your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven
Matthew 6:10 ESV
Thus far in our study of the Lord’s Prayer, we have seen to whom we pray (our Father in heaven) and what it means to pray for the hallowing of His name and the coming of His kingdom. We continue with the following two lines which provide one petition: your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This petition concludes the first half of the prayer that focuses upon the revealing of God’s glory, whereas the final three petitions will center around our needs.
Like our previous study, we will begin by clarifying what it is meant by the will of God and then proceed to address why we must pray for His will to be done.
THE WILL OF GOD
As with our previous two sermons, the will is modified here with the word your, signifying the Father. But what exactly is the will of God? Throughout history, theologians have long differentiated between (at least) two distinct ways of describing God’s will. These “two wills” of God have been described with a variety of language. The first will is often called God’s will of decree, sovereign will, or secret will, while the second is commonly referred to as God’s revealed will or preceptive will. Sproul, as well as others, argue also for a third type of will, the dispositional will, which we will also discuss briefly.
The sovereign or decreed will of God is exactly what we might imagine it to be. This will of the almighty Creator of heaven and earth shall come to pass. Period. In the creation narrative, God gives decrees for the cosmos to exist, and the universe comes to be in obedience to His sovereign command. Paul, likewise, affirms this omnipotent will of all things: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:1). Take note of the sweeping nature of Paul’s wording. All things are molded by God “according to the counsel of his will.” Indeed, is this not what we affirm in confessing God to be almighty? How could He rightly be called almighty if His will was not sovereign and could be undone?
The second will, the preceptive or revealed will of God, is what God has commanded us to do or not to do. We find this usage of the word will often proceeded by a command or an action to take. For instance, Paul discloses this will of God twice in his first letter to the Thessalonians.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. (4:3-8)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thank in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (5:16-18)
Furthermore, Peter similarly calls us to obey the will of God as such:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
The commands in these passages are explicitly identified as being the will of God, yet, as with any precept, they can be disobeyed. Although these things are God’s will, they can be disobeyed and are disobeyed on a daily basis.
We should also note that even though these three passages give commands which are called the will of God, we must understand every command given by God in His Word to be His revealed will. Since Jesus succinctly summarizes all of God’s commands down to loving God and loving our neighbor, we could also rightly call them the revealed will of God. The sovereign Creator would have us love Him and love one another. That is His will for us.
Some theologians also argue for a third usage of God’s will in the Scriptures, a dispositional will of God. Sproul says that this will refers to “what is pleasing or displeasing to Him” (55). Examples of this dispositional will are John 6:40 in which Jesus states, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks upon the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Also, in 1 Timothy 2:4, “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and in 2 Peter 3:9, “[the Lord] is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
These are clearly not God’s sovereign will, since the Scriptures speak of those who will be cast for eternity into the lake of fire, the second death. Nor are they explicit commands for repentance, although we do find many such commands in Scripture. Instead, they remind us of what God declared through Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone (18:32), even the wicked (33:11).
These, in short, are the “wills” of God. Of course, we must always remember that these ways of understanding God’s will are not contradictory. We may question why God does not use His sovereign will to accomplish His dispositional will for all to be saved, but such mysteries require much more time than what we can presently afford within the bounds of this study and even, to a degree, the limitations of this life. Instead, we must content ourselves to, first, trust that the Judge of all the earth will do what is just and, second, marvel that “everyone who looks upon the Son and believes in him should have eternal life” even though we were and are insurgents against God’s revealed will.
YOUR WILL BE DONE
We now come to the very purpose of our passage: what does praying your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven mean and look like?
Given that we addressed three different ways that the Bible presents God’s will, we should first ask to which Jesus is referring here. To pray for God’s sovereign will to be done would entail praying for His kingdom to come so that His divine plans will come to pass and for our submission to His decrees. To pray for God’s dispositional will to be done would be an evangelistic prayer for all people to worship God and for our desires to be conformed to His own desires. Such prayers are certainly biblical and rightly fit Jesus’ teaching, yet His revealed will seems to be most in focus here.
Consider the second clause, on earth as it is in heaven. God’s preceptive will is presently being violated upon the earth while being obeyed in heaven. The angels, who remained faithful to God, live in perfect obedience to His command. Wherever He sends them, they go without question. They are swift and joyful in their submission to His will for them.
We, on the other hand, who were made a little lower than they, constantly buck and revolt against the commands given to us by the Most High. We reject the wisdom of the seraphim who hallow God’s name with praise both day and night in favor of the cunning advice of the Serpent who ever whispers that God only wants to keep us from becoming gods ourselves. The desire of every sin-corrupted heart is for its own will to be done, not God’s. Yet we continue to pursue our will at the cost of our own ruin. How so?
Heaven is heavenly because God’s will is done there. His commands are followed and obeyed, so life flourishes. Beauty abounds when the Architect of beauty’s designs are put into practice. Who would not long to live in a community wherein everyone genuinely loved each other more than they loved themselves? Such people would be free from the fear of murder, betrayal, theft, and the like. No one can divorce these conceptions of utopias from the idea of heaven. A world free from sin is heavenly, while one marred in sin is hellish.
For this reason, Jesus’ church, at its best, is meant to be a sneak peek at what’s to come. A heavenly aroma should linger where Christ’s disciples love another, even as Jesus has loved us. To the contrary, a community of individuals who proclaim, “my will be done!” will inevitably become a preview of hell. When my will is supreme, what prevents me from taking whatever I desire except the consequences of the law? Truly, brothers and sisters, our wills are naturally destructive. Consider the warning of Thomas Watson:
God may justly punish us by letting us have our will. Rachel cried, ‘Give me children, or else I die.’ Gen xxx 1. God let her have a child, but it cost her her life. Gen xxxv 18. Israel was not content with manna, but they must have quails, and God punished them by letting them have their will. ‘There went forth a wind from the Lord and brought quails; and while the flesh was yet between their teeth, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against them, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.’ Numb xi 31, 33.
C. S. Lewis famously made a similar point regarding the final punishment of hell:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
To pray your will be done, therefore, means rejecting our own will. It means acknowledging that God is God, and we are not. This petition, like the two before it, dethrones self and bends the knee to the Eternal One.
But this is not to say that praying for God’s will to be done means that we cannot bring our desires to Father. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is a glorious model of how we might practically pray this prayer. His crucifixion rapidly approaching, Jesus makes this cry to His Father: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
Notice the threefold structure of our Lord’s prayer. First, He affirmed the omnipotence of the Father. All things are possible for you. Second, He made His petition. Remove this cup from me. He asked to be spared the cross along with its pain and humiliation. He laid His desire honestly before the Father. Yet He concludes by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Despite the horror that lay before Him, He submitted Himself to the Father’s will. Likewise, it is not sinful to cast our desires at the foot of His throne. The Father, of course, knows our heart’s desires before we ever utter a word before Him. Yet we must do so while submitting ourselves ultimately to God’s will. Prayer itself, after all, is an act of submission.
Unfortunately, many adherents to the Word of Faith movement see prayer as a means of exercising our will in faith. For them, qualifying our prayers with God’s will is unbelief, a lack of faith. Prayer, however, is not about naming and claiming things in faith; it is about aligning ourselves with the Holy One so that we may walk in step with His Spirit. “To say that it is a manifestation of unbelief or a weakness of faith to say to God “if it be Your will” is to slander the very Lord of the Lord’s Prayer” (Sproul, 59).
Rather than an exercise of our authority, praying this petition must lead us to pray for patience and grace to endure with joy any trials and afflictions that the Father thrusts upon us. God’s will and ways are higher than our own, and they often result in our discomfort in order to discipline us into conformity with Him or to accomplish a grander purpose. Stephen’s martyrdom was an affliction upon the fledgling church in Jerusalem, but the trial caused the believers to scatter throughout the region, taking the message of the gospel with them. Remember, brothers, the words given to us by the author of Hebrews. God’s affliction upon all who are in Christ is the discipline of our loving Father “for our good, that we might share in his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:10-11). In the midst of the Father’s discipline, we pray for His will to be done in us that by it, He would further mold us into His likeness.
A significant portion of our submission to God’s will is walking in obedience to His revealed will, to His commands. In praying for God’s will to be done, we must, therefore, pray that it would be done in us through obedience to His Word. Our obedience is a crucial component of our sanctification, yet even our obedience is empowered by God Himself. As you “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” take joy in knowing that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). It was the will and love of the Father that sent Christ to give His life as our ransom from sin’s eternal debt. Christ has come to give us eternal life, and no one will snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28). Therefore, we can also trust that He who began the work of our salvation will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). He will provide us the ability to walk in obedience to Him, so we pray in faith for God’s strength to do God’s will.
Finally, consider Augustine’s words on this petition:
So you have good reason to pray that it may be done in you—it’s so that it may be for your good. In any case, whether it’s for your good or for your undoing, it will be done in you; but let it also be done by you. So why do I say, Thy will be done in heaven and on earth, instead of saying, “Thy will be done by heaven and by earth.” Because whatever is done by you, he does in you. Nothing is ever done by you which he doesn’t do in you. But sometimes he does in you what isn’t being done by you; never, though, is anything done by you if he doesn’t do it in you.
God’s will shall be done in us, whether we like it or not. Upon the Day of Judgment, all who have violated God’s revealed will and refused cast themselves at the feet of Christ for pardon will be thrown into the lake of fire. We pray now for strength which God supplies to do God’s will, that His will would be done by us, and that we would continue to look in faith upon His Son so that our will submits to His rather than being broken by His. As Philippians teaches, one day every knee shall bow before Christ and every tongue will confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Let us, therefore, humble ourselves before Him now that, rather than groveling before Him without hope at the close of His glorious appearing, we will be exalted with Him as subjects within His eternal and magnificent kingdom that is to come.
I’ve cited the larger context of these passages because they often seem to be reduced down to the command within the closest proximity to the phrase “the will of God.” For example, some will say that God’s will is for us to abstain from sexual immorality, which, granted, is certainly true but it is only one aspect that Paul brings into the focus of sanctification.