A Submissive Prayer
Posted by Ash Carter, 23 Mar 2018
Ash Carter explores what it means to pray for God's will to be done in the next in our series of Lent blogposts.
“Your Will be Done, On Earth as in Heaven” (Matt 6:10)
At first glance, praying “Your will be done” seems to be somewhat self-contradictory. Some reading this will believe that God is absolutely sovereign, in which case everything that happens is God’s will. God’s will is always done, and that won’t be changed by prayer. On the other hand, some of us will struggle to believe that God is really sovereign at all. In which case, the prayer is more like telling God that we hope his will is done, rather than asking him to make it so.
In either case, the prayer can strike us as a little odd.
Jesus himself prays as though God is sovereign. In Matthew 26:39, he is in the garden at Gethsemene, and he submits his will to the will of the Father with these words: ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’
Jesus submits his future to the plan of God. But he does so knowing that God is willing and able to bring his plans to pass. Indeed, he acknowledges that his will is impossible if it is against God’s will. The Father’s plan to save a people through the cross will not be undone by Caiaphas or Pilate just because they don’t want to play their parts. Jesus submits to the sovereign plan of God.
Some of us will struggle with this idea, because it sounds as though God does everything, including evil things, so it is worth a comment on this in passing. There are a variety of occasions where the Bible speaks of one action with two intentions. A great example of this is the story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, then wrongly imprisoned. Mistreated for years before being raised to a position where he could deliver God’s people from famine. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph shows his prophetic gift when he say, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ The same event, Joseph being sold into slavery, was intended to do great harm by his brothers, but God was doing something different. He was saving thousands of lives, including the critical line of promise, through Joseph’s pain.
To bring about God’s purpose
God’s will is always done, through the good and bad times. So why pray this prayer?
There are two answers to this question. The first is that frequently Biblical prayers are on the basis of the things God has revealed about himself and his plan. So when Moses intercedes for the people of Israel after they commit idolatry with the golden calf, Moses appeals to God’s reputation. God has spent much of the book up to that point declaring that he will act for his name’s sake, so that the people will know who he is (E.g. Exodus 6:7). So Moses appeals to God not to destroy the people because it will reflect badly on him (32:12). Moses knows that God is acting for his greater glory, and destroying the Israelites will diminish that glory. Moses prays, in other words, according to what God has already promised to do. And God works through those prayers to bring about his purpose.
So we should pray for the things that God has promised to do because our prayers are part of God’s means of fulfilling his purposes.
God’s will for us
But there is a second sense of God’s will. If the first is about what God is doing directly, this second is about what God has revealed to us as his will for us. It is the sum of all the directions the Bible gives to us. It is living according to his wisdom. It is living in the fear of the Lord.
When we pray, “Your will be done”, we are praying that God would help us and all his people to obey him. To make us more like Jesus. That is the context of this entire prayer, as Jesus spends the Sermon on the Mount teaching his people how to live as Kingdom people. They are to be perfect, just like him (Matthew 5:48).
Indeed, the whole gospel tends in this direction. Jesus ends it, after all, commanding the church to make disciples of all nations. Not converts only, but disciples. And disciples, “obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
The standard here is very high. It is to be in perfect submission to Christ, here on earth just as the heavenly court are in heaven. Again, this is a dangerous prayer. If the previous line is about God broadening the church, this is for him to deepen it. To aim at perfect maturity. For us. For our church. For every church. It is the prayer that invites God to go to war against our own sin.
This is a prayer of personal submission to Christ. It is going to be costly. It doesn’t come naturally to us to submit to Christ; everything in our flesh wants to rebel. This is why Paul characterises this manner of life as putting to death whatever belongs to our old nature (Colossians 3:5). This is not the easy path. It is not fun. It is to take the narrow, difficult way. Just as it was in the garden, when Jesus submitted his desire to avoid pain to the Father’s will to save an unnumbered multitude. When we pray this prayer, we are walking in the footsteps of our King.
How will God answer this prayer?
This is a prayer for maturity. Growing to be like Jesus is becoming more fully human. Restored to what we were intended to be. But how do we get there? How can we expect God to answer this prayer?
Paul gives us great clarity on this point. He tells us that we grow to maturity together as we speak the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:15). Is this any truth though? Is it enough to speak the truth about the weather, or the sport?
No! But there is one truth that is sufficient by itself to make any person mature. It is the truth about Jesus (Colossians 1:28). In every situation, to Jew or Gentile, old or young, male or female, slave or free, Paul simply preaches the fullness of the truth that is in Jesus, and people grow in maturity.
Elsewhere he tells us that as the truth about Jesus is laid before us, as we take time to dwell upon it, so we are contemplating the face of the Saviour. As we dwell on him, as we grow to love him more, as our hearts are turned to love the things he loves and hate the things he hates, as we see how he responds to this world, and we seek to imitate him, so we grow “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
So what shall we do? “Set our hearts and minds on things above, where Christ is” (Colossians 3:1-4). When we pray, “Your will be done”, we are committing to a life spent contemplating Christ, so that he will grow our obedience.
Questions for reflection
1. Why do we need to be willing for God to change us when we pray this prayer?
2. What are the areas in your own life where you know you need to pray this prayer?
3. How can you ‘set your heart and mind on things above’ more effectively?
Our Father in heaven,
You know that every fibre of my sinful self longs to rebel against my Saviour. But you will finish the good work you have started in me. So, Lord, I pray that you will subdue my flesh, give me victory over my sinful nature, and give me such a sweet contemplation of Christ, that I love him above all else, that I may love what he loves and hate what he hates.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Ash Carter is the Assistant Minister at Christ Church, Earlsfield, and the Honorary Treasurer of Church Society.
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