Many people think that all bad things are the will of God. In fact most people still take this view. They seldom say of blessings, "This is God's Will: "but when anything unpleasant happens--anything evil--they say at once, "It is God's Will."
So this portion of the Lord Prayer has been robbed of its meaning--has been almost caricatured. "Thy Will be done "has become the sigh of resignation instead of the war-cry of victory. Is it not nearly always so? A blow falls, some evil happens to us and we say, "Ah, it is hard to bear, but God's Will be done."
A man dies of typhoid fever. Is it God's Will? Is any disease, or premature death, or misery, or ruin, God's Will? Have we any right to say, "It pleased God to take him?" Ought we not rather to say, "It pleased society and the sanitary authority to let him die? "
And is not this true of all disease? That legend so often cut upon tombstones, "Thy Will be done," ought not to be allowed upon any except the graves of those who have died in a ripe old age. For all disease is the result of sin and ignorance. It is only God's doing in the sense that it is His punishment for our disobedience to His laws. One large area of disease is due to the want of temperance in what people of all classes eat and drink--rich and poor alike. Another large area is due to the misery of our great towns: for instance, twice as many people die in the poorer parts of London as in Hampstead. Another large area of disease is due to our neglect of the rules of health, exercise, and fresh air. Another to inherited weaknesses which we owe to the follies and sins of former generations.
When men give up their sins and follies, when they all live according to God's Will, then all disease and premature death, except that which is due to accident, will disappear.
To say then, "Thy Will be done," is not to accept all the horrors and miseries of the world as if they were part of the heavenly order; but to pray that they may come to an end-- to pray that man may cease to thwart the Will of God, so that man's life may become as holy and as happy as that of the saints in heaven--in heaven where there is no more death, where sorrow and sighing are fled away.
Everywhere around us we see sin, irreligion, misery, death. Unbroken by the sight, we turn to God and pray, "Thy Will be done "--Thine, not ours in its greed, in its flickering folly, in its sordid sloth, but Thine. So--far from being resigned--we set our faces against the great world-sorrow, and bend our wills to help the Will of God in its relief.
And we know what that Will is. Jesus Christ came to reveal it. We know that it is not mere power--not merely the mighty moving of the heavens; but that it is love. It is the Will of Him Whom we address as our Father, of Him Whom Jesus came to reveal as in very deed a Father--not mere impersonal might but perfect righteousness. That is why when good men stand before God it is not their weakness that they feel most keenly but their sin. They quail before Him Who is always originating good--not before One Who is mere power and Whom Prometheus-like they might defy: but before One Who is Love, and Who is therefore (because He is Love) always energising, always creating, always perfecting His work. Love is His essence: power is only His instrument. /
And the Will which our Lord revealed is one that is already at work in human institutions, human society. This fatherly Will reveals to man the divine order under which he is living. It was no revolution in human order that He pointed to, but its improvement--that the family of mankind should be more like a family, and men more like brothers. Those who are much stirred at the sight of human misery are often tempted to try and reverse the whole structure of society: to destroy the family, to break up the nation, uproot the foundations of the City of Man. The pietist who turns away in disgust from human affairs, and the anarchist who would destroy human lives are alike in this--that they both assume that the constitution of things is evil. With strange agreement the other worldly religionist and the eager reformer both take it for granted that the devil is lord of the universe: and both despair of its order. This is surely unchristian and ungodly.
It is God who knit men together in families, and from that unit has built up the larger families of nations, which rest, like the family, upon co-operation and obedience. It was to this fatherly order, this brotherhood of mankind, this heavenly kingdom that our Lord pointed. Here is the Will of God being worked out. Through blood and tears the present order is gradually moving towards its perfection--for true progress never turns to tear up what has been already ordered--is never a revolution but always an evolution of society.
It is not the constitution of things that is evil, but man's departure from that constitution. The sin of man is always symbolized and summed up in that of Cain, who slew his brother. The disease and want in the world are caused by our departure from the brotherly love by which God first led man from savagery, and by which the whole of society is held together.
So our Lord protested against disease, and healed the sick, protested against premature death, and raised the young man of Nain, and the daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus in his prime. So He protested against want, and fed the hungry, not once nor twice. So He protested against misery, and comforted and cured the sad. These things are contrary to the Will of God, and our Lord taught us to strive against them.
We cannot tell why evil exists. Only we can see that we learn "by means of evil that good is best." It is an incident in the struggle: we can hardly imagine a world without it: but we know it is not God's Will: and that in so far as we do that Will it will be lessened.
We cannot understand the sin in our own hearts, or the sin in the world. Only we know that we are free agents; and that if we are free, there must be the possibility of disobedience; and that it is better to be free than to be a machine. God could have made us to do His Will like clockwork, but He chose to make men something greater. He chose to make man in His own image, with a will that he could use--a will that he could set against God's Will or use in conformity with it.
And through all the sin and darkness man struggles upward, guided by an invincible instinct that obedience is better than revolt, goodness better than sin. And over it all is the hand of God, guiding as a Father, loving each soul--God, who as S. Paul felt, "willeth that all men should be saved." God, of Whom Christ taught us, that "It is not the Will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.''
So we pray that this Will may be done, that in the consummation none, not even the least, may perish. Looking forward to the end when God's Will shall have won all men to itself, and the Son of God shall put all things under His feet.
For though we look to the time when in this life God's Will shall be done, yet we remember that men quickly pass away from it; and we remember the countless multitude of souls who have already passed and who yet shall pass--and for them we pray in their place of discipline, that God's all powerful and all loving Will may be done--that Will which is everywhere, in this life and in the next, everywhere and always active, energising--creating, purifying, redeeming, because it is the Will of love--God's Will which is omnipotent, and yet which he has limited for a time by His creation, allowing us in our littleness to be fellow-workers with Him.
What a privilege! To assist the Almighty Will. But only to be used by obedience. That is the lesson for us of this petition.
He, our pattern, was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. For, indeed, though by obedience we shall lessen the sum of human sorrow, yet we shall not do it without sorrow for ourselves. So He prayed before that consummation of His obedience, "Not My Will, but Thine be done"--not as resigning Himself to sorrow, but as bracing Himself to service.
We have to obey, even when the cup is bitter. Then when it is most difficult, to make the effort of obedience.
That is the lesson of the petition for us. Sin, indeed, is disobedience--we have to get rid of sin--to bend our stubborn and short-sighted wills to that of God. But this is not enough. It is not enough to get rid of sin. Here is the lesson of the empty house, the parable in the Gospel for to-day. It is not enough to cleanse the soul--to leave the will inert and aimless for seven other devils worse than the first to take possession. The first step, indeed, is not to do what displeases God; but the second is to do what pleases Him. To devote our best thoughts to doing His Will. Ah! is not that where we so egregiously fail! We drive out the one devil of some besetting sin, and sink into respectable apathy. We let God's work go on, unhelped by us: we are merely passive, and so our Christian congregations, instead of being a mighty force for righteousness, a strong brotherhood of splendid service, a living agency for converting men--Oh, what are they--soft, slothful, contented, easy congeries of self-satisfied people. Ah! where is the energising active will, the redeeming power of love? Where is the mighty force that should convert the indifferent, and reclaim the doubter, and bring light to the heathen, and lift the weight of misery from our brothers and sisters in their weakness and their want?
Let us pray, indeed, whenever we say this prayer that we may not be as empty houses given up to seven devils of selfish sloth, but may stretch out our hands to do God's Will upon the earth, looking up to heaven from whence cometh our help.
Let us do it as it is done in heaven--as the angels do it (i) thoroughly; (2) willingly and cheerfully; (3) unselfishly and in perfect order. It is the thought of the angels that the Paternoster brings before us, for our pattern and encouragement. Is God's Will thwarted and crossed on earth? There, in heaven, it is perfectly done--done--in that splendid acme of obedience--thoroughly, cheerfully, unselfishly.
When Gladstone was asked for his favourite quotation he gave the six words of Dante, "La sua volontade e nostra pace"--"His Will is our peace." For Dante says that in Paradise he expected to find those angels who were in the lowest places, deploring that they had not higher opportunities. He asked one of them, and was rebuked with those great words, "His Will is our peace."
That is the law of heaven, the law of archangels and angels, and just men made perfect, each joyfully occupying his own place, and thoroughly doing his own piece of work, each unselfishly obeying, and in obedience being perfectly free, because in obedience he finds his essential good.