Years ago, a friend’s brother was at Reed College in Oregon. It’s one of those schools where the students seem to major in protesting more than in actual studying. After several months of watching silly demonstrations about every conceivable PC cause, the guy decided to create one of his own, just to see how many earnest young suckers he could get involved. So he painted a number of signs and cooked up some chants and jingles and then started recruiting students for his rally. He gathered quite a gaggle of activists from the ranks of the student body that dutifully went out at his bidding and began the protest. His theme:
“NO BAD THINGS! DOWN WITH BAD THINGS!”
I think of this anecdote when I contemplate the Lord’s Prayer, because it can sometimes seem that Jesus is proposing something like an angelic inversion of the rather obvious point being made in that silly and satirical rally when He commands us to pray “Thy will be done” to the Father. It is not unreasonable to ask, with respect, “What else should we pray for than that God’s will be done? Who isn’t in favor of good things and opposed to bad things?”
I think the reason comes to us very quickly the moment we attempt to get specific, just as it similarly was intended to come to the Reed College protestors. Granted, we want to do God’s will just as we want to get rid of “bad things.” But what exactly and concretely does that mean, here and now?
If we are like most people, we sort of go into vapor lock at this point. Indeed, it’s easier to list off various Bad Things we’d like to get rid of than to state positively what we think “God’s will” is. I suspect most of us start with ourselves and our circumstances in trying to discern such matters. What is the will of God for my life? Does God want me to stay in my current job or try for that new one? Get the Ford or the Toyota? Pray more or work harder? Vote for Smith or Jones? Have faith for a miraculous healing for mother’s cancer or ask for the grace to accept the suffering that is coming?
All day long we muddle along trying to figure out “God’s will” and feeling slightly silly about it, since, after all, who really expects God to reveal His will about whether you should get the red or the blue shirt? If we actually meet people who are really confident that they are tuned into the divine frequency and are Doing God’s Will throughout the day (“God showed me to pick the creamed corn, not the whole kernel at Top Foods”), we generally have the sense that we are in the presence of somebody who needs to cut back on the caffeine. So while we approve of “doing God’s will” as a general principle, we’re not at all sure what that actually means on a day-to-day basis.
This is where revelation and the guidance of the Church come in handy. The Church, in fact, insists that we can know and definitely state certain truths about the will of God:
Our Father “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” He “is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish.” His commandment is “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” This commandment summarizes all the others and expresses his entire will.
“He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ . . . to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” We ask insistently for this loving plan to be fully realized on earth as it is already in heaven (Catechism 2822-2823).
This is where we begin: with the definite fact that God wills to save us, that He wills us to love one another as He has loved us, and that (mysteriously) His will, in Christ, is to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” It is there, not someplace else, that we start. For it is Christ, not our particular perception of our particular circumstances, that really is the central story. We orbit Him, not He us.
The striking thing to notice about “Thy will be done” is that it is a prayer — a volitional and even a participatory act. In Islam, or paganized forms of Christianity such as hyper-Calvinism, the will of God tends to be seen as something that cancels out human freedom in a sort of zero-sum game where the more space God takes up, the less space there is for us. Such a conception of the will of God smacks of the Inexorable, and our place before it is to submit as a slave to the overwhelming power of a Master. In some religious systems, the will of God is literally all there is. Everything happens because God positively willed it, and our only task is to cringe and call it good, no matter how evil it is.
In such systems, the will of God arbitrarily pulls your name out of the inscrutable divine lottery and, if you are chosen, then that’s that: The Irresistible Grace overwhelms you, and you can’t help but be saved. If not, God created you because He wills to damn you — and too bad for you. The good news is reduced to the proclamation, “God might love you and may have sent his Son to die for your sins — if you are lucky enough to be elect.” Your will in the matter is irrelevant.
In contrast to this is the Catholic gospel, which insists that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). In other words, precisely because the Lord is present, we have real freedom to receive or reject Him: to do his will or not. That’s why we pray — because we need His help to do what He commands. Indeed, we need His help even to desire to pray to do as He commands. But as we pray, we become participants –real, divinized participants in, and not merely patients of — the life of the Blessed Trinity at work in the world. And all while remaining the fully human creatures and persons we are. It is the miracle of actually having our cake and eating it, too.
This is one of the reasons for one of the more obscure Christological controversies in the history of the Church: the question of whether Jesus has one will or two. It would seem that this arcane matter could only be of interest to tightly wound medieval theologians, but really it has everything to do with us ordinary schleps. If Jesus has no human will of His own, then He’s not our help or guide when He chooses to obey the Father, because He is not fully human. But in fact, being fully human and not just a God who is play-acting, Jesus fully enters into the anguish that we have to go through when we make the hard but right choice. When He sweats blood and gasps out the resolution, “Not my will, but yours be done” in Gethsemane, we really can know that “He’s been there” and that, moreover, He is still there for us when we need to face the bitter cross. He really is fully human and fully God: that’s why He can save us.
“Thy will be done,” then, is first and foremost a prayer of obedience. But it is the obedience of a child to a Father, not of a craven slave to Tash the Inexorable. Jesus makes a choice in Gethsemane, and we are called to make the same choice in little tiny ways each day until it all is consummated in the final offering of our life to the Father through Christ. Shockingly, Hebrews tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8), a statement that makes no sense unless we again grant the full humanity of Christ. When we do, it gives us great hope, because it means that God the Son really has borne the fullness of the heartache we bear as we struggle to say “Yes” to the hard work of death to self inherent in “Thy will be done.”
That said, Jesus’ perfect human will means more than simply, “He’s been there.” As universal human experience makes clear, while cool phrases like “uniting our will to God’s” sound great, we are, in the words of the Catechism, “radically incapable of this.” Grace is always prior for us, because without it we (and the entire created order) could not so much as exist, much less will what God wills. But in addition to the fact that we are creatures (and therefore in the position of Hamlet hoping to know Shakespeare), we are also fallen creatures: Hamlets who have rebelled against Shakespeare; who don’t want to know him; who are terrified of knowing him; and who, when we get the chance, nail Shakespeare to a cross when he writes himself into our world. We are one messed-up species. And the more we need to repent, the less able we are to do it.
This is why God became man. Not merely to provide an example, but to give us power to do what we cannot do on our own. As Paul puts it:
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you (Rom 8:3-11).
We are enabled to do God’s will because God has assumed human nature, put to death the sin that infected it by a perfect act of surrender to God’s will, raised it from the dead, and glorified it. Man is already in heaven in the person of Jesus Christ, and now the God-man can give us the power to recapitulate what He has done through the Holy Spirit. By our lonesome, that would be impossible. But as we rely on the grace the Holy Spirit gives through the sacraments and trust Him to guide us on a daily basis by our efforts to obey the law of love, God can be depended on to help us do what He desires: His will, which is love.
None of this is to say that we must only settle for generalities about God’s will and cannot know specifics. Indeed, the Catechism tells us:
By prayer we can discern “what is the will of God” and obtain the endurance to do it. Jesus teaches us that one enters the kingdom of heaven not by speaking words, but by doing “the will of my Father in heaven” (2826).
The Christian tradition is chock-a-block with the reality of specific guidance given by the Holy Spirit to His people. I mean guidance of the “Yes, go in that doorway/No, get the creamed corn” variety (when it is really necessary to fulfilling the law of love). The world resounds with the testimony of Christians who, setting out to do the law of love, have received very clear and specific indications from God about what the next practical step should be.
How do they do this? Most of the time, the guidance comes in the form of the practice of the virtues (especially prudence), the use of common sense, and through reliance on the guidance of the Church in the midst of specific circumstances. As Uncle Screwtape points out:
The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible?
But, of course, as the existence of books like The Screwtape Letters point out, there exist other wills in the universe besides those of God and ourselves — demonic as well as human wills bent on deception. And deception can be rather easy in our case, since we are fallen and our own wills are divided. That is why prayer is described as a “battle” in the Catechism, and this is why Jesus so often insists on our applying ourselves to the struggle of prayer. Prayer is one of the principal means by which God purifies us and brings us through to the reality of a single will where we know the freedom and joy of St. Francis, who says with simplicity, “I want what God wants. That is why I am merry!”
Such reliance on common sense and ordinary human virtue is not meant to deny the reality of the supernatural in prayer. In addition to the common human ways in which God guides us in prayer via prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, and so forth, He sometimes sees fit to reveal His will via supernatural bells and whistles:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:6-10).
But, of course, that’s up to God. We can ask for such guidance in our day-to-day affairs, but we ought not demand that God perform special effects as a general rule, lest we neglect the weightier matters of the law and become like the Pharisees who “sought a sign” not because they lacked one, but because they didn’t like where the signs Jesus had already given were pointing. In short, as we seek to know God’s will, we should be cautious of the human tendency to seek signs, not in order to find things out, but in order to keep from finding things out.
The great model for us in all this discernment of God’s will is the Blessed Virgin, who obeys God’s will perfectly by the grace of her Son. In doing so, she stands in a peculiarly helpful place for us, because, by divine design, she does something that even Jesus her Son cannot do: she shows us what a disciple of Jesus looks like. Mary’s “Yes” is the Yes not of the Incarnate Son, but of a disciple who doesn’t know what is going to happen next, who doesn’t quite understand what is going on when Jesus disappears at the age of twelve (yet who trusts anyway), who is worried about His safety when the rumors start flying that He is crazy (and yet trusts), who has to stand there and watch when her whole world is shattered by the crucifixion (but does not despair). Hers is the act of saying “Thy will be done” in that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other way that marks our dark and mysterious path through this world, where we are not shown the whole road but only have light for the next step. Her “Let it be done unto me according to your word” sums up the whole way of obedience to the will of God.
Marywills God’s will alone. She lives out Kierkegaard’s great observation that “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” and Dante’s great truth, “In his will, our peace.” In doing so, she becomes a sort of miniature figurine of the Church, displaying the perfect freedom that comes from perfect obedience. For that, of course, is the point of Christian obedience to the will of God: freedom, not enslavement. As Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). Our freedom is an end, not a means, because we are ends, not means. God did not create and redeem us for some other goal that we are merely a stepping stone to achieving. He does not (as our culture does) treat us like utilitarian tools for some other purpose. Rather, as the Church teaches, man is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake (CCC 356).
Because of this, obedience to the will of God can be — and indeed must be — seen as the way toward the full flourishing of the human person according to the law of love. That is why Augustine could so cheerily summarize Christian surrender to the will of God this way:
Once and for all, a short rule is laid down for you: Love, and do what you will.