The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/27/94
Text: Matt. 26:36-39 (Matt. 6:9-13)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"THY WILL BE DONE." GOD'S will. What is God's will? Do YOU know what God's will is? Lots of folks think they do, but I wonder.

I hear that Pat Robertson is about to spend $1.4-million because he is convinced that President Clinton's Health Plan is NOT God's will. Randy Shilts died last week. Randy was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who wrote the best-seller, And the Band Played On,(1) the story of the inception of the AIDS epidemic in America. Randy died of AIDS. He was gay. Some folks would say that is God's will.

Some folks think that God WILLS this team or that individual win in sports. Some probably think that it was God's will that Dan Jansen win Olympic gold and Tonya Harding not. Whenever I hear something like that I remember the immortal words of Yogi Berra to a batter who, while stepping up to the plate, crossed himself - the Yog is reported to have said, "Aw man, why ya gotta bring God into this? Why don' cha let God just WATCH a game for once?"

The press talks about God's will. Here's a story that appeared sometime back.(2) The headline reads "A Child is beaten to death: Murder or God's Will?" The dateline is South Haven, Michigan and it starts off, "The police call it murder. But `Prophet' William Lewis has another explanation: the 12-year-old boy found beaten to death at a religious commune was killed by God. `God killed him because God doesn't like bad children,' Lewis said." God's will. Obviously, most of us do not believe that because we know all too well that if God went around zapping bad kids we ourselves would never have survived. God's will, indeed.

Ask people why we have tornadoes and hurricanes, the earthquake in Los Angeles, and many will tell you they are ACTS OF GOD...GOD'S WILL. Granted, there are very few who would be ridiculous enough to say that the murder of a 12-year-old boy was God's will. But ask people why some folks suffer excruciating illness and again it will be said (with a touch of sadness in the voice) it is GOD'S WILL. Pick a disaster, any disaster, and someone is sure to tell you that it has happened because it is GOD'S WILL. God gets the blame.

But, on the other hand, millions of times every day, people repeat these familiar words..."Thy will be done." Perhaps that is why all these terrible things happen; we are praying that they will. Years ago, in the midst of World War II, the great English preacher Leslie Weatherhead wrote,

What sort of a God is this, who of his own intention, not through circumstances thrust into life by ignorance, folly, or sin, but of divine intention, pours misery undeserved and unhappiness, disappointment and frustration, bereavement, calamity and ill health on his beloved children, and then asks them to look up through their tears and say, "Thy will be done."(3)

That is absurd, of course, but it points up why we need to look at these words and understand what we are asking when we repeat, "Thy will be done." What is this divine will for which we pray?

To begin with, I should say I do not believe that God is the author of disaster. God does not go about looking for ways to wipe out unsuspecting communities or individuals - that would not be God; it would be a devil. I DO believe that God created the universe according to certain natural laws. Those can most assuredly be called GOD'S WILL. But I also believe that God does not suspend those laws willy-nilly. If that were the case, we would have no way of ordering our lives. We would not be able to get up in the morning because we could not be sure that gravity would keep us on the floor. We would not construct buildings of iron and steel because, on one particular day, feathers might be stronger. We most certainly could never fly in a plane because the laws of aerodynamics would not guarantee our safety in the air. But we do not worry about things like that because we DO live in an ordered universe. THAT is God's will.

What about disease? We know that our bodies are very intricate and finely-tuned organisms. As the Psalmist says, "We are fearfully and wonderfully made."(4) It was GOD'S WILL that we be created that way. But, if we abuse our bodies with improper diet and exercise, by introducing strange substances like smoke and drugs into them, by indulging in unsafe sex, by sitting out in the rain on a chilly night, we are in for trouble and we know it. Many of the physical infirmities that we have are of human making, some as individuals, some as society as a whole. But God should not be blamed. Sickness and disease are no more God's will than are bombs dropping on little children in Sarajevo. We make a mockery of our concept of a God who loves us if we really believe that, for some folks, God arranges terrible and excruciating pain. Again, that would not be the act of GOD, but rather some kind of devil.

What about things like earthquakes and hurricanes, the things which even insurance policies call "Acts of God?" Those are not our fault, are they? Well? A few years ago there was another earthquake in California, this one centered in the little town of Coalinga. It totally wiped out the downtown area and did some 31-million dollars worth of damage. An act of God? Scientists did not think so. They feel that the whole thing was caused by too much oil drilling in the area that made subsurface pressure undependable. Again, we are back to an ordered universe. If we do things to upset that order, even unknowingly, we INVITE disaster. I suspect that as our scientific understanding increases, we will see more and more of these so-called "natural" disasters explained, not on the basis of GOD'S WILL, but on the basis of our own.

Which brings us back to the prayer: THY WILL BE DONE. And if nothing else, it should point out just how necessary that prayer really is. We repeat "THY WILL BE DONE" but we LIVE "MY will be done," and that is why we have such trouble in the world.

All right. We have said something about what God's will IS (an ordered universe, among other things), and what God's will is NOT (to damage or destroy people). But even that does not say enough.

This is one of those rare times we can get some help from all those hours the preacher spent in a seminary classroom toiling over Greek. You see, as it turns out there are two different Greek words which can both be translated into English as WILL. One (boulé) has to do with the unchanging, predetermined counsel of God...God's purposes in creation, the order in the universe that we have been talking about. But the other word that translators render as "will" (thélema) has the idea of DESIRE or WISH in it, and that is the word we find in our text. For those who have wondered why we should bother to pray that God's will might be done when we know that God's will WILL be done anyway, this is the answer. We are really dealing with God's WISHES here and not ultimate, immutable divine decrees.

We understand the difference between boulé and thélema. With our sons and daughters, we exercise our boulé (until they become teenagers). There are some things that you MAKE your little children do (eat vegetables, get enough rest, take a bath...with SOAP, things like that), things that you know are to their benefit even if they do not know it themselves. That is your WILL for them. But that is not the end of it.

There are also some things that you would WILL for them that fall more in the category of WISH. For example, it is my WILL (my thélema) that my children grow up to be Godly people, good citizens, a fine husband or wife, mother and father - I want grandchildren someday (everyone tells me they are FUN). But for me to WILL such things for David and Erin will not make much difference if they will not cooperate. I can train them properly, provide them with all the tools, make the way as easy as possible...but it is up to them: they will be free individuals with freedom of choice and moral responsibility for their own actions. My WILL is that they turn out a certain way; whether that will is done depends to a great extent on them.

It is the same with God. There are certain things God would LIKE to see happen in this world...God's WILL...God's WISH. But we have been created as free beings, not robots, so whether that will is realized greatly depends upon us. When we say "Thy will be done," we are aligning ourselves with God's desires and making ourselves available to respond to those desires. "Thy will be done" not only TO me but THROUGH me, here "on earth heaven."

Now, how do we find out what God DOES wish? First and foremost, God's wishes are laid out right here, the Bible. If you want to know what God wants, READ! For example, God wants us to manage creation properly, to be good stewards of that with which we have been entrusted. God wants us to treat each other properly, especially those in society who cannot care for themselves. God wants us to keep our priorities straight, never getting the idea that WE are gods and no longer accountable. The word from Jesus is that Christians are expected to actually LOVE one another, to have such an unfailing concern for the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ that nothing can come in its way. This list could go on all afternoon. The point is that ninety-five percent of what God desires for and from you and me is right here in the Bible. We might not want to HEAR it, but that is our problem, not God's. As Mark Twain said, "It ain't those parts of the Bible I can't understand that bother me, it's the parts that I DO understand."(5)

But the Bible does not have a specific word to say about everything. If searching the Scripture for God's will on a certain issue does not help, the next step is to listen to what the church has said through history. For example, the Bible has little to say about gambling other than a few passing references. But the church has decried gambling almost from the beginning. That gives us guidance. God can speak through the church.

I wish the voice of the church were always clear, but we know it is not. One part of the church says NO ABORTION while another part says a woman should have the right to choose. In our own Presbyterian Church, one group says homosexual practice is all right while the vast majority shout NO. Pat Robertson and friends say NO to the President's Health Plan, while other streams of the church are favorably impressed by it. The voice of the church communicating God's will is occasionally muffled. What then? We rely on our Christian concern as guided by the common sense that God gave us. If the ministry of Jesus is our guide, a ministry that was first and foremost concerned with people, with healing hurts and meeting needs, then as his disciples, we will have the same priorities. To determine God's will as to what you should be or do or say, ask yourself, "Is this what Jesus would do? Is this what a Christian would do?"

To be sure, we will still have questions. As John Leith, one of our denomination's most respected teachers of theology, wrote about the controversy concerning our continuing Presbyterian battle over Human Sexuality, "All of us need to remember that our apprehension of God's will is flawed by our own limitations and that the complexity of many human situations... [defies] precise prescriptions for human behavior..."(6) Some issues will be difficult! But scripture says, "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you."(7)

"Thy will be done." As you know, Jesus not only taught US to pray this prayer, but, in his own way, prayed it himself. In his darkest hour, the night before the crucifixion, his prayer in Gethsemane was "Not what I want but what you want" (Matt. 26:42). It must have been a horrifying time for him, knowing what was about to happen. But after he made his prayer, he rose up from his knees and was the calmest one in the garden. He knew his Heavenly Father was in control, and that made all the difference.

"Thy will be done." Our concern is NOT with disaster or disease or decrees, but rather desire - God's desire for you and me and all the world. To pray it and MEAN it may be difficult. It may mean that we, with some embarrassment, will see areas of life where OUR will is in conflict with God's will, that we are not being or doing what God would want. It may mean that we will have to adjust our thinking and acting from what appears most desirable to what is most right. But we pray it and mean it because we know that God's will...those wishes God has for you and me...are for our highest and best. We KNOW that God knows better than we do. We pray the prayer because it makes good sense.

Is that your prayer today? Do you simply repeat the words of Jesus' pattern one after the other with no thought to their meaning? Or are you praying that God's will might come to pass...beginning with you? May God grant it.

Have Thine own way, Lord, Have Thine own way;
Thou art the potter, I am the clay;
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.(8)


1. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987

2. The State, Columbia, SC

3. Leslie Weatherhead, The Will of God, (Nashville:Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1944), pp. 13-14

4. Psalm 139:14

5. Quoted by Jon Winokur, Ed., The Portable Curmudgeon, (New York: New American Library, 1987), p. 32

6. John Leith, "On Keeping a Proper Perspective," Presbyterian Outlook, 5/13/91, p. 7

7. James 1:5

8. Adelaide A. Potter, 1902

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