Part 4 / Matt. 6:9-13
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray for what God wants first, before turning to their own needs and wants. Their, and our, priority in prayer should be to “ask… according to his will” (1 John 5:14-15). This raises an important and perplexing question: what is God’s will?
Whether you are a frustrated student struggling to decide what to study, a young adult wondering who you should marry, or a businessman weighing different investments, we have all wondered about God’s will for our lives. We search the Scriptures for answers and find that a list of university courses or the name of my future spouse just isn’t there. In these situations, believers often turn to impressions, hope for visions, or take verses out of context. That is not what Jesus had in mind when he taught his disciples to pray: “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)
Aspects of God’s will
To understand God’s will, we must differentiate between God’s sovereign will and his revealed will. God’s sovereign will, also called God’s decretive will, is that which always comes to pass. This is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Everything that happens is according to God’s sovereign will, or it would not come to pass.
Our plans are subject to God’s sovereign will. Proverbs 19:21 reminds us: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” And again in Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” James warned his readers that they should plan with humility, because ultimately we are not in control – God is. We have to acknowledge that our plans will only work out “if the Lord wills” (Jam. 4:15).
How do we know God’s sovereign will? As we’ve mentioned before, God has not revealed everything to his children. Deut. 29:29 says: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God”. We only know God’s sovereign will because God has chosen to reveal it to us (through biblical promise of prophesy) or because it has already taken place.
What about God’s revealed will? God’s revealed will is also called his moral will. This is what the rest of Deut. 29:29 is all about: “but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” God’s will is revealed in the commands, promises, and prayers of God’s Word. When we search the Scriptures we find that God’s revealed will includes our “sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3), being thankful (1 Thess. 5:18), and sometimes even going through trials (Phil. 1:29).
God’s revealed will calls for submission, trust, and obedience. It is this aspect of God’s will that Jesus had in mind when he said: “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21). To do God’s will believers have to understand it: “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Eph. 5:17). This is only possible if we prayerfully search the Scriptures.
Praying for God’s sovereign will to be done
Both God’s sovereign and revealed will come into play when we pray for God’s will to be done. In praying for God’s sovereign will to be done, we are saying that we acknowledge God’s sovereignty and that we submit ourselves to it. David expresses this kind of confidence in the Lord in Psalm 37:7-8: “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” Submitting to God’s sovereignty means that we give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).
Praying for God’s sovereign will to be done does not mean that we can’t pray for a change in circumstances. The apostle Paul, for example, asked the Lord three times to remove the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor. 12:8). We can pray for healing or deliverance for trials. However, we should be willing to accept God’s answer without grumbling or complaining.
Also, God’s sovereign will does not absolve us from responsibility. Prayer and obedience are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Which brings us to praying for God’s revealed will.
Praying for God’s revealed will to be done
Praying for God’s revealed will to be done means that we are asking God to enable us to do what he has commanded. Knowledge is an important element in this. The apostle Paul often prayed for the churches to be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col. 1:9-10). Elsewhere he prays that believers may have “discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9-10). Praying for God’s will, therefore, includes praying for knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and discernment.
When we pray for God’s revealed will to be done, we are also asking God to give us a sincere desire to do his will. Knowing God’s will and having the desire to do his will are two different things. In Matthew 21:28-32 Jesus told a parable of a father telling his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first son said yes, but never went. The second son said no, but regretted his decision later and did what his father had asked. Both sons knew their father’s will, but only one had the desire to do it. As servants of Christ, we should do the will of God “from the heart” (Eph. 6:6). Praying for God’s will also means praying for a heart that delights in doing God’s will.
Finally, praying for God’s revealed will to be done means that we are asking for God’s supernatural enabling to do his will. Augustine famously prayed: “Give what you command, and command what you will.” It is this divine enabling that lies at the heart of true obedience. In the words of Philippians 2:12-13: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” When we pray should echo the benediction at the end of Hebrews: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.” (Heb. 13:20-21).
Praying for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) is not limited to the individual believer. We should pray that God’s will would be done all over the world. Psalm 67:2-4 captures this picture beautifully: “that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” This is what it means for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray: “Your will be done”.