Prayer – Thy Will Be Done

The human tendency toward superstitions is strong. We often spiritualize objects, beliefs, and patterns without thinking. The professional athlete may be the most superstitious person today. Their routine and equipment can take on an almost religious devotion. Others cling to objects or talismans to protect them from wrong decisions or bad luck. Sometimes we can even make our devotional life into a superstitious pattern.

This is often the case because, as Dr. Scott Redd has noted, life is complex and confusing. Superstition simplifies this complexity into an input-output equation.[1] Do this and it will go well. Don’t do this and it will not. In this way we can pretend to have control. We can pretend to manage things beyond our control. But this sense of control is false.

As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the third petition in the Lord’s Prayer instructed them to pray for God’s will to be done. “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). This simple prayer is both an acknowledgement and request. It acknowledges that we need God to be in control. And it requests that God would bring his will to bear upon our lives. In a seemingly chaotic and confusing world, we need this prayer.

What is God’s will? Only man, created in the image of God, can know God’s will. The rest of creation is unaware of God’s will. This will was intuitively and clearly known by man because it was imprinted upon him. But in the fall everything became corrupted and distorted. Man’s alienation from God created a rift or division between him and God. Pharaoh expressed the sentiment of every sinner’s heart, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice…I do not know the LORD” (Ex 5:2). Man began to rule his life according to his own lusts and desires. He declared himself to be his own master. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

But when a person is converted, his own will becomes “burdensome and grievous to himself.” He realizes that he no longer follows and lives by God’s will, but his heart is changed such that he desires to follow it. “Since he knows that both he and all other men are unworthy, impotent, and incapable of this, and that such obedience is a gracious gift of God, he therefore avails himself of prayer and prays in humility, ‘Thy will be done.’”[2]

When theologians speak of God’s will, they typically speak about two aspects of it; God’s decretal will and his preceptive will. God’s decretal will is also known as his sovereign, secret, or hidden will. This is the will of God by which all things ordained by God come to pass. God chooses to permit all things that happen. There is no thing that occurs outside of God’s sovereign gaze. Anything that happens, happens because God has willed it to be so. This is not what is prayed for in the third petition.

The second aspect is God’s preceptive will, that is his revealed will. God has made certain parts of his will known to us by revealing them through his Word. It is God’s will that we worship only God, that we do not commit adultery, that we be holy, that we repent of sin. We know this through God’s Word and our conscience because the law has been written on our hearts. This revealed will informs us as to what God would have us do. While we cannot thwart God’s decretal will, we can thwart his preceptive will. God allows or permits our sin because he will use it for good purposes. We have the power to violate his preceptive will, but not the authority. We are morally culpable when we break it.

This is why we must pray for God’s will to be done. It is not for his decretal will. That will happen regardless. We pray for his preceptive will to be done. And for it to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven the power and even the very presence of sin is gone. “Alas! How defective are we in our obedience here! How far we fall short! We cannot write a copy of holiness without blotting. Our holy things are blemished like the moon, which, when it shines brightest, has a dark spot in it; but in heaven we shall do God’s will perfectly, as the angels in glory.” We long for the day when we see the holiness of the kingdom of God fully bear upon all that is broken and fallen in this world, especially in our own lives. So we pray for “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

[1] Scott Redd, “Don’t Be a Superstitious Christian,” TGC – The Gospel Coalition, accessed September 6, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dont-be-a-superstitious-christian.

[2] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.524.