God’s will be done

In times of uncertainty, believers often go to God in prayer, seeking his will. There’s nothing wrong with that. We should always want to do what God wills.

But as I suggested in the previous post, we may oversimplify what this means. Especially when faced with a difficult or ambiguous decision, we may assume that there is one right answer to the question, one right way to go. We may even add the unspoken (and possibly unrecognized) assumption that if we make the right choice, God will “bless” it — meaning that things will turn out the way we want them to, with only minor complications.

Certainly, it can happen that way. God can do whatever he pleases, and sometimes, he pleases to do what we find pleasant. Just not always. And if the story of Paul is any indication, even the most Spirit-filled believers can differ markedly on what constitutes the “right” decision.

As we’ve seen, Paul, coming to the end of his missionary journeys, was getting ready to re-enter the city of Jerusalem after a long absence. He knew he would face trouble there; the Spirit had told him so. But he also believed that the Spirit wanted him to go there nevertheless.

The believers in Tyre pleaded with Paul to stay away from Jerusalem; Luke says that they did this “through the Spirit” (Acts 21:4, NRSV). In Caesarea, the prophet Agabus predicted that in Jerusalem, the Jews would bind Paul and hand him over to the Gentiles, leading the Christians in Caesarea — and even his traveling companions! — to also beg Paul not to go (vs. 12). But when Paul refused to waver, they said, “The Lord’s will be done” and left it at that (vs. 14).

Everyone agreed that Paul would suffer. But frankly, it doesn’t take much spiritual insight to see that coming. Suffering for the name of Jesus had been the theme song of Paul’s journey from the beginning, all the way back to his first days as a believer in Damascus (cf. Acts 9:16). He had suffered for the gospel in every way imaginable in every city he visited. Thus, the expectable response to the prediction of Paul’s suffering in Jerusalem should have been, Gee, ya think?

What everyone did not agree on, however, was what should be done. Paul was set on going to Jerusalem, his friends were set on his not going, Agabus said nothing one way or the other — and everyone was being guided by the Holy Spirit.

Hmm. That’s confusing. 

. . .

“The Lord’s will be done.” That is not a prayer for God to reveal the one right decision to make, the one decision that God would bless, the decision that would head off pain and sorrow. The statement is an act of submission, of letting go of the need to control the outcome or to know for certain what’s coming next. It is a subordination of what we want to what God wants, under the faithful assumption that God can be trusted no matter what happens.

Perhaps most importantly, the statement is a way of embodying the heart and mind of Jesus, who poured out his soul to the Father in prayer on the eve of his crucifixion. He did not want to go to the cross. He did not have a masochistic love of suffering. But he did have a love for humanity, and an even greater love for his Father, whose will he followed with single-minded purpose.

Paul, for his part, was ready to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and for the sake of his name. His resolve to go to Jerusalem, it seems, was not unassailable. The weeping and pleading of his friends was breaking his heart. The verb, which appears only here in all of the New Testament, suggests that their tears were literally crushing him to bits.

In the end, though Paul and his friends might have disagreed over whether he should go to Jerusalem, they agreed on what was best: that God’s will be done, whatever the cost. That will might not always be as specific as whether we should go right or left at a particular crossroads.

But it does mean that we should embody the gospel and the life of Jesus, whichever way we turn.