Jesus came, as John says, “full of grace and of truth,” filled with all the fullness of the Godhead. He went through the day “doing good.” And as He encountered people, as events took shape around Him, He gave His divine response in deeds, doctrine, and instruction — what each moment called for; each the fruit of a specific encounter, original and unique, but nonetheless fraught always with eternal meaning.
In the eleventh chapter of his Gospel, Luke relates: “And it came to pass as Jesus was praying in a certain place, that when He ceased, one of His disciples said to Him: ‘Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples.’ ” We can visualize the situation; we can perceive the faint hint of jealousy of that other teacher and his disciples. But in this human and transitory moment, the Lord speaks those eternal words:
“When you pray, say:
‘Father’ — and Matthew prefixes the ‘Our’ and adds
‘Who art in Heaven’ —
‘Hallowed be Thy name.’
‘Thy kingdom come!’
‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.’
‘Give us this day our daily bread,’
‘And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us’ — Matthew has:
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.’
‘And lead us not into temptation’ — and Matthew adds:
‘But deliver us from evil.’ ”
And now we look for a gateway into the structure of these sentences, an entrance into their vital core. We find it in the petition, recorded by Matthew, “Thy will be done.”
Thy Will Be Done
We are exhorted here to ask that God’s will be done. So this will must be something that is worth asking for; something precious for which we have to petition with all the earnestness and ardor of prayer; something holy and salutary.
God’s will is that which He demands of us and which binds us in conscience. We might perhaps be tempted to think that what is meant here is the “moral law” or our “duty.” But we have only to insert these words into a prayer to see that they simply do not fit. The moral law and our duty are no doubt exalted concepts. We must strive to live up to them and to see that others do the same. But who would dream of praying, “May the moral law be fulfilled” or “May duty be done”? “The will of God” includes the moral law, for it enjoins upon human freedom the highest order, binding upon every conscience. But it is more than that — especially if we take the word in the particular abstract sense it has acquired in the modern age. The will of God is something infinite — a totality. It is something profound, near, living, which concerns us vitally and affects our being to its inmost depths.
God’s will is His holy intention for the world and for us. It is His eternal counsel, the fruit of His wisdom, the force of His stern decrees, the loving desire of His heart. Holy in itself, it is the epitome of the divine glory, the divine perfection. And it has the same gravity for us, since whether our existence acquires true purpose and reality or becomes a mere semblance depends upon whether God’s will is accomplished in it, or not. If God’s will enters into an hour, that hour is valid for eternity; if it does not, that hour is frittered away to no purpose. Such is the will of God as meant in the petition.
Now, if the Christian is to pray that God’s will be done, it must be possible that His will may not be done. After all, we are not exhorted to pray that the sun may rise. Hence, the petition implies that the fulfillment of the will of God is not something that happens as a matter of course, but, on the contrary, something that is doubtful, perhaps even imperiled.
God’s will is that which, according to His decree, should be accomplished in the world. But how is it, in fact, accomplished? That the sun rises and sets, that the stars follow their courses, that substances or forces behave this way or that: all these things are also the will of God. But God’s will in these spheres is entrusted to the course of nature. It has the character of inevitability. There is nothing tentative about it. Nothing can happen other than as it happens. But it is quite another matter when it comes to the higher and exalted things. It is altogether different in matters that, according to the grace and will of God, should take their origin in faith and Revelation.
Here, God does not wish His will to be actualized with the compelling force of nature. What is to happen here should arise only from man’s inner being — from his heart, his intellect, his love, and his free will. No compelling necessity can force what happens. The recognition of the truth, the creation of noble works and of a just order can come about only through the purity of heart and the willing cooperation of man. But this pure and willing spirit is not guaranteed by any compulsion; on the contrary, it is threatened by indolence, vanity, self-seeking, and apathy. Such things as courage, purity, generosity, loyalty to those who trust in us — whatever we call nobility of character — do not arise automatically or by physical laws; nor do the divinely delicate graces of the loving spirit, such as faith, love, humility, and holiness. They must come forth out of the freedom of the heart and the will.
But what a restless, frail, uncertain thing this free will of man is! What strength it has, but also what weakness. How many good, constructive, elevating powers it harbors, but also, alas, how many corrupting, degrading, disruptive forces. Man is prone to evil, and his will goes counter to God’s. To the will of God, he answers with a rebellious “I don’t want to.”
And so God’s will is in danger of contradiction. The higher the nature of what He wills, the more His will is imperiled. The nobler the thing that God’s will desires, the less assured it is of being done and the more frail, as it were, this divine will appears on earth. Indeed, the holiest effort of God’s divine will, the effort coming from His inmost heart, that is, the desire of His redemptive and self-giving love, appears to be singularly ineffective in this world, left to the mercy of every chance; and the probability of its finding fulfillment seems to be very slight. Or am I wrong? When Christ, with all the ardor of His most pure nature, brought the holy will of His Father into the world, what happened? The altogether unthinkable: Christ was taken for a seducer of the people and a criminal, and put to death. Here we see clearly the fate that can befall the will of God in the world, even though every opposition must in the end serve God’s designs — just as it was because of man’s terrifying disobedience that the Lord died His redeeming death.
And so we can surely understand that the Christian, taught by the spirit of Christ, must feel the threat to the will of God. The Christian knows the ways of the world, and he knows his own ways, and in consequence, he also knows that the will of God may be contradicted.
The Will of God
And there is something else to consider, something that is not easy to express, since it is a mystery that pertains to the essential nature of God’s freedom and because our words, which take their meaning and origin from the temporal world, always do it violence. It is this: the will of God, which is directed toward man in the form of destiny, divine decree, encounter, task, and ordeal, can actually be obstructed by man. Man can shut himself up so closely that the will of God cannot approach him.
For lack of man’s free cooperation, God’s will does not unfold. In consequence, God’s intention directed toward a certain person cannot be realized as it would have been if that person had given it scope and possibility. For God does not force man. Providence and destiny do not take the same course with man as the rain and the sun do with the earth; they are linked with man’s active willingness. They call forth this willingness and are liberated by and allowed access to it — or they are fettered and hindered by it.
So from this quarter, too, God’s will is imperiled.
That it is nevertheless God’s almighty and victorious will that shall be vindicated in the end, both in general and in individual matters, is also true; but it is true as a mystery and as a severe trial of man’s faith, which, as it were, must enter with the holy will of God into the shadow of weakness, in order to share in its justification on the day of judgment.
So the Christian’s concern is engaged for the will of God, which is the highest of the high and the end of all things, and yet, in this temporal world, appears most frail when it wills what is most holy.
That the will of God is a command and that we shall one day be judged according to it; that it is at the same time the meaning of all existence; that it is the will of the Almighty and yet is endangered, renounced, and apparently powerless in this world; that it is delivered up to man and yet can be fulfilled by him only through God’s grace; that it binds to what should be and is solicitous for the highest good; that it is the responsibility of man and the solemn majesty of God: all of this is interwoven in a profound and holy mystery.
How the Christian mind experiences and accomplishes this is what we choose to call the concern of the Christian.
It is also the gateway we have been looking for, the guide into the Lord’s Prayer. It shall open up its abundance to us.
Editor’s note: This article is from Guardini’s The Lord’s Prayer, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.