I’m three sermons into my series on the Lord’s Prayer and it is already changing how I hear and say the prayer. Reciting the words every week is playing with dynamite. Preaching through the prayer is opening up a spiritual journey for me that I was not expecting. I hope you find something here as well.
When I put those two words into the search window of my web browser I found pages and pages that were willing to tell me what “God’s will” meant, but most of them were not helpful. One listed “twelve things that are definitely God’s will for your life,” and another had “the top ten lies about God’s will.” A couple of them said God had a secret will, a revealed will, and a discerned will, which made me think they were describing some kind of theological “three bears” story. The online thesaurus listed these words as synonyms: destiny, God’s plan, predestination, what is written, inevitability, and “the way the cookie crumbles.”
I think Mr. Roget has some work to do.
Understanding God’s will is not easy, yet one of the things that Jesus prayed—and that we say every week—is “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
What was he saying? What are we praying for?
One of the reasons those questions are difficult is they are often tied to how we think about suffering. We would like to understand—as the book title says—why bad things happen to good people, why life is tough when we feel like we are trying hard to be good. People we love get sick. People we love are in pain. People we love get crushed by life, even when they are people of faith. Does that mean those things are God’s will just because they happen? Does God intend for us to suffer as some sort of lesson? Is suffering payback for our not doing what God wanted?
Another idea that is problematic when it comes to God’s will is predestination—the idea that God has destined us for certain things and already knows what will happen, which then means when something happens, it must be God’s will.
My mother looked at life this way, particularly when it worked in her favor. She was scheduled to be on a flight many years ago that ended up crashing. Her plans had changed at the last minute and she was not on the plane. She was convinced it was because it was God’s will for her to live. We spent more than one conversation with me asking if that meant she thought God willed those on the plane to die.
I grew up being told that God’s will was like a map of my life—that God had things planned out and it was up to me to make sure I stayed on track. It’s a variation on predestination, in a way, and it creates another problem. The mental image I carried was the map at the shopping mall that showed the whole place and then had a red X and a bubble that said, “You are here,” but I never could tell where I was on the map or where I was supposed to go next. What if I made a wrong turn when I was in second grade and I never realized my mistake?
What all those perspectives share is they make God’s will mostly about the circumstances of our lives, but Jesus’ words have a broader reach: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He was talking about a more expansive understanding. To get a sense of that, let’s look at his life and some of the other things he said.
At Jesus’ first sermon after his baptism, he stood in the synagogue and read from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. God has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Later, when someone asked him about the greatest commandment, which might be another way of asking about God’s will, he answered,
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.
He also told a parable about a final judgement, which was depicted as a king rewarding those who had followed his instructions:
Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who will receive good things. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then those who are righteous will reply to him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”
Then the king will reply to them, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”
Jesus’ ministry was revolutionary because he was determined to love everyone, and that is what he called his followers to do—and we are some of those followers. To follow Jesus—to do God’s will—is to love others in his name, to look for ways in our daily lives that pull us into the lives of others, to say and do things that liberate, comfort, and build relationships. That is how God’s realm flourishes on earth as it does in heaven.
When Jesus talked about earth and heaven he was talking to people who had a layered or tiered view of the cosmos: earth was down here and heaven was up there. Some of that thinking is still a part of us, but in more recent times we have learned that everything in the universe is made up of the same stuff, the same energy, and it is all connected in ways we are barely beginning to grasp. We are, literally, stardust.
The more we learn, the more we see what we have yet to comprehend, but what is becoming clearer is the universe—what people in Jesus’ time meant by “heaven and earth’—is made up of relationships. God created ev everyone and everything to depend on and support and affect everyone and everything else.
Too often we talk about science and faith as if they were adversarial, but cosmology and physics resonate what God has been saying all along: we are made for each other. We can’t live like that is not true. We know too much. We can’t unlearn our vital connection to one another.
Jesus talked about coming to give us abundant lives. He talked about living like the lilies and the wildflowers that grow and bloom and spread gratuitous and seemingly random beauty just being themselves. He talked about trusting that God is with us even when we cannot feel God’s presence. And the last prayer he prayed was for his followers to love one another so intently that they were unified in their love of the world.
Too often across history, when religious leaders other than Jesus have talked about God’s will they have weaponized it to control people or to shame them. Those are the roots of some of the ideas about suffering and blame that I referenced at the start of the sermon. Thankfully, they have not been the only voices. Also, across history, there have been those who have embodied the will of God by following Jesus and have spent their lives loving those around them. They are the ones who are doing God’s will.
God’s will is living with open arms, not closed fists.
We talked last week about hallowing God’s name, about God being our priority and the Priority of the Universe. God’s priority is Love. God’s name is Love. To pray for earth to feel like heaven is to pray that all of creation would live into our connectedness, that would embody love.
To pray for God’s will to be done is to pray that love would be the dominant energy in the world. For that to be true, we will need our actions to undergird our prayers. If we pray for God’s will to be done on earth like it is in heaven, we have to live like we mean it. As the old songs says, they will know we are Christians by our love. Amen.