This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(124) Q. What does the third petition mean?
A. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” means: Help us and all people to renounce our own wills and without any back talk to obey your will, for it alone is good. Help everyone carry out his office and calling, as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.
“I just know it’s God’s will.” Have you ever heard that phrase used as a spiritualized version of “I want this”? We’re tempted to legitimize our actions in the name of God’s will, and to use prayer to convince ourselves that God must want what we want. The pursuit of God’s will becomes relative and self-serving when divorced from God’s word. But God’s will is not dreamy speculation. It’s the revelation of what God wants. When we pray for God’s will to be done, we aren’t asking for the stars to align with our wishes but for our lives to align with God’s expectations. This is how we must pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
What Is the Lord’s Will?
God’s will has two different but related expressions—Moses called them the “secret things” and “the things that are revealed” (Deut. 29:29).
God’s will includes his decree to bring all things to pass. It’s “the final cause of all things. Everything is derived from it.”[i] In this sense, God’s will is his master plan, much of which God keeps secret from us. God is not like a president of a corporation—officially in control but unable to do exactly what he wants. God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). And we should pray for this will to be done. When we do, we can become more assured of God’s stability and of our security in him. Our plans often change when we try to implement them; no builder follows a blueprint exactly. But God never adjusts his plan. God can say, “I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6). The God who knows best is totally in control. God always does what he wants.
And he also tells us to do what he wants. God reveals to us what theologians call his preceptive will—his rule of life for his creatures. In fact, knowing and doing God’s will is our basic calling. It’s our responsibility to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17), to “discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2). And doing so doesn’t require clairvoyance. God has shown us what is good and what he requires of us (Mic. 6:8). We know God’s will by studying his word and renewing our minds. And, like faithful children of wise and good parents, even when we don’t fully understand, we must do “the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6).
Doing God’s will won’t always come easily. This is why Jesus encourages his disciples with a heavenly vision for obedience. We must carry out our work “as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.” But we have an even higher heavenly example. We do God’s will looking to Jesus. Our attitude should be like Christ’s, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). Jesus prayed “Father … not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He eagerly, and without any backtalk, obeyed the Father’s will to save the elect through a bitter and shameful death on the cross (Heb. 10:7–10; Isa. 53:7). Jesus came to keep God’s will for us so that we who embrace him by faith will be accepted by the Father, and inspired and enabled ourselves to keep his will. In our struggle to live well we should look to heaven: “There is Christ, the perfect servant of the Lord. There are the saints that have gone before … and are delivered from the last [trace] of … corruption. There are the holy angels that [listen] to the Word of God’s mouth, and are ever ready to execute his will.”[ii] Look heavenward and be inspired to do God’s will. But don’t forget to pray for help.
How Do We Pray for the Lord’s Will?
Here are three applications that can help us pray the fourth petition as Jesus intended us to:
Christ intends believers to pray, “Your will be done,” in a spirit of self-denial, with a humble desire to do what will not come naturally. Within believers a war wages between the old self and the new self, between our self-will and our Spirit-guided will (Rom. 7:21–25). By nature, our wills are contrary to God’s—we want and do the wrong things. Our wills must be realigned to harmonize with God’s. So we ask him to help us reject our misplaced desires. We plead with God for grace to renounce the sin our minds are bent on committing. We pray for new, better desires, and work to give space for them in our minds.
As Christ and the saints minister in heaven, so we must serve on earth. That may be obvious. But Jesus is teaching us to apply God’s will in the minutia of our respective responsibilities. God’s revealed will for us is seldom mysterious. We know our moral pressure points, where God’s commands pinch our desires more uncomfortably. Knowing God’s will is not just for huge decisions—Where should I go to college? Should I marry? When? To whom?—but for giving us wisdom to honor God as we discharge our vocations. What are the things you want that God doesn’t want for you? These are the specific things you should be praying about. As our changed wills result in changed lives, we will bring a little bit of heaven to earth. The third petition clarifies the second. God’s kingdom is established, flourishes, and is preserved when God enables everyone in his own peculiar sphere diligently to do his will.[iii]
Believers can pray to God, “Your will alone is good,” and we will do it! Christ didn’t merely come to show us how to keep the Father’s will perfectly. He came to make us willing citizens of his kingdom. And he continues to work to help us do it. As we pray to be obedient to God’s holy will, we must believe that he’s willing and able to make that happen. As trusting children looking to a good Father, believers pray for “help … to carry out the work we are called to.” Is God able? He is! God can change our hearts so that we desire what he desires. This conviction should replace timidity with determination as we pray the third petition.
At the start of each day, let’s pray for obedient spirits. As we face challenges and frustrations throughout the day, let’s ask God to help us live as we should. As we rest our heads on our pillows at night, let’s pray that God would transform our wills even in our nightly rest. As God answers these prayers, the kingdom of heaven comes to earth and we experience joy and satisfaction in closer unity with our God and Savior.
[i] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 76.
[ii] Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1972), 3.553.
[iii] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 639.