His blessings.
For knights of faith, then, "thy will be done" turns out to be a source of comfort rather than anxiety.
So, yes. The third petition may be the ultimate trump card. But for knights of faith, it's a card we'll gladly play time and again. After all, thankfully, we're playing with a loaded deck.