[Jesus] came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”Luke 22:39-42
This is the fourth part in a series I am sharing on the Lord’s Prayer. You can find the first three parts here: “Why We Pray Our Father“, “What Does It Mean to Hallow God’s Name?” and “What Does It Mean to Pray “Thy Kingdom Come”?” This week I am looking at what it means to pray “Thy will be done.”
Come with me to the Garden of Gethsemane, located at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It is a fairly short walk from the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus has just shared his last supper with his disciples, knowing all that lay ahead for him. Arriving at this garden, Jesus knelt down and prayed.
Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.
An angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish, the evangelist Luke tells us, “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” His disciples, waiting a little ways off, fell asleep.
I have often wondered how long Jesus spent in prayer that night. Long enough for his disciples to fall asleep, even knowing the gravity of the moment! How long did Jesus pray? And particularly, how long did he spend between praying “Remove this cup from me,” and praying “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”
I suspect that it was a very long time. Which is simply to say that we should not rush too quickly, in our prayers, to “Thy will be done.”
[Jesus taught them, saying:] “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”Matthew 6:9-10
Praying “Thy will be done” should always be something we arrive at in our prayers, but not where we start. God wants to hear from us, wants to know what we want, wants to know our will. Doesn’t any loving parent?
So, what do you want? If God were to ask you that, how would you answer? It is not as easy as it first sounds. Try spending fifteen or twenty minutes simply answering that question before God. What do you want? What do you really want?
What I have noticed is that the more time I spend answering this question in my prayers, the more my answer evolves. It might have something to do with the needs of the day, at first. (Give us this day our daily bread.) It might eventually progress to asking for forgiveness for my failings. (Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.) It will often lead to praying for help in times of trials and tribulations. (Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.) It might circle back around to a particular urgent need, for me or more likely for a loved one. But eventually, if I stay with this question long enough, I notice that I arrive in my prayers at a similar place to this famous prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”
In a famous poem by T.S. Eliot, he writes:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
At the end of all our praying we will arrive where we started, praying for God’s will to be done, but knowing this prayer, really and truly knowing it, for the first time.
There are no shortcuts. This prayer (“Thy will be done”) shows us our destination, but we still must take the journey. Searching for what we want, asking for what we think we need, having prayers answered and not answered countless times, before finally arriving where we started, and truly knowing what we are praying: “Thy will be done.”
Jesus shows us the way. He is the way. But he also shows us, in his tears and in his heartfelt, gut-wrenching prayer before he is arrested and crucified, this journey that we all must take. Jesus cannot take it for us. But he does take it with us. The journey from “My will be done” to “Thy will be done.”
I think that the journey of the Christian life, in some ways, simply comes down to this very thing – to learn to pray, “Thy will be done,” and to mean it. To put it a little differently, we can sincerely pray “Thy will be done” for one reason and one reason only: Because we trust God. We believe that God loves us, and wants what is best for us, and so we can pray these words, to our Father in heaven, whose name we hallow, whose kingdom we long for, on earth as in heaven. Thy will be done. Not my will, but thine.
I want to make a point here that I don’t even like: That whenever we struggle to pray, “Thy will be done,” it is because we don’t really trust God in that situation. For me, this is most often the case when a loved one is dealing with a trial – illness, addiction, a relationship not going well, and on and on. When I am talking to God about someone I love, who is going through a trial that breaks my heart, it becomes very difficult to pray, “not my will, but yours be done.” Why? If I am perfectly honest, it is because I don’t really trust God to handle it perfectly. Right? What other reason can there be?
The ultimate act of trust is to pray, “Thy will be done,” in every circumstance of life. It’s where every prayer starts, in a way. After all, why pray if we don’t trust that God will listen? But it is also where every prayer ends, arriving right back where we started. After wrestling, at times, and in anguish, perhaps. Just as Jesus modeled for us. But, finally, arriving with Jesus at the ultimate expression of trust, at the place we are all headed in our prayers, the place of ultimate and perfect faith: “Yet, not my will, but yours be done.” On earth as it is in heaven. Amen