The Hardest Prayer You Will Ever Pray
October 26, 2007
Some prayers are harder to pray than others. I learned that thirty-three years ago when my father died. One October day he felt a pain in his shoulder. The doctors later said it was transferred pain from a bacterial infection elsewhere in his body. It did not seem serious at first, but he got no better and a few days later traveled by ambulance to Birmingham where a battery of doctors went to work on him. Marlene and I drove in from Dallas, arriving at the hospital sometime after midnight. Dad spoke to me when I saw him, but I could tell he was desperately ill.
A few days later, now back in Dallas, we received the dreaded call. Once again we sped through the night to Birmingham, hoping against hope. But my untrained eyes told me that he was not long for this world. That day–it is etched forever in my mind–I went in to see him, and he did not know me. He was drugged and nearly in a coma. Leaning against the wall outside the Intensive Care Unit I wept furious tears, unable to keep back the truth–my dad was dying and I could do nothing about it.
I must have prayed that day. I’m sure I did. After all, I was in seminary learning to help other people draw near to God. But I didn’t pray with words. In that terrible moment of utter helplessness, prayer did not come naturally. All theology aside, I knew my father was dying. I could hardly pray, “O God, heal him,” for I knew in my soul that God was not going to answer that prayer. I could not pray, “O God, take him home and end the pain,” for he was my father and much too young to die. I prayed, “O God,” but that’s about all. In a few days, God mercifully intervened and ended my father’s ordeal.
Praying in the Darkness
Most people have been in the same place. You have stood beside the bed of a loved one and found that prayer was nearly impossible. Or you have faced a difficulty so immense that you truly did not know what words to use when you prayed. Or perhaps there have been times in your life when you have not prayed because you were afraid of the answer God would give.
Prayer can do that to even the best of us. It seems easy on Sunday morning. Why is it so difficult to pray in the darkness? Perhaps we are afraid of what God will say in response to our prayers. What if we ask for guidance and He guides us in ways we don’t want to follow? What if we pray for wisdom and the wisdom we receive seems more like nonsense? What if we pray for patience and the answer means nothing but trouble for us?
A Little More Like the Angels
All of this should not surprise us. Jesus hinted at the problem when He gave us the Lord’s Prayer. Included in that model prayer were these words: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The basic difficulty may be easily seen if we lay it out in a series of logical statements:
1. God has a will concerning my life.
2. God’s will encompasses His desires for my life.
3. But I also have a will that encompasses my desires for my life.
4. Those two wills are often in conflict with each other.
5. When there is a conflict, either God’s will or my will will prevail.
6. When I pray, “Your will be done,” I am asking for God’s will to prevail over my will.
That’s the basic difficulty we face when we pray. When we ask that God’s will be done, we are implicitly asking that our wills be overturned, if necessary. It’s not easy to pray that way when you’re standing beside the hospital bed of someone you love.
But that’s only part of the problem. Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Exactly how is God’s will being done in heaven? If the reference is to the angels (as I think it is), then God’s will is always being done in heaven. Psalm 103:20 says, “Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word!” In heaven, God’s will is always done; in heaven, God’s will is instantaneously done; in heaven, God’s will is completely done; in heaven, God’s will is joyfully done. In essence, Jesus asks us to pray that we might become a little more like the angels (who always obey) and a little less like the demons (who never obey). When that happens, the earth will become a little more like heaven and a little less like hell.
But God’s will is rarely done on the earth. After all, there are over six billion wills on the earth and still only one will in heaven. Just look around you. Do you see God’s will being done? Pick up the newspaper and read about a serial killer. Read about the killing in Bosnia, the slaughter in Rwanda, the corruption in high places in America, the rise of satanic ritual child abuse. It looks like someone else’s will is being done.
In some ways, “Your will be done” seems like the most hopeless of all prayer requests. Seldom do we mean it. Seldom does it seem to be answered.
“Your will be done” is a difficult prayer to pray sincerely. It may be the hardest prayer you will ever pray. Even though Jesus Himself instructed us to use these words, there are at least four reasons why we find it difficult to do so.
Reason #1: It is hard to pray, “Your will be done” because it means giving up control of your own life
We’re back to that little syllogism again:
1. God has a will (or desire) for your life.
2. But you also have a will (or desire) for your life.
3. When you pray, “Your will be done,” you are asking that His will take precedence over yours.
Only one will can be done at a time. Either God calls the shots or you call the shots. Either He is in control or you are in control. It’s not easy to pray like that because it means giving up control of your own life.
But you aren’t really in control anyway. It only seems that way. Several years ago I read the biography of Bob Pierce, who founded World Vision, the Christian relief organization that has helped millions of people around the world. As I read his story it struck me that he was an unlikely man to found and lead such a large organization. He didn’t have much education, he butchered the King’s English, and he lacked many social graces. In fact, he called himself a second-rater. When asked the secret of his life, he said that in his early years as a Christian he had prayed like this, “O God, I give you the right to change my agenda any time you like—and you don’t have to inform me in advance. Amen.” That’s the kind of prayer God can answer because it’s based on the truth that God is God and He has the absolute right to do whatever He wants. Many of us are unhappy because we’re fighting God at the point of His sovereignty. We’ve never surrendered our agenda to His control.
Reason #2: It is hard to pray, “Your will be done” because we often doubt that God wants the best for us
There is a second reason why this is a difficult prayer to pray. If the first one touches our will, the second one touches our mind. The first reason was practical; the second is theological. Oftentimes we’re scared that if we give God control of our lives, He’ll mess it up somehow. We wouldn’t say it that way, but that’s how we really feel.
More than once I have heard people say, “Pray for the opposite of what you want, because God always gives us the opposite of what we ask for.” We laugh when we read that because it seems so absurd. But many of us secretly wonder if it isn’t true. We’ve all known the frustration of unanswered prayer. Perhaps it was for something small–like a new dress for a Saturday night date. Perhaps it was for God to give you a basset hound. Perhaps you asked God to open the door for you to go to a certain college. Or perhaps it was for something truly big–prayer requested at the bedside of a loved one, prayer for a wayward child, prayer for a failing marriage. When God doesn’t answer our prayers–or when He doesn’t answer in the way we want Him to–are we not tempted to wonder if God gives us the opposite of what we ask for?
Does God Know My Name?
Our biggest problem is not, “is there a God?” Virtually everyone agrees that the answer is yes. Even people who never come to church and people who consider themselves irreligious would answer yes. Here is the bigger question: “Is there a God in heaven who cares about me?” Millions of people–including millions of apparently loyal churchgoers–secretly wonder if the answer to that question might be no. A God who is there–yes. A God who cares for me–maybe not.
Perhaps some wonder if this does not reveal a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. How can you answer yes to one question and no or maybe not to the other? Is this not some kind of internal contradiction? If there is a God, surely He cares about me. And if He doesn’t care for me, who cares whether there’s a God or not?
But those questions reside on two different levels. The existence of God is primarily a mental or logical problem. It’s an issue of philosophy. The question concerning God’s personal concern is entirely different. Very often it is asked by those who have known deep pain and suffering. For them the question is very personal: “if God cares for me, how could He let my son die?” Or, “where was God when my husband lost his job?” Or, “why didn’t God keep that man from shooting my father?” These are not abstract questions about first causes and the argument from design. These are questions wrenched from the depths of horrible despair.
How do you pray, “Your will be done” when you aren’t sure that God really cares for you? If you knew–really knew–that He had your best interests at heart, you might dare to pray that way. But as long as you doubt, that prayer will be almost impossible.
He Bowed His Head and Died
There are many answers to the question, “does God really care for me?” But there is only one that really matters. It’s the answer God gave 2,000 years ago on a hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem. On a hot Friday afternoon the Romans crucified a man they thought to be a Jewish rabble-rouser. Only later did they understand who He really was. His name was Jesus. He came from a small town in Galilee called Nazareth. He started His ministry by preaching in the synagogues. As He went from village to village, His fame spread, until thousands came out to hear Him. At length the powers-that-be found Him to be a threat to them, and they decided to eliminate Him. It took a long time to trap Him, but they finally arrested Him with the help of a traitor from His inner circle.
Once arrested, He was tried, beaten, mocked, insulted, cursed, abused, slapped, scourged, and crowned with thorns. Eventually He was condemned to die. For six hours He hung on a cross–naked before the world, exposed to the elements, reviled by the crowd, jeered by His enemies, mourned by those who loved Him. At the end, after suffering excruciating pain, He bowed his head and died.
After all that, God says, “Do you still wonder if I love you?”
For some people, even the death of God’s Son will not be enough. But if that is not enough, nothing God can do will make any difference. For if someone will give His own Son to die, is there anything else He will hold back? Money is nothing compared to a son.
That’s why the most crucial word of the Lord’s Prayer is in the very first phrase–”Our Father in heaven.” To call God Father means that you recognize what He did when He gave His own Son to die on the cross. “Father” is not some phrase to toss around when we pray. It’s what Christian prayer is all about. God is worthy to be called “Father” precisely because He has done what good fathers must do–He has sacrificed the best that He had for the welfare of His children.
Look to the cross, my doubting friend. Gaze on the Son of God. Ponder the meaning of Golgotha. Who is that crucified on Calvary’s tree? His name is Jesus. Study His face. See the wounds in His hands, His feet, His side. Was it not for you that He died? Do you still doubt that God loves you?
That’s the second reason why this prayer is difficult. Many of us doubt that God truly cares for us. The third reason moves us into a completely different arena.
Reason #3: It is hard to pray, “Your will be done” because God’s will sometimes involves suffering and pain
That was true for Jesus. The scene has shifted to Thursday night. It is late–perhaps 10:30 or 11:00 P.M. The Lord now retreats to His favorite spot–the olive groves in Gethsemane. Leaving Peter, James, and John behind, He wrestles in prayer with what is about to happen. He knows with the perfect knowledge of omniscience that the time has come for Him to die. All is revealed; nothing is hidden. It was for this moment that He came into the world. Nothing will surprise Him–not Judas’ wicked kiss, not Caiaphas’ mocking words, not Pilate’s curious questions. The pain, the blood, the anguish–all of it is as clear to Him as if it had already happened.
Most of all He sees the darkness. Sin like a menacing cloud hovers over Him. Sin! The very word is repugnant to Him. Sin in all its ugliness, all its vile reaches, all its putrefying force, now looms before Him. It is as if a giant sewer is being opened, and the foul contents are flooding over Him. All the evil that men can do, all the filth of uncounted atrocities, the swill of the human race, the total iniquity of every man and woman from the beginning of time!
As Jesus sees the cup filled with human scum approaching him, He recoils in horror. These are his words: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39). These are not the words of unbelief. They are words of faith. They are the words of a man who understands fully what it will cost to do the will of God.
Was it wrong for Jesus to pray this way? Did it somehow reveal a lack of trust in God? I think not. No one was ever more committed to doing the will of God. He did not pray because He wished to be released from the will of God. He prayed because h e knew how much the will of God would cost him personally. He was willing to pay the price, but in the horror of seeing the “cup” of suffering draw near, He asked that it might be removed from him.
If Jesus in his extremity struggled with the will of God, should we be surprised if we do the same? If it was difficult for Jesus to pray, “Your will be done,” is it likely to be any easier for us? Jesus is Exhibit A of what it costs to pray, “Your will be done.” It cost him his life. No wonder he struggled in Gethsemane.
Reason #4: It is hard to pray, “Your will be done” because you are praying against the status quo
God’s will is seldom done on the earth. Too many things that go on are obviously not God’s will. Abortion … crack babies … broken homes … rampant pornography … men starving, women freezing, children wearing rags … racial prejudice … ethnic hatred … serial killers on the loose … corruption in high places.
Sometimes it seems as if God has gone to sleep and Satan has taken over. Now ponder the next sentence carefully: God does not accept the status quo. He does not accept Satan’s usurpation of His rightful place in the world. He does not accept that sin should reign forever on the earth. He does not accept that the killing should go on forever. God does not sit idly by while the world goes to hell.
God does not accept the status quo!
In fact, He sent His own Son into the world to change the status quo. What the prophets couldn’t accomplish with their words, His Son accomplished by the Incarnation. At Bethlehem God sent a message to the world: “Things are going to change.”
If things were okay, why did God send His Son? But things weren’t okay. They were wrong, dreadfully wrong, and getting worse all the time. So God intervened in human history in the most dramatic fashion possible.
No Saintly Resignation
To pray, “Your will be done” is to follow God in opposing the status quo. This prayer goes against the grain. In a world where God’s will is not done, we are to pray that God’s will will be done. Those are fighting words, words that rebel against everything that is evil and wrong on Planet Earth. All too often when we pray, “Your will be done,” we do it with an air of pious resignation: “O God, since I am helpless to stem the tide of events, may Your will be done.” Sometimes we use it as an excuse not to get angry at the sin and suffering all around us.
But if God does not accept the status quo, neither should we!
Let me say it plainly: to pray, “Your will be done” is an act of God-ordained rebellion! This is not a prayer for the weak or the timid. This is a prayer for troublemakers and rabble-rousers. It is a prayer for believers who look at the devastation all around them and who say, “I’m angry, and I’m not going to take this lying down.”
It is a prayer, then, that leads necessarily to action. If you see injustice being done, you cannot blithely pray, “Your will be done” and then walk away. If you really mean, “Your will be done,” you’ve got to jump into the fray and help make it happen.
You’ll Never Know Until You Let Go
Let me summarize everything I’ve said in this message: “Your will be done” is hard to pray. There are at least four reasons:
1. It is hard because it means you have to give up control of your own life.
2. It is hard because many of us doubt that God truly cares for us.
3. It is hard because God’s will may involve pain and suffering.
4. It is hard because God’s will is so often not done in this world.
Every point is true. And yet Jesus told us to pray this way.
It’s not wrong to struggle with this prayer. After all, Jesus struggled with it Himself. But over the years I’ve discovered that the happiest people are those who have said, “I’ve decided to let go and let God run my life.” So many of us go through life with a clenched fist, trying to control the uncontrollable, trying to mastermind all the circumstances, trying to make our plans work. So we hold tightly to the things we value–our career, our reputation, our happiness, our health, our children, our education, our wealth, our possessions, even our mates. We even hold tightly to life itself. But those things we hold so tightly never really belonged to us in the first place. They always belonged to God. He loaned them to us, and when the time comes He will take them back again.
God orchestrates the affairs of life—both the good and the bad—to bring us to the place where our faith will be in him alone. Slowly but surely as we go through life, he weans us away from the things of the world. At first the process touches only our possessions (which we can replace), but eventually it touches our relationships (which may not be replaced), then it touches our loved ones (who cannot be replaced), finally it touches life itself (which is never replaced). Then there is nothing left but us and God.
Through all this process our Heavenly Father leads us along the pathway of complete trust in him. Slowly but surely we discover that the things we thought we couldn’t live without don’t matter as much as we thought they did. Even the dearest and sweetest things of life take second place to the pleasure of knowing God. In the end we discover that he has emptied our hands of everything and then filled them with himself.
Happy are those people who hold lightly the things they value greatly. The happiest people I know are those who have said, “All right, Lord, I’m letting go. I’m going to relax now and let You take over.”
What are you struggling with right now? What are you holding on to so tightly that it almost makes your hands hurt? What is it that you are afraid to give to God? Whatever it is, you’ll be a lot happier when you finally say, “Your will be done” and open your clenched fist. But you’ll never know until you let go.
C. S. Lewis said there are two kinds of people in the world, and only two kinds: those who say to God, “Your will be done” and those to whom God says in the end, “Your will be done.” Which kind are you?
A Simple Prayer
Here’s a simple prayer that may help you loosen your grip on the things with which you are struggling:
O Lord, Your will be done–
As always, we who pray that prayer are called by God to be part of the answer. We are to pray, “Your will be done,” and then we are to see that God’s will is done in our own lives.
Your will be done …
in my life
in my family
in my finances
in my career
in my children
in my dreams for the future
in my words
in my friendships
in my world.
When we pray that way, God will always be pleased to answer us. The answer may not be what we want or what we expect, but the answer will come, and we will not regret having asked. And best of all, when we pray that way, we are doing our little part to make the earth a little more like heaven and a little less like hell.