Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Number 4 of 8 commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer broadcast on Raido Liberty by Fr. Alexander Schmemann to listeners in the former Soviet Union. (Translated by Alexis Vinogradov)
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). Here is the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
Of all of them this petition seems to be the simplest and most understandable. Indeed, if a person believes in God, it would seem he submits to God’s will and accepts it, and desires that it should be accepted all around him, on earth, as supposedly it is in heaven. In reality, however, this is the most difficult petition.
I would have to say that precisely this petition, “Thy will be done” is the ultimate yardstick of faith, the measure by which’ one can discern, in oneself first of all, profound from superficial faith, profound religiosity from a false one. Why? Well, because even the most ardent believer all too regularly, if not always, desires, expects, and asks from the God he claims to believe in that God would fulfill precisely his own will and not the will of God. The best proof of this is the Gospel itself, the account of Christ’s life.
Isn’t Christ from the outset followed by nameless crowds of people? And aren’t they following him because he is accomplishing their will? He is healing, helping, comforting … However, as soon as he starts speaking about the essential, about the fact that a person has to deny himself if he wants to follow him, about the need to love one’s enemies, and to lay down one’s life for one’s brothers, as soon as his teaching becomes difficult, exalted, a call to sacrifice, a demand of the impossible-in other words, as soon as Christ starts to teach about what is the will of God, people immediately abandon him and, moreover, turn against him with anger and hatred. This eerie shouting of the mob at the Cross, “Crucify him, crucify him!” (Lk 23:21) – is it not because Christ did not fulfill the will of the people?
They only wanted help and healing, while he spoke of love and forgiveness. They wanted him to liberate them from their enemies and grant victory over them, while he spoke of the kingdom of God. They wanted him to observe their traditions and customs, while he defied them by eating and drinking with publicans, sinners, and harlots. Doesn’t the root and cause of Judas’ betrayal lie precisely in this disappointment in Christ? Judas anticipated that Christ would fulfill his will, but Christ willingly gave himself to judgment and death.
This is all described in the Gospels. And subsequently, over the next two millennia of Christianity, do we not witness the same drama? What do we together and individually really desire from Christ? Let’s admit it-the fulfillment of our will. We desire that God would assure our happiness. We want him to defeat our enemies. We want him to realize our dreams and that he would consider us kind and good. And when God fails to do our will we are frustrated and upset, and are ready over and over to forsake and deny him.
“Thy will be done”-but in fact we are thinking: “Our will be done,” and thus this third petition of the Lord’s Prayer is first of all a kind of judgment on us, a judgment of our faith.
Do we really desire that which is from God? Do we really desire to accept that difficult, exalted, that seemingly impossible demand of the Gospel? And this petition also becomes a kind of verification of our goals and directions in life: what is it that I want, what is it that forms the main and highest value of my life, where is that treasure about which Christ said that where it lies, there our hearts will be also (Mt 6:21)?
If the history of religion, if the history of Christianity is filled with betrayals, then these betrayals are not so much in the sins and failures of people, for the sinner can always repent, the failure can always correct himself, the ailing can always be restored. No, rather the worst betrayal lies in this constant substitution of our will, our self-will, for the will of God. On account of this betrayal even religion becomes our egoism, which therefore deserves the accusations it endures from its enemies. It becomes a pseudo-religion, and there is nothing on the face of the earth more frightening than pseudo-religion. For it is precisely pseudoreligion which killed Christ.
It was those who considered themselves most deeply religious who condemned him to death and crucified him, who mocked him and sought his destruction. Some of them perceived in religion a kind of national apotheosis, for whom Christ was a dangerous revolutionary who talked of love for one’s enemies; others saw in religion only the miraculous and powerful, for whom the bloody and helpless Christ hanging on the cross was a disgrace to religion; while still others were disappointed in him because he taught things they did not want to hear. And so to this day people continue to think the same way, which underlines the importance of this petition, “Thy will be done.”
“Thy will be done.” This means first of all: grant me strength and help me to understand what is your will, help me to overcome the limitations of my own reasoning, of my heart, my own will, in order to discern your paths, even if they are unclear at first. Help me to accept that which is difficult and seemingly unbearable or impossible in your wilL Help me, in other words, to desire that which you desire.
And here begins this narrow path spoken of by Christ. No sooner do we begin desiring this divine will, this high and difficult calling, than people immediately turn from us, our friends betray us, and we are left alone, persecuted and ostracized. But this is always a sign that a person has accepted the will of God, and it is always a promise that this narrow and difficult path is crowned with victory-not a passing human victory, but victory from God.