Thy Will Be Done

Sermon on the mountPart 6 in our series on the Our Father.

Our walk through the “Our Father,” Jesus’s little treatise on the spiritual life, brings us this week to “Thy Will Be Done.” As we noted last week, this line takes another step downward, from the contemplative heights into the practical life. From the heights, in which we see the Father’s “kingdom” extending through heaven and earth, we come to the simple acceptance of God’s “will.”

“Will,” as we said last week, is an interesting middle ground. On the one hand, we believe as Christians that God’s will is not arbitrary, that he has a perfect, wise plan, a reason for everything. (And, if we hold to the philosophy of the Catholic tradition, we believe that no one ever makes purely meaningless acts of will: will always express some kind of intelligence.)

But we speak of will, not intellect or wisdom or plan, precisely to emphasize that the reason doesn’t matter. To say “thy will be done” is precisely not to say, “if it makes good sense to me.” To the contrary, it is to say, “I don’t know the why behind this choice; I don’t see the wisdom in your willing; but I accept.” Even if we believe God has a reason, we say “thy will” to say that his reasons are often inaccessible to us.

The paradigmatic case, of course, is when Jesus himself says, “thy will be done”: “Father, if you will it, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42). Indeed, in this first sorrowful mystery, Jesus takes us in a sense to the inner depths of suffering: not only does it hurt, but we don’t see the reason for it. All we can do is bear it – “suffer” it, in the older sense of the word – and try to believe that somewhere underneath there is a reason.

We mustn’t think God is arbitrary or mean. But anytime we think we know all his ways, we fall into foolishness, and we wander from his will. When we substitute our intelligence for his, we abandon his perfect plan.

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This is an important part of the Our Father. A couple weeks ago, when I wrote on the opening words of the prayer, my friend Chris commented that we hardly need the rest: everything is right there, in the two words “Our Father.” In one sense this is true. Truly all of Christianity is contained in those words.

But to fully appreciate those words, and their force in our lives, especially in this valley of tears, we have to appreciate that much of the time we won’t see it. Often God will seem more like a will to which we must submit than like a loving Father. We need to say the first words, to know that ultimately behind this strangeness, there is meaning, and love. But we also need these later words, to remember that truly accepting the Father requires accepting his will, even when it makes no sense to me.

Indeed, it is not because he is a cruel tyrant, but precisely because he is a loving Father – infinitely wiser and more merciful than we can imagine – that we have to accept that we often can’t comprehend his ways. It would make sense if he were more like us. Thank God that he isn’t.

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Perhaps this gives us an opening to think of “thy will be done” in a different way. Often we say these words to mean something outside of us: the suffering that comes, the downfalls in our careers or relationships. Thy will be done, Father. I accept this from your gracious and mysterious hand.

But “thy will be done” can also be a motto for our own participation in that plan. Because the Father’s will is always mercy and love. “Thy will be done” can also be an opportunity to say, “may I will as you will” – not only that I accept this thing that befalls me, but that I love, and pour myself out, as the God of Jesus Christ does.

“I will to will the will of God,” a motto of the saints, can also mean, I want to will goodness, and mercy, and kindness, and compassion, and love – and truth and justice and righteousness!

In this way, too, we see the progress and unity of the Lord’s Prayer. It is very fine to call God Father, to have our treasure in heaven, to long for God’s kingdom – but none of this means anything until we come down to the practicals of loving as God loves, willing as he wills.

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How have you grappled with the goodness and mercy of God’s mysterious will in your life?

eric.m.johnston

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