Today’s sermon title comes from The Message’s rendering of those iconic words from the Lord’s prayer, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Dad, do what is best.
That’s what dads are supposed to do, and as a kid growing up, I didn’t always appreciate some of my dad’s choices. There was one time in particular where I bought something and he made me return it because he didn’t approve. At the time, I was really upset at him, because I felt like he just made me do what he wanted, and I had to go along with it.
The way I saw it, he got his way because he was the adult and I wasn’t.
This, by the way, is the same reason why I used to have a problem understanding this part of The Lord’s Prayer. I never understood why we’re supposed to pray for God’s will to be done. My analytical, philosophical side couldn’t really make sense of it.
It’s God’s will. Of course it’s going to be done.
Praying for God’s will to be done seemed to be the logical equivalent of praying for the sun to rise every morning. It’s happening regardless, whether we pray for it or not.
So why pray for it?
That’s a question I struggled with, one that many struggle with today. What is the point of praying to God about an issue that seems like a foregone conclusion?
Looking back, I can honestly say that part of what led me to this question was an incomplete understanding of God’s will. Like many good Christians, my concept of God’s will was like… well, it’s a stretch, but it was sorta like playing Madden.
See, anybody who has played John Madden football – the gold standard of video game football – knows that there’s a great little option in the game called “Ask Madden.” Former NFL coach John Madden was a legend in coaching back in the day, and so the game programmers were able to crunch a bunch of data and figure out the kinds of plays and formations he used a lot. So in any game scenario, if you don’t know which formation to use or which play to call, you can just “Ask Madden.” You press a button, and get a recommendation. If you use Madden’s play, you usually end up looking like a genius.
This, to me, was my concept of God’s will. Life is full of choices here and there, and amidst all of the options and alternatives there’s always an official “God’s Will” option, and if you can figure out which plays are “God’s Will” plays, more often than not, you’ll come out on top.
I realize not all of you are big football video gamers, so here’s another metaphor:
I also tended to see God’s will like it was a consumer incentive program.
It was as if when I became a Christian, I was issued this purple God’s Will ™ Club Card, and every time I read my Bible or spent time in prayer, I earned some Discernment Points. These points would become useful anytime I needed to purchase something, because having my God’s Will ™ Club Card gave me access to discounts on select divinely-endorsed “God’s Will” products and activities. Using these products and engaging in these activities – in conjunction with regular Bible reading and prayer, of course – would earn you more Discernment Points, and thus keep you on track with “God’s Will.”
(Considering all the Christian bookstores I’ve browsed, I’m surprised this doesn’t actually exist.)
Obviously, something is wrong with these images of God’s will. Neither of them is totally wrong, but they’re both incomplete. What these images lack is perspective.
Henry Blackaby, in his book Experiencing God, says that when people ask the question, ‘what is God’s will for my life?’ they are asking the wrong question.
It’s not that they’re wrong for asking that question… it’s just that it’s the wrong question.
A better question is, “What is God’s will?”
“Because people are naturally self-centered, we tend to view the whole world – even God’s activity – in terms of our own lives … but that is actually an inverted life perspective. Once I know God’s will, then my life gains its proper perspective, and I can adjust my life to Him and to His purposes. In other words, what is it that God is purposing to accomplish where I am? Once I know what God is doing, then I see what I should do. My focus needs to be outward on God and His purposes, not inward on my life.”
God’s will is much more than just you or I knowing which plays to run, which products to consume, or which activities to engage in. God’s will is something much greater.
As we continue in this discussion today, I’d like to give you five rock-solid ideas about God’s will that will help your understanding, and help make some sense of why it is that we pray for God’s will to be done.
The first of these is foundational:
God’s will is bigger than you.
Ephesians 1:9-10 (emphasis mine):
And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
Luke 3:5-7 (emphasis mine):
‘Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’
Daniel 7:13-14 (emphasis mine):
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Those are just three examples, but the Bible is literally full of them… if you read the Bible to cover, you’ll begin to see that it’s not just an anthology of books of various literary forms, but it’s a collective tapestry of God’s interaction with humanity. The Bible is way more than just “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” (did anybody else learn that in Sunday school?), it’s a written record of God’s desire to save humanity from itself by establishing the headship and rule of Christ over all.
All of the battles, all of the miracles, all of the stubborn kings, all of the evil prophets, every story that has ever unfolded from any page of the Bible… they’re all chapters in the story that God has been writing from the beginning of time.
Once you begin to see that, even a little bit, it changes the whole equation.
It explains how the most brutal, unjust killing in the history of man can be commemorated on a day called “Good Friday.” What makes the crucifixion good? It was part of God’s plan.
So when you pray for God’s will to be done, you’re not just praying for your little thread in the grand tapestry. You’re praying for the whole thing. That’s part of the reason it says “on earth, as it is in heaven” … because God’s will encompasses it all.
Despite its brevity, this is a big, huge, massive prayer.
While there are times when the choices we make play a part in God establishing His kingdom, our choices are infinitely small compared to the grand stage that God operates on. That’s why it’s so foolish to reduce God’s will to only a series of choices that we make as individuals. God’s will transcends and supersedes our choices. His will cannot and will not be thwarted, ever.
The chief proof I have of this, by the way, is the fact that He entrusted His majestic endeavor to fickle, random, unpredictable human beings. Nothing sinks a project like getting incompetent, sinful, fallen people involved in it. And yet, centuries and centuries later, disciples are still being made, Christ is still being preached, and God’s kingdom is still advancing in every corner of the earth, even today. If that’s not proof of God’s omnipotence, I don’t know what is.
The bottom line is, He’s God and we’re not.
Thus, when we pray for His will, we don’t always know exactly we’re praying for, which brings me to my second rock-solid thought:
God’s will can’t be fully understood by us humans.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,
declares the LORD.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
The fact of the matter, not only is “thy will be done” a really big prayer, but it’s a really dangerous
prayer, because when we pray this prayer, we do not really know what we’re asking for. We may have a certain set of outcomes in mind when we pray this prayer, but fundamentally, we’re acknowledging our inability to discern what is truly best in the largest sense of the word, thus entrusting that duty to One who is worthy of such a task. It’s a spiritual blank check that only He can cover.
This, by the way, is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to belief for certain people. Some people, for whatever reason, cannot reconcile this… they think, well if God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there so much evil in the world? How could an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God allow 9/11, or the Jewish Holocaust?
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this very question without coming to a uniform consensus on the matter. So if you’re struggling with it, let me provide a fail-safe answer: I don’t know.
For some people, that answer is a deal-breaker. If it doesn’t make sense to them, they cannot commit. They refuse to worship a God they cannot understand. For me, of course, that’s entirely the point… why worship a god that can be understood by mortal men? Such a god, by definition, is not worthy of such adoration.
(Unless it was designed by Steve Jobs, of course.)
Jokes aside, the sad thing about such intellectual perfectionism is that it tends to be an all-or-nothing deal, where the baby gets thrown out with the bath water. Though God cannot fully be understood, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing about Him that can be understood.
On the contrary, if we know how and where to look, there is plenty to be found, which leads to my next rock-solid truth:
God’s will becomes evident as His character is revealed.
My favorite cable TV network is the USA Network, and not just because my two favorite TV series (“Psych” and “Burn Notice”) are there, but because of their slogan: “Characters Welcome.”
People become devoted to their favorite series if they can make a connection with the main characters involved. Likewise, people become devoted to God once they begin to experience a revelation of His character. And just as a person’s character is not established by only one action or one line of dialogue, but from a series of actions and interactions, that’s the same way God reveals Himself to someone who is looking for Him … over time, across a series of interactions, both interpersonally and historically.
This is why it’s so important to read the Bible… like, all of it. We must use the Scriptures as the lens by which we interpret our own experiences, rather than the other way around. Every story or poem or letter or account in the Bible gives us a unique piece of insight into who God is and what He likes to do, and by taking these stories in, we give God a chance to reveal a part of who He is to us.
So for example… if you read the story of David and Goliath, you can tell that God likes to confound conventional wisdom, because it was the little runt from the house of Jesse, the kid that everybody forgot about, that eventually slew the giant, and later, was anointed as king.
If you read about Jonah and the great fish, you can tell that God wants to reach out to those who don’t know Him, and that He cares about people who are lost more than He cares about making things convenient for His servants.
If you read about the story of Achan in Joshua 7, you learn that God is particular about obedience, and will find a way to get your attention if you disobey.
If you read about Nehemiah and how he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, you learn that God cares about cities, and that casting vision and community organizing make a difference.
These are the kinds of revelations we can experience if we get to know the God of the Scriptures. And every time we have an experience with God, either through His word, or personally, it’s important for us to view it in light of all of the other things we know about God. If God reveals His will through His character, it’s important to make sure you have enough information to have a clear picture of His character.
This is especially true when we’re talking about the Lord’s Prayer, because in it, we address God as Father… and there are many different kinds of fathers out there. Not all fathers have the same character. When we say, “our Father,” I don’t think we’re all necessarily seeing God the same way.
Speaking of characters, does anyone remember Gordon Gartrell?
For those of you who haven’t earned your 80s-sitcom-trivia merit badge yet, Gordon Gartrell was and is the name of a designer, a high-end NYC fashion designer, whose name was immortalized in one of my favorite episodes of The Cosby Show.
In this episode, Theo has promised his girlfriend he would wear a Gordon Gartrell shirt for an upcoming date, but when his father Cliff finds out the shirt cost $95 — in 80’s money –, Theo must return the shirt for something more reasonable. Desperate to avoid losing face, Theo asks his sister to sew together a replica shirt of similar design… and wacky hijinks ensue.
Here’s a question… if you had never seen the Cosby Show before, would you automatically assume that Cliff was being a good father when he ordered his son to take the shirt back?
I suppose it depends on your background and how much you would be willing to pay for a new shirt. Your interpretation might also be affected by your own experience, especially if, like mine, your father ever did anything similar (more on that later).
By and large, though, I think the episode is funny only because we believe that, in general, Cliff is a good dad, and his choice to deny his son the object of his desire (the shirt) is done out of a general desire to look out for his wellbeing. If we as viewers didn’t have any other reason to believe that the character Heathcliff Huxtable is a good dad, we might see the episode differently.
This principle is critical to understanding the will of God. God’s will is revealed through His character, so if you’re going to evaluate His character, you can’t just pick a few isolated situations or experiences and hope you’ve gotten a good picture. The key is to put those experiences in the proper context.
My other, non-USA-network favorite show is “Lost.”
One thing that frequent “Lost” viewers recognize is that episodes often start with one single image, usually an extreme close-up.
In the pilot episode, that image is of a human eye.
It’s kind of weird at first, but then it eases up. Then you see a head, a man’s head. Eventually you can tell it’s a man lying down in the middle of the jungle. The man gets up, and begins first jogging, then sprinting toward what we can now tell is the wreckage of a plane that just crash landed onto an island.
On a normal TV show or movie, the first images you see are normally wide shots of picturesque locales: an urban skyline, a boundless meadow, a majestic meadow, or wherever the action is supposed to be taking place. It helps the viewer establish a sense of setting.
But for this pilot episode, the director J. J. Abrams takes the opposite approach – a choice that is designed to leave the viewer, well, lost.
When we try to decipher God’s will without really getting to know His character first, we end up the same way – disoriented, confused, and lost.
My earlier attempts to conceptualize God’s will were futile because they focused mostly on the choices that I made from day to day. Knowing God’s will is more than just making the right decisions, buying the right products, or engaging in the right activities. To know God’s will, you must first know His character. Trying to do one without the other is futile, like trying to guess the plot of a random show based only on a few close-ups.
That doesn’t mean that said decisions, products and activities are unimportant, just that they must be placed in the broader context of who God is and what He is doing in the world. The close-ups will come, but come on… first things first.
Which leads to my next rock-solid idea…
God’s will is proven through the daily renewing of your mind.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Doing the work of discerning, proving, examining and discovering God’s will as it pertains to life requires mental renovation every day. Renewal of mind can take on several forms – personal worship and/or devotion time, prayer, and Bible reading all quickly come to mind – but it’s got to happen, and it’s got to happen every day.
And part of the reason why I advocate for reading Scripture, especially in large quantities (several chapters at a time), is because if you grow up in church, you might hear people quote certain scriptures, and without reading them in context, you might be taking away a message that’s not necessarily what God intended for you to receive.
For example, earlier I referenced Isaiah 55:8-9, where the prophet Isaiah is relaying a word from the Lord about how His ways are higher than our ways. If you’re a Christian and you’ve been in the church for awhile, you’ve probably heard those verses dozens of times. But you might not have ever read the whole thing.
Take a few minutes now, and read all of Isaiah 55, including those two verses, and see if you look at those passages differently:
1 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of the peoples.
5 Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
which will not be destroyed.”
Looks pretty different, doesn’t it?
I don’t know about you, but when I read verses 8 and 9 alone, I tend to project onto it a tone of derisive mocking. But that’s not at all what the Lord is saying to Isaiah. When you read the whole thing, you read an invitation. It’s the warm greeting of a loving God who desperately wants to extend His love and authority to His children, a God who wants His children to know Him, to be loved and reassured by Him. When He says that His ways are not like our ways, He’s really saying, I’m not petty and vindictive, I don’t seek only to tear down, but to restore. I know that’s probably a foreign concept for you, but it’s true.
What an incredible image this is!
This is why we must renew our minds daily. Renewing our minds through Scriptural intake is what helps our image of God’s character stay fresh and accurate, and it helps us defend ourselves against the enemy’s lies. This is a crucial, because whether consciously or unconsciously, we use our concept of God’s character to evaluate His will.
So if we slack off with renewing our minds, then we’re liable to believe things about God that aren’t true. We end up thinking, just like my man Theo Huxtable, that Dad isn’t really looking out for our best interests, that He really just wants to keep us from having fun, that He doesn’t ever want us to have meaningful relationships, and that He’s punishing us by being stingy with His resources.
And I know somebody is probably thinking, okay calm down, Jelani… it’s just an old episode of Cosby. That’s not really how I behave toward God.
If so, you’re probably more mature than me.
That Cosby episode resonates with me because I actually had a similar exchange with my Dad during high school. Only it wasn’t just a shirt, it was a suit, a magenta-colored, polyester and rayon blend jacket-and-pants combo that I purchased from Jeans West, the leading teen apparel store of choice at the time.
Unlike Theo, who charged it to his father’s account, I paid for the suit with my own money.
And Dad still made me take it back.
Yeah, he tried to tell me that if I’m going to buy a suit I should spend a little bit more and get better value. He tried to tell me that it wasn’t professional looking, that I had a responsibility to represent myself well in public, and that I wouldn’t be able to wear it anywhere except high school dances. (Which, of course, was the very place I wanted to be seen wearing it.)
I wasn’t hearing any of that. All I could think about was how unfair it was that I didn’t have the freedom to choose. I was absolutely furious. And I would have stayed that way, possibly for a long time, except for the fact that I had a chance to sit and think for awhile.
I remembered all the times where I took his correction and it ended up working out well for me. I remembered all the gifts he had given me, all of the times he did something special for me. All the times when I had disobeyed his correction and gotten myself into wads of trouble.
After sitting for awhile, I realized I only had two options. I was either going to ignore those memories, remain angry and hold a grudge, or I was going to let go, and just do what he asked me to do.
Eventually, I did the latter.
After awhile, I gradually understood that my Dad really did have my best interests at heart.
After awhile, the magenta suit joined the ranks of juvenile appearance fads that I coveted at first, then eventually let go of (along with jheri curls, Hammer pants, and African medallions).
By taking the suit back, I gave myself a chance to learn some powerful lessons, ones I would have learned the hard way had I kept it.
Which brings me to my last rock-solid idea…
God wants us to participate in His will.
Matthew 12:46-50 (emphasis mine):
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.
As we’ve established, God’s will is more than just the choices we make on a day to day basis.
But that does NOT mean that our day to day choices are irrelevant!
God wants us to be connected with Him, to have an intimate, familial relationship where we know Him as Father. And yet, as Jesus is pointing out here in this passage of Matthew 12, the only way to be in His family is to do the will of His Father.
Jesus wasn’t trying to diss his blood relatives here. You have to understand the context. He had just spent all day healing people and teaching the crowds from the law. Yet, here He was being challenged by the Pharisees, who asked to see a miraculous sign, even though He had already been performing miracles of healing, and those miracles were denounced by many of those same Pharisees as being from the devil!
Jesus was tired of their relentless verbal traps, tired of their posturing, tired of them exalting their rule of law as the standard, and what’s worse, doing so on the basis of their religious family traditions. So when He received word that His mother and brothers had been waiting for him outside, Jesus finally threw down the gauntlet:
You wanna be in the real family of God? You want to be a relative of my Father?
Do. His. Will.
Sometimes, it’s really just that simple.
Because yes, you need to understand that His will is bigger than you. Yes, you need to be prepared for the fact that sometimes you won’t understand His will exactly. Yes, you need to experience a revelation of His character, and you must also renew your mind daily to help apply it to your everyday experience.
But at the end of the day, if we want to be called Christians, if we want to be in the family of God, if we want to actually live for Him and not just pretend to live for Him, we must follow through and do what He is asking of us.
And that, in my opinion, why we pray, “thy will be done” in The Lord’s Prayer.
When we pray that part of the prayer, we’re not simply giving our intellectual assent to the certainty of God’s purposes taking place.
We’re taking a bold step of faith, and declaring to God:
No matter the ramifications, no matter what it costs me, no matter where or in what condition I end up as a result, I commit myself to discovering Your will and carrying it out.
That’s why Jesus included “thy will be done” in his example of prayer, because that’s how committed He was to His Father’s will.
John 5:19 — Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.
Jesus knew that without that level of commitment, you won’t last long in His Father’s kingdom.
Now here’s the deal.
Praying this prayer and living it out… is hard.
It’s simple to say, but difficult to pull off, because it requires us to consistently give over our will to His will.
And some people think it was easy for Jesus because, well… He was God. Of course He did everything the Father said. They were almost the same person.
People who say this don’t usually take the time to read the whole gospel narrative, because if they did, they would stumble onto Matthew 26:39:
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
This was Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, praying to His Father, asking Him to find a way to avert what Jesus knew was coming – his crucifixion at the hands of the people.
This was NOT easy for Jesus. He didn’t want to go through it any more than we would if we were in His place.
(And don’t get all religious on me here… you know good and well that if you were in this same situation you would be doing the same thing, looking for some kind of loophole or something. Nobody likes going through what Jesus went through, not even Jesus.)
This is what the writer of Hebrews was referring to in Heb. 4:16:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.
Jesus modeled that prayer because He modeled that lifestyle. When given the option between the Father’s will and His own, even when His very life was on the line… He did the Father’s will.
Jesus had this in mind when He asked us to pray the radical prayer of “thy will be done,” because He knew that sometimes actually following through and submitting to God’s will is tremendously difficult.
And yet, it is the path to which we are called, a path that, almost inexplicably, almost paradoxically, offers us the greatest sense of fulfillment imaginable.
And that is part of the divine mystery; that such self-denial could lead to such glory in the end.
What Jesus knew then is the same thing that we are invited to learn every time we have a chance to submit to His will… that God is good, and thus, His will is good.
Good enough to sign up for, sight unseen. Good enough to give our lives for.
And certainly good enough to pray for.
I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for Mixin’ It Up with me.