Thy Will Be Done
How often do we use the phrase “God’s will” as an excuse? As we continue our focused look at the Lord’s Prayer, we come upon “thy will be done.” What follows helps to flesh them out fuller: “on earth, as it is in heaven,” wording that seems to indicate that God’s will is perfect in heaven, and we’d sure like it to be that way on earth. More about those thoughts in the weeks to come.
Today, my question is this: what do we mean when we say “God’s will”?
For the language geeks in our midst, let’s get the rest of the phrase out of the way. “Thy”, of course, means “your”, and reminds us of the intimate relationship we seek in prayer with God. “Be done” has a Beatles-esque tone of “Let It Be”, a desire for God’s wishes to be fulfilled right here in front of us. If we take the verb of the New Testament Greek in which the Lord’s Prayer is written, or in the ancient Aramaic which Jesus spoke, there’s a subtle spice that gets added, so we translate it as, “let your will come into being” or “let your will be born.”
But what, exactly is God’s will?
When we talk about something that we “will”, we mean “desire” or “hope” or “want”. When we talk about God’s will, these synonyms work just as well: God’s will is what God wants; what God desires. It can even be understood as what God’s purpose is.
And very quickly, we move from linguistics to philosophy and theology. If it’s God’s will, and God is omnipotent, then it just is, right? I mean, as Presbyterians, we talk about God’s sovereignty, the idea that God is in charge. So if God’s in charge, and something happens, it must be because God wanted it to happen, right?
This is the place where most of us get tripped up on the whole “faith” thing. It seems like a straightforward, either/or proposition.
On the one hand, God’s running the show, in which case, all the bad stuff that happens is stuff that God is doing. This seems to be the position that the insurance industry takes, categorizing the ravages of nature as “acts of God”. And if this is true, then we can either swallow hard and assume that there’s some bigger purpose of which we are unaware; we can realize that God is just a big, mean jerk; or that there is no God and life is a series of random events.
On the other hand, God’s not running the show, and again, we’re left with the conclusion that God doesn’t exist, or that God is just one of many options out there vying for control, and our choice to believe in God is just that: a choice.
I don’t know about you, but none of these seem like particularly compelling options to me. If I’m going to believe in God, then I want God to have it all figured out. And if there is no God, well, then let’s just go home and stock up bath on salts for the Zombie Apocalypse.
You have probably already anticipated the punchline here, that there might be another way at looking at all of this. Either that, or we just stop right here, and we’ll all end up wondering why we wasted our time getting out of bed and braving Fahrenheit 451 out there today.
I ultimately don’t know that I have a satisfying answer; but I do have an answer that works for me. And a glimpse of it lies in the lesson from Mark that we read this morning.
Jesus goes with the disciples across the Sea of Galilee. No sooner has he set foot on dry ground than a VIP, Jairus, approaches Jesus, asking him to use some of his magical healing powers on his daughter, who is near death. Jesus begins making his way through the crowd; and as he does, a woman reaches out and touches his clothes, and is immediately healed. Jesus senses that he has lost a little bit of his healing power, and so stops to figure out what happened. By the time the delay is over, Jairus’ daughter is dead, and Jesus seems to have been thwarted. There was apparently enough juice in the battery for one healing, and the woman in the crowd got it. Too bad for Jairus.
But no: Jesus continues with his original mission, arriving at Jairus’ home, and entering with his inner circle of three disciples, Peter, James, and John. The young girl is healed, and the crowd is stunned.
So what was God’s will here? If we really believe that Jesus was more than just an awesome teacher, or a barnstorming faith healer, if we really are willing to believe in the absurd idea that Godliness rested within Jesus himself, then we can rephrase the question this way: What was Jesus trying to do? And what is this story trying to teach us about God anyway?
Jesus arrives on the shore. Did he know Jairus would approach him about his daughter? And as he made his way through the crowd, did he know that this woman would reach out in search of healing? And if so, why did he seem not to know who touched him? Did he know that he would be delayed, and that Jairus’ daughter would die? If so, why did he decide to stop, instead of making a beeline for Jairus’ house?
I don’t know about you, but I find a hint in the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus addresses God as “Abba”, Father, Daddy, Papa.
God is our parent. And we are God’s children. And much like a parent, God is in charge of us. And part of being in charge means leaving us to our own devices, giving us options, choices, free will. Parents never want their children to experience pain. And yet, the only fool-proof way to keep them from experiencing pain is to shelter them so totally that it ultimately serves them no good whatsoever. That’s the risk inherent in parenting, and the question that parents always ask: how much freedom do I give my child so that they have the chance to make mistakes, learn, and grow? And, at the same time, how do I keep them safe from the consequences of poor choices, whether theirs, or someone else’s?
Ultimately, I think, it’s not about what Jesus knew, but about what Jesus did. As he landed on the shore, the crowd saw him approached by a man of power, who came to him humbled and vulnerable. As he made his way through the crowd, his mere presence brought miraculous healing to a woman who had been sick for twelve years. And by the time he got to Jairus’ house, he found himself with the opportunity not just to heal the girl, but to raise her from the dead!
I believe, with all my heart, that God intends nothing but good for this world. And part of that good is giving us, just as any good parent would, just enough freedom to make our choices. And as a result of those choices, whether ours or someone else’s, this world is far from perfect. It is broken, and deeply so. “God’s will” does not let us off the hook, because our choices are often in direct opposition to what God desires. But that does not lessen, by any degree, God’s sovereignty. God is in charge. This world is very imperfect. And what that paradox means is that hope has the final word. God does not desire evil or suffering. But God can work through places where evil and suffering have been at work to show a better way, a healing way, a way that brings life out of death.
And one of the ways that this comes to be is through prayer, as we open ourselves to God’s desires, as we hope to align our choices with God’s own.