September 11, 2011

"Thy Will Be Done"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Deuteronomy 20:10-16; Romans 12:9-21 

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the supposed mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, is a devoted disciple of a radical form of Islam.  As were many of the hijackers.  They believe their actions - flying planes into building - taking the lives of almost 3000 innocent people was the will of Allah.

This morning in our disturbing text from Deuteronomy, a priest stands before the Hebrew army as they go into battle.  The priest tells them first to try and make peace with those they encounter.  If they accept peace, take them as your slaves.  But if they make war, kill all the men, and God will give you the women, children, and livestock as your own.

And for those who live in the land they believe God wants them to have, they are told,  “You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall annihilate them.”  They do it in the name of Yahweh.  Is this the word of the Lord?

Throughout the sometimes dark history of the church, Christians have believed it was God’s will as followers of Jesus to embark upon crusades against Muslims, violently forcing others to say they are Christian.

Timothy McVeigh, a member of an extremist Christian group believed he was doing God’s will when he blew up the Oklahoma City courthouse.

Church-going people planned, carried out, and silently supported the Holocaust against Jews, the most evil atrocity in human history.

Christian southerners believed they were doing God’s will as they burned crosses in the yards of black people, and read the Bible at lynchings.

Muslim, Jew, and Christian, have all carried out terrible violence in the name of God, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus.  All based on interpretations of a certain portion of their sacred scriptures.

In our journey through the Lord’s Prayer we have arrived at this loaded petition - THY WILL BE DONE. 

What do we mean when we say “the will of God”?  When I pray THY WILL BE DONE I connect its meaning to the petition that precedes it - THY KINGDOM COME - which last week we called God’s Dream for the World. When we speak of God's will we are speaking of God's intentions and purpose for the world - what God wants done in this God’s world.

The will of God is not a reference to some force of fate that determines everything that happens.  According to the Bible, God is not the Grand Puppeteer pulling all the strings.

                                                               Fate and Free Will

Rather, God has granted us a free will.  God does not impose God’s will upon ours.  God does not make our choices for us.  If so, we could not be held responsible for them.  God would be held responsible for all that happens.  Many times we try to hold God responsible for our actions.  We deny the freedom God has given to us.  God is blamed for so much!  If we have bad health and even come to the point of dying, many people say, “Well, it must be my time to go.” 

But in some cases, we haven’t taken care of the body God has given to us, and our bad health is due to our poor eating habits or lack of exercise or other habits that endanger our health.  Sometimes it is the toxic nature of our environment or the foods we eat that kill us.  God is not the cause of our bad health or early death.  God intends for all a good long life.

One of the reasons I believe this is because we never see Jesus, the highest revelation of God, striking people with bad health or killing them.  He is always about the work of healing.  But rather than acknowledge the free choices we have made, rather than be responsible for our own actions, we would rather call it the will of God and say, “It was meant to be.”

We often say or hear people say, “Well, if it was meant to be it would have happened by now” or “I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”  These are responses from those who feel that God’s will is always done, and that if something doesn’t happen it must not have been God’s will, and if it is God’s will then it will happen.

                                                           Our Role In God's Will

But the Bible tells us differently.  The Hebrew prophets pronounce the judgment of God upon the people when they allow the poor to be trampled on and injustice to run wild.  Poverty and injustice that exist in this world are not the will of God, but are often the result of oppressive, greedy human action.

Jesus looked at the world around him and saw God’s purpose for creation distorted, even by the religious establishment, and he sensed a deep need to pray for God’s will to be done.

When we think of the thousands who died ten years ago today, do we say, “It was their time to go”?  That it was God’s will?  That makes God sound like the terrorists.  Or for those who didn’t make it into work early that day, do we say, “God is not finished with them yet”?  I don’t believe God was finished with those who died!

We will sometimes alter the language to say God “allowed” some tragedy “for a reason.”  But that is still holding God responsible for the evil done.  To believe in the God of Jesus Christ is to say that God does not in any way desire tragedy to befall any one.  Tragedy happens, God “tolerates” it, weeps over it, and works to bring good out of it.

One woman was brutally raped and barely escaped with her life, beating off her rapist.  She later said to a counselor, “I must have done something really terrible for God to have punished me this way.”  But the truth is, far from God being the source of the evil done against her, it had been God’s will working within her that had enabled her to survive that terrible night.

There are many people who would be too kindhearted to treat their worst enemy in the way they assume God treats people, visiting them with unspeakable tragedy. 

I think that perhaps this need to pin disasters on the will of God comes from those who cannot bear the idea that anything in our lives could simply be the result of chance or human freedom gone wrong.

For some of us, we need to believe that the significant events of our lives - births, deaths, tragedies - all have meaning, that they happen for a reason, and are not simply random.  If disaster strikes, some would prefer to say that God has brought the harm than to think that God is not in control of world events.  I personally do not believe, cannot believe, that God causes or even allows tragedy for some divine purpose.  I’ve seen too much pain and too much damage from the pain.

Jesus taught us that God is a loving father who wants what is best for God’s children.  What loving father wishes the death of his children?  A loving father does not want tragedy to befall any of his children.  And we are all, every person ever born, we are all God’s children. 

We need to be very careful how we speak of God and what we say God does and does not do.  I speak today with trembling lips.  We need to make sure that what we say about God reflects the loving Abba-God that Jesus brought near.

                                                Not a Prayer of Passive Resignation

To pray THY WILL BE DONE is not a calling to accept without question everything that happens as the will of God.  Rather, I think this prayer calls us to orient ourselves to the true will of God.

Paul said, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God. 

We don’t accept everything as God’s will; we must discern the will of God.  God’s will is not something that simply takes place on its own without any help or hindrance from us.

To pray THY WILL BE DONE is to make the realization that things are not as they should be.  Violence and crime, hatred and prejudice, poverty and homelessness, immorality and injustice all run contrary to God’s will. 

To pray THY WILL BE DONE is a cry that God would make a reality God’s Dream for the world.  It is not a resignation to patiently suffer God’s will; but rather, it involves a commitment on our part to partner with God and vigorously do God’s will. 

One man back in 1792 realized that God’s will was not something we sat back and watched God do, but something in which Christians should actively involve themselves. 

His name was William Carey.  And in a moving sermon in 1792, he spoke the words that led to the birth of the Baptist Missionary Society and became the slogan for William Carey College: EXPECT GREAT THINGS FROM GOD, ATTEMPT GREAT THINGS FOR GOD.

A wonderful mission statement.  “Expect great things from God” - that is, we don’t do it all on our own - and “Attempt great things for God” - that is, God doesn’t do it all either.  God is working to mend our broken world and God wants our help in doing it.  When we pray The Lord’s Prayer we commit ourselves to helping God heal the world.  We are partners with God in the doing of God’s will.

I was in the floor yesterday with my soon-to-be six year old son, Ryan.  We were playing a racing car game called “Criss-Cross-Crash” he had gotten for Christmas Ryan was talking about the design of the track and said, “Well that’s how God made it - and Jesus - and Santa’s elves, they have the tools.”

The little theologian knew something about a partnership with God, even if it was with elves, who are human after all, right?

                                                             What is God’s Will?

What is God’s will, then, that is to be done by us, in us, and through us? 

When people talk about God’s will, they sometimes give the impression that all they need to do is “figure it out” or “find it.”  They seem to think “God’s will” has been predetermined for them since the moment of their conception. 

Thomas Merton called such an approach to the will of God “pagan.”  He said this “is the idea not of God’s will but of fate.”  Discerning God’s will is not the same thing as “picking God’s brain” to determine one’s fate in life.  Our free will is one of the most precious gifts God has given to us.1

As Merton told the young monks of Gethsemani: “Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and God says, ‘You missed it buddy!  You didn’t guess right.’  Your vocation, or anything in life for that matter, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to try and figure out.  It’s something you work out by free response” in light of God’s Dream for all creation.2

One of the ways we weasel out of what we pray for is by saying we don’t know what God’s will is.  But in many places the Bible is disturbingly clear about what God wants.

It was Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

What does God want?

James said God wants us to welcome everyone into our church and to treat the rich and poor with the same respect.

Paul said:

Live in harmony with one another.
Be honest in your business dealings.
Don’t go to bed angry.
Never avenge yourselves.
Enjoy what God has given you.
Speak the truth in love.
Forgive one another.
Pray for governmental leaders.
Be an example in your speech, your love, your purity.
Overcome evil with good.

Jesus said:

Do good to those who hate you.
Make peace with those who anger you.
Give generously and lend to those who ask.
Judge not.

And to sum it all up, he said,

“Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

When we read scripture we find that rather than tragedy, God’s will aims at salvation and reconciliation.  Ephesians speaks of God’s desire to unite all things in Christ.

In the New Testament the will of God is not some dark mysterious reality hidden from us to which we must blindly submit.  It is God’s saving work to create a kingdom good beyond our imagining.  It is God’s plan to save the world and unite all things.

And we, the church, have been given the ministry of reconciliation, calling all people to be reconciled to God and to one another.

William Carey said “Attempt great things for God.”  And sometimes we are called to do great things.  But most of the time it is the small things, the next right thing that reconciles, that is compassionate and just.

                                                     God's Will - The Galilee Days

The will of God is sometimes a difficult thing to do.  But there are also wonderful moments when what we want and what God wants are one.  At those times, we unmistakably feel God’s good pleasure.  There were many days like that for Jesus. 

We could call them “Galilee Days.” Galilee, the place of Jesus’ ministry, where he healed and taught and brought good news to the poor and the hurting. 

Sometimes doing God’s will brings great joy.  Helping others in need brings joy to our lives, joy because we have done God’s will, joy because we have made life better for someone else.  It is during those times that we can sing with the psalmist, “I delight to do thy will, O God.”

                                                 God’s Will - The Gethsemane Days

Then there are those times when God’s will is painful and costly.  We could call them “Gethsemane Days.”  During Gethsemane days we have to decide whether or not we will leave our comfortable self-centeredness and go into the garden of self-sacrifice and pray THY WILL BE DONE.

It is the decision Jesus had to make.  He knows that his friend-turned-betrayer is on his way with a band of soldiers to arrest him and have him crucified.  He is in the garden of Gethsemane in a battle of wills.  He is deeply troubled, deeply grieved, praying to God.

He doesn’t want to die.  But the path of God’s will demanding that religious and political leaders act in justice for the poor and oppressed and have compassion for the sinner is a way Jesus knows will lead to his own death.

I don’t believe God wanted Jesus to die.  God wanted Jesus, and God wants us to stand against the powers that be and demand justice and peace and compassion, and not back down, nor give in to violence, even in the face of death.

In his commitment to the will of God for justice and compassion, out of his deep devotion and love for his Father, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but THY WILL BE DONE.”

To pray THY WILL BE DONE is a dangerous thing to do.  It cost Jesus his life.  And if we want to follow Jesus he said we must likewise take up our cross and walk in his way.  We must commit ourselves to the will and purpose of God, no matter how many crosses, nails, or thorns might come our way.

Sometimes our will and God’s will are not in harmony.  Sometimes there is an agonizing struggle, a clash of will against will.  And so, every day we must grapple with the question: Is my will this day disposed toward the living and doing of God’s will or am I raging against it?

The process of discerning the will of God calls us to ask questions like:

How can I uniquely contribute to God’s kingdom in this situation? 
How can I best make God’s dream a reality here and now? 
How can I foster the Kingdom’s peace, justice, and love?

To pray THY WILL BE DONE is a prayer for the strength to do God’s will. 

At the end of the scene in Gethsemane, Jesus is not on his knees passively awaiting the coming events.  But after having discerned the will of the Father, he said to his disciples, “Arise, let us be going,” and he walked into the hands of his betrayer.  He put feet to his prayer.

Sometimes there are those, like Jesus, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, who must accept death to retain the integrity of their lives.3


As to others, including Christian, Jew, and Muslim, who have led to believe that God wants them to kill in God’s name, I, as a Christian, who is called to filter everything through the teachings of Jesus, I believe they are dead wrong.  They have misunderstood the God of peace, love, and justice.

The will of God can be costly and sometimes painful, but it is not coercive, nor is it violent.  Surrender to the will of God is more like merging your will with God’s will like a stream flows into and merges with the river.

The rest of the Lord’s Prayer will teach us that God’s will is:

      daily bread for all
      forgiving others and being forgiven
      and deliverance from temptation and evil.

We pray each week THY WILL BE DONE.  Out of integrity, do we need to skip over that phrase this week?  Or, in true devotion, will we put feet to our prayer?  Will you merge your life into the river of God’s kingdom, a river whose streams make glad the city of God?


1. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1993, 117

2. Haase, 123-124

3. John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, HarperOne, 2010, 111