When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Thy will be done,” he was not teaching them to ask for something that he himself didn’t entirely desire. Jesus wanted God’s will more than anything, to do what most glorified God, even at the cost of great personal pain and suffering. The God-man, Jesus Christ, fell on his face in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and with the cross looming uttered these faithful words: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Jesus wanted to do God’s will. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one and in perfect agreement and because Jesus loves the Father, Jesus wants the Father’s will . . . always.
At one point before this, Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 6:38). Jesus was entirely submitted to the will of God, and please consider that God’s will for Jesus included immense suffering, suffering the cross, suffering the wrath of God. Even so, Jesus prayed, “not as I will, but as you will.” Amazing. So whatever the providence of God has for us, our Master has taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.” We desire and pray this precisely because Jesus desires and prays this, and we are being conformed to him.
When are you most frustrated, angry, hurt, and anxious? For me, it is when my will is not being done on earth. My will. I have many desires and dreams, some wicked, some sanctified, and when my wishes are interfered with, well, I get frustrated, angry, hurt, and anxious. If my plans are threatened in any way, boy, I get pretty bent out of shape. Jesus wasn’t like that. Jesus got righteously bent out of shape when God’s will was ignored or disobeyed. Jesus cherished God’s will so much that he wanted it all the time. And I’m not just talking about God’s decretive will, the way of thinking of God’s will that pertains to God’s sovereign decrees or predestination, I’m talking also about God’s preceptive will or God’s commandments, God’s revealed law. Jesus loves God’s law so much that he always desires to see it done without fail. Not only that, Jesus carried out God’s preceptive will without fail. He obeyed the law perfectly. So the request “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” is a request that Jesus Christ himself always and entirely desires and a request that we who belong to Christ should always desire. Why? Because God’s will is best for us . . . always.
Take a moment to consider your own desires and wishes, your own will. I want to please people. I want people to like me. I want my family to be safe and comfortable all the time. I want to be healthy. I want pleasure. I want good food and drink. I want to be smart and have eloquent answers to life’s toughest questions. I want to be loved and respected. I want a lot of things. That’s my will. I don’t have to think very hard about my will because my will comes naturally. Desiring God’s will comes supernaturally; I need the Spirit to give me a passionate desire for God’s will.
I’m being honest about what I want, I guess what my flesh wants. And the wants I mentioned are not necessarily bad, though they can be. Follow me on this. If I want people to like me, and they don’t, it’s painful and disheartening to me. My will wasn’t done, and I cannot make it happen, either, and that’s wearisome. But does the derailment of my will justify me swerving from God’s will in response? No. Consider that Paul said in 1 Thessalonians that the will of God is our sanctification, and our sanctification is for our greatest good. So if people don’t like me, God’s decretive will is working for my greatest good to teach me to be patient in adversity, to love my enemies more selflessly, to depend on Christ more, and to delight in God’s love for me more, and in this adversity, I have an opportunity to exercise my faith in Christ by doing God’s will. I can’t do it by myself. So I must ask God, “Thy will be done,” not “my will be done.” The Lord’s Prayer helps me turn my focus from my will to God’s will.
I could do this with all the desires I mentioned earlier, but the point is that we naturally want our own will to be done. Part of our sanctification journey is God pulling our relentless grip off our own will to wrap it around Christ.
What do you ask for when we pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? Heidelberg 124 answers:
That is: Grant that we and all men may deny our own will, and without any murmuring, obey Your will, for it alone is good.1 Grant also that everyone may carry out the duties of his office and calling2 as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.3
Angels don’t argue, they do. Their modus operandi is pleasing God by doing His will. We can learn from their heavenly example. We must repent from our own will. Repentance is turning from what we will to entire submission to what God wills. As Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). As those who are united to Christ by true faith, we must daily deny following our own wills and daily refocus on following Jesus. The preceptive will of God is seen perfectly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the covenant-keeper, the law-keeper, the perfect Son.
Denying your own will is hard. It’s painful. It requires death to the old self. But this does not justify grumbling. We don’t grumble because we’re thankful to belong to Christ. We don’t grumble because we firmly believe that God’s will alone is good and best for us. If we doubt this, if we don’t repent of unbelief at this point, we will begin to think our will is better than God’s will, and when that happens, we’re in deep trouble; we’re already moving away from God. We must repent of unbelief and trust Christ to orient our hearts toward God’s perfect will. As we depend on Christ and receive his grace and Spirit, our desire for God’s will grows, as does our sincerity as we plead, “They will be done.”
We don’t naturally and joyfully deny our own wills. Jesus knew that, so he taught his disciples what to pray for because they needed God to grant them grace.
Do you believe that God’s will is good? Do you believe it is best for you? Do you believe it even if it includes suffering, shame, rejection, disappointment, embarrassment, etc.? Jesus did. The only way you will believe that God’s will is good is if you firmly believe God Himself is good. Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone” (Lk. 18:19). Since God alone is good, His will is better than your will, because you are not good. Neither am I. We can’t trust our will; we can only trust God’s will. Why? Because God alone is good. Believe this. Believe this so much that you begin to pray with earnest desire, “Thy will be done.”
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.