Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


3. Prayer for the will of the Lord to be done

"If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him".
(1 Jn.5:14-15)
'In praying "Thy will be done" we set no limits to what that will may mean. Our growing, wondering acquaintance with the living God teaches us that that will may be fulfilled through judgment or through gentleness, through success or through failure, in public or in secret.'
(John V. Taylor)

This clause of the prayer indicates the way that beyond all others we should pray for our lives and for our work. It can truly be said that it is more important to know how to pray than to know how to work, as unprayed for work has no lasting significance, but if we pray for the will of God to be done through our work, we are asking that it will have lasting value. In this regard prayer and work should be of one piece. What could be more important and wonderful for any of us to recognise than that God has his will and purpose for our lives, with significance for time and eternity? It is in the light of that truth that 1 John 2:17 says, "those who do the will of God live forever".

As we have noted already, the very human way that we follow so often is to decide what we should do or what we want to do - in other words, our will - and then ask God to bless it. That can never be true prayer. It is only the foolish and vain attempt to get God to do our will. R.E. Clements puts it, 'We cannot bend this Ruler, and make God an agent for the carrying out of our wishes. It is we who must bend to God's will and discover God's nature and character.' (13) A 16th Century mystic put it, 'Prayer is not to ask what we wish of God, but what God wishes of us.' Nor is prayer a way of getting out of some difficulty that we are in, then to go on in the "stubbornness" of our own self-chosen ways (Jer.11:8). Rather it is a seeking - in whatever circumstance - to know and to be enabled to do the will of God.

The ideal presented in this prayer, moreover, should not be seen simply as a passive acceptance of the will of God. It does involve submission, the relinquishing of our selfish will (cf. 2 Sam.10:12), but it is more; it is that God's will is actively sought to be done "on earth as it is in heaven". "As it is in heaven" conjures up the picture of heavenly beings delighting to do the will of God without hesitation. A vivid biblical picture of this is that of the heavenly beings in Ezekiel 1, bearers of the divine throne, "Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went". The prayer we are called to pray is that in such a way we on earth will seek to do the will of God.

Leroy T. Howe puts it, 'Genuine faith is relationship with One who, in whatever he does, whether answering prayer or not, will act worthily, in a manner befitting his own perfection; words of address cannot be prayerful which petition unworthy things of a God erroneously believed willing as well as able to do anything.'(14)

In the Scriptures we have examples of the tragedy of opposing the will of God in life. We also have examples of those who prayed just that God might do their will. James and John in their request wanted the Lord to put himself at their disposal rather than for them to be at his disposal (Mk.10:35-37). We do well to think of the chaos that the world would be and the harm that could be done if prayer were a matter of getting God to do our will. Psalm 106:15 (RV) suggests that it is sometimes possible so to ask persistently for our own will that God grants it and "sends leanness into (our) soul". Prayer for the will of God to be done in our lives as it is done in heaven implies the glad relinquishment of our will and the ready acceptance of God's.

There are some things for which we can pray and it may be lack of faith to say, 'if it be your will', because we know the will of God - e.g. to give us strength, love, courage, patience etc. In other things it is presumptuous not to say, 'if it be your will', because we do not see as God sees (cf. Jas.4:13-16). Charles Kingsley said, 'How do we know that in praying God to take away these rains, we are not asking Him to send the cholera in the year to come? --- Now perhaps you may understand better why I said that I was afraid of being presumptuous in praying for fine weather.' Another example is the way that Monica in her longing that her son might become a Christian asked that God would not let her son sail for Italy, and so be taken out of her influence. 'And even while she prayed there passionately for her son's retention at home, he sailed, by the grace of God, for Italy, where, persuaded by Ambrose, he became a Christian in the very place from which his mother's prayers would have kept him.'(15)

Another way of thinking of "the will of God" is in relation to the quality of life that is God's will for us. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 puts it, "this is the will of God, your sanctification", in other words that we should live righteous and holy lives, as people who "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matt.5:6). In this sense praying for the will of God, for ourselves and for others, is the request that we may live rightly and justly in all our relationships. The acceptance of God's discipline of our lives (as in Jer.10:23-24) is the request that our whole personalities might be brought into harmony with the will of God. The model prayer in this respect is the prayer of Mary after the angel had come to announce to her that she was to be the mother of Jesus , "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Lk.1:38). With this we may also compare the simple prayer of Saul of Tarsus at the time of his conversion, "What am I to do, Lord?" (Acts 22:10). Such is the best way we can pray for our own lives and our future, as it is true that the greatest prayer that we can make for our fellow-Christians is that they may be led in all things to do the will of God. Such is the prayer that closes the Epistle to the Hebrews, the prayer "God -- make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will ---" (Heb.13:21).

The prayer for success in any undertaking (e.g. Neh.1:11, 2:20) can be made with assurance, if we know that it is the will of God that is being undertaken, and the glory of God that is sought. Such is the spirit of the words of Proverbs 16:3, 'Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established." We can pray with confidence the psalmist's prayer, "Prosper the work of our hands" (Ps.90:17) if our work is God's work, the work that God wants us to do. Some enterprises we can always be sure to be the will of God. We know it is the will of God, for example, that the gospel of Christ should go out into all the world, and we may link with that prayer for the increase of God's kingdom in the world the request that God will send forth labourers into his harvest (Matt.9:38 and Lk.10:2). So in relation to those who have been brought into the Christian family we can do no better than to ask as Epaphras did for the Colossian Christians that they might "stand firm in all the will of God" (Col.4:12).

It was supremely the prayer of Jesus himself in the greatest crisis of his earthly life, when in Gethsemane he prayed, "not my will, but yours be done" (Matt.26:39, 42, Mk.14:36). In that same context he showed that it would not have been the will of God to pray for, "the twelve legions of angels" which could have prevented his arrest (Matt.26:53). The end and completion of this prayer for the will of the Father in his life was his committing himself into the Father's hands as he died on the cross (Lk.23:40), and a Christian can do no better than, as Stephen did, follow the Master's example (Acts 7:59).