Blogger “Bilbo” is a veteran of BioLogos, Uncommon Descent and other faith/science sites, as well as a subscriber here on the Hump. He has just posted a short piece on the Lord’s prayer, suggesting it is evidence that God’s will is not done here on earth. The timing and subject suggest he may possibly have picked up the idea from Peter Hickman’s “parting shot” comment to me here, to the same effect.
I don’t want to contradict either of these friends, except in the sense that iron sharpens iron, but they got me thinking about the prayer in general and what it teaches not only about the extent of God’s will, as we were discussing it here recently, but also about the “hands-off” theology of Creation against which I continue to argue on Biologos (#81269), characteristically to a silent house, so far. It seems the “freedom of nature” theology is vital enough to be repeatedly shouted out as the whole basis of creation, but not vital enough actually to be defended by anyone against biblical criticism. That’s another story, though.
Regarding the Lord’s prayer and “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, my first observation is that neither phrase necessarily implies the failed ambition of God’s kingdom or of his will. The sense of the Greek in Matthew 6.10 is “Let it come, your kingdom; let it come about, your will, as in heaven also on earth.” So one could equally understand the phrases as the slow, but not necessarily opposed, fruition of God’s plan.
He establishes his kingdom on earth in Christ, and brings it about gradually. As for his will, it could imply God’s final purpose, gradually but inexorably coming to be. We know from the Bible that his will is the uniting of all things together in Christ: that is already so in heaven, and God is working it out here through the gospel.
A second, related, possible understanding is the “philosophical” interpretation we discussed here of distinguishing God’s permissive and prescriptive will. To allow human rebellion on earth might well be part of his overall purpose for the present, actually being necessary to bring about his “will on earth”. Indeed Scripture says as much in passages like Romans 9.22-24; and Jesus, when speaking of deceiving false Messiahs, wars and rumours, famines and earthquakes, says “These things must happen,” the implication being not that God is helpless to prevent them, but that they are determined within his mysterious purpose: “The end is still to come” (Matt 24.4-8). The prayer “Thy will be done on earth”, then, would be that God hasten to fulfil his stated will to defeat evil finally.
But I’m happy to concede the interpretation offered by Bilbo and Peter, that other wills here currently hinder the coming of God’s kingdom and of his will being done on earth. And that’s because there is one other, to me decisive, factor. And that is, that this is a prayer. That is it’s a request, or petition, directed to God (Eph 6.18).
To consider this, let me start with Luke’s short version of the prayer, in ch11.2-4. The reason for this is that Luke follows the prayer immediately with a parable about a man meeting his importunate neighbour’s need because of his boldness: Ask, he says, and it shall be given. So the prayer’s purpose, we find, is to teach us the right way to ask for things that God both wants, and is able, to give. That, rather than some more subtle idea like helping us to interpret life as if there were an active, caring God (the old liberal view) or simply changing ourselves through our prayers (which is an important element of prayer, but merely a deeper level of this particular prayer). We need to learn what God wants, but we only pray for what he can deliver.
Father [in heaven], let your name be hallowed.
“Father” clearly indicates our intimate relationship of family trust in God, but what of “in heaven” (in Matthew and some mss. of Luke)? Surely it’s not to contrast God’s distance with his Fatherhood. Is it not more likely to allude to passages like Ps 115.3: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”, as opposed to false gods who can do nothing for us. So unless “Let your name be hallowed,” is just a pious wish, meaning “If only your name were hallowed!” it is a prayer that God himself will glorify his name. This indeed was, according to Deuteronomy, his purpose in calling Israel, and echoes other prayers in the Psalms for God to come down and vindicate his name. Accordingly:
Let your kingdom come
is not an apology that so many people don’t acknowledge God’s kingdom here, but a plea with God to make it come, sooner rather than later. At very least it voices our “Amen” to God’s intention to bring it anyway, as he has promised. Praying according to God’s express promise is good, for his promises never fail, as he expressly assures us.
Let your will be done
is absent from Luke’s prayer, which maybe suggests he considered it parallel and equivalent to the prayer for God’s kingdom. But it too, is a prayer – a prayer for something that God has both the will and the power to do, however we understand the actual meaning of God’s will on earth. So if, pleading with our heavenly Father as the man in Luke’s parable pleads with his neighbour for groceries, we still see rebellion against God in the world, does Jesus mean us to say that God is doing all he can, but can’t get his will to prevail? What good, then, would be our prayers, except to accentuate his failure to be almighty, as he claims to be? Does not Jesus rather mean that the reason our prayer about this seems not yet answered is that God has Fatherly reasons for not yet granting it?
So this is my response to Bilbo’s post: nothing in the Lord’s prayer leads to the conclusion that his will is in any way frustrated. Rather the fact that Jesus makes the doing of God’s will the subject of the prayer he commanded us to pray means that the situation is entirely within his providential power, and amazingly his implementation of his purpose to bring his will on earth is actually affected by the prayers of the saints – and that’s certainly not because we can offer effective help to offset God’s deficiencies!
For reasons of space, I’ll look at the rest of the Lord’s prayer in a separate post.