Is there any verse in the Bible more troubling than this? To pray God’s will be done is an act of self-emptying. It is a potential rejection of self-interest and self-determination. Perhaps even, in some sense, for living itself. For God’s will is God’s, and who can know the mind of God? (Rom 11:34). To surrender our will to his is to place ourselves into the darkness of another’s secret plans, to face the hard and troublesome, often painful, experiences of life as purposed instead of randomized. There are no accidents if God wills; what is, is so, because a Personality ordains or allows it. The comfort of uncertainty—the bliss of ignorance that cannot trace effect back to cause is no option. It happened because God wills it (Job 1:21). So too, the comfort of nihilism is stripped away. It didn’t happen because “that’s just the way things are.” No, it happened because God wills. God stands behind all that is if he is a willing God who executes his plans through history and in our lives.
When we pray, “Thy will be done,” we are praying a cosmic, grand and mighty prayer.
To pray, to ask, to desire God’s will over our own is even more unthinkable. To pray is to will, to exercise choice, to see a vision of what could be and beg for its arrival. Therefore, it is an exercise in creaturely creativity and dependence, a passive response to God’s economy of gift—the gift of choice. To pray is always to choose to pray. But in this case, the very will that prays undermines its own agency. It is like a prisoner who, locked in a cell and desperate to be free, asks for a key only so that he can give it back to his jailer. Why then ask at all? In short, what sort of logic is there in praying, ‘Thy will be done,’ and can we justify such a prayer?
The logic is simple but profound. Creatures are created to serve God and worship him. Because we are sinners, we desire our own wills. But God’s act of creation was an act of self-emptying. In creating, God spread his Triune love out into the creation. Just as he gave his Son, he gave his image. To worship and serve him is just an old way of saying we must be properly aligned and balanced concerning him and creation. That is, to be in the right, to be in bliss, to make no room for pain, tears, and rebellion, things must be in proper alignment to flourish.
When this perfect harmony arrives in the promised Kingdom of God, even our prayers will fall away. Like when the left-tugging of a wheel disappears once the tires are aligned. That is because prayers spring from the helplessness and distance of God’s people to the object of their desire. The hypothetical person who is in perfect alignment with God and his creation has no lack. There are no need or wants (“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” Ps 23). But sinners have many needs and many wants. Some of those needs are good, and some are not. And we cannot always tell the difference. The logic then is this: When we pray, “Thy will be done,” we are praying a cosmic, grand and mighty prayer. “Lord, take the pain away. Align me and the world to the right place. Bring balance to the scales of injustice, set right the wrongs in creation, give hope, provide life, defeat death and the devil, for it is all too much for me; show me your goodness.”
When we pray, we take advantage of the opportunity God has given us to realign ourselves to the one who is making all things new (Rev 21:5).
And we can justify such a prayer. We begin to see that if we are a prisoner stuck in a cell, it does no good to ask for a key. We may unlock the door, but the jailer is there to ensure we can’t get out. Or, if we were to escape, the escape itself is a crime, and we would be forever hunted and fated to return. What we need is the will of a judge, a verdict, to set us free. Our will is too small and too immediate (“get me out of prison!”), but God is working to acquit you.
God’s will is done whether we pray or not. But when we pray, we take advantage of the opportunity God has given us to realign ourselves to the one who is making all things new (Rev 21:5). We are understandably afraid to turn our wills over to God because we know things will happen to us that we, in fact, do not want to occur (for, after all, God’s will is not our own). But God’s will is always right. That doesn’t mean everything that happens is God’s will, contrary to opinion. God wills that we not sin, or that the devil not harass us, but those things happen contrary to God’s will. He permits these trespasses for various reasons to serve his purposes in making all things new. But that is not the same as causing them. When we find it hard to turn ourselves over to God and pray this prayer, we need only look to the cross. There, we will see God’s love poured out in his self-emptying for us. And there we will see a vision of what is coming. Just as Christ defeated death, so too shall our estrangement and pain be put to death.
So we pray this prayer because we dare to trust the one who is bringing all things back into proper alignment. We dare to imagine the jailor is our friend because he was, at one time, jailed himself. And we dare to believe that his will is better than our own, precisely because it is for our benefit. So yes, such a prayer is self-emptying, but that is because God is making space for the overwhelming joy he will pour into us. That joy comes when all things find their proper place, with the Lord at the head, and the rest of creation enjoying the benefits of being in God’s Kingdom.