Why did Jesus include “Thy will be done” in the model prayer that He gave the disciples? What exactly are we praying for when we ask God to do His will?
When Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, He gave them a template that began with these words: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10).
(The centuries-old King James Version has the arguably more well-known rendition of verse 10, which reads, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”)
But what does that mean? When we pray to God, “Thy will be done,” what is it that we’re actually requesting from Him? And how should that affect the things we pray for and how we pray for them?
What is the will of God? Three categories
Understanding the will of God is a mammoth undertaking beyond the capabilities of any human being. God tells us bluntly, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
God operates on a level so far above our own that it would be a challenge just to wrap our minds around the sheer scale of His plans—to say nothing of analyzing the content of those plans.
What we can do, though, is examine the will of God in three slightly more bite-size categories: what God wants to happen, what God allows to happen, and what God will absolutely make happen.
By taking a closer look at these three categories, we’ll be better equipped to wrap our minds around what exactly the will of God encompasses. And, by extension, we’ll be better equipped to know what exactly we’re asking for when we pray, “Thy will be done.”
What God wants to happen
God reveals what He wants to happen through His precepts—that is, His commandments and instructions about how He expects us to live. (This has been called God’s preceptive will.)
The 10 Commandments are an important glimpse into what God wants to happen: Put God first. Don’t worship idols. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Remember the Sabbath day. Honor your parents. Respect and preserve the lives of others. Treat marriage as the sacred thing it is. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Be honest. Stop wishing you had what your neighbor has.
In the New Testament, Jesus summarized those 10 precepts with two other Old Testament precepts: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). He explained that “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (verse 40).
We can’t truly ask for God’s will to be done if we’re ignoring that will in our own lives.That’s what God wants for us: to love Him and to love our neighbors. His precepts show us exactly how to do those things. As we obey, we bring ourselves into alignment with the life He wants us to live. And when we pray, “Thy will be done,” part of what we’re asking is for God to help us follow the commandments He has laid out for us in the Bible.
We can’t truly ask for God’s will to be done if we’re ignoring that will in our own lives.
What God allows to happen
Some things God allows to happen. (This has been called God’s permissive will.)
It’s pretty obvious that God’s commandments—what He wants us to do—can be ignored. He tells us not to murder, but people murder. He tells us not to lie, but people lie. God wants us to do His will by obeying Him—in fact, He commands us to obey—but He doesn’t force us to obey.
Because God chose to give us free will, He also gave us the ability to disregard His instructions. He permits us to disobey His precepts. There is ultimately a penalty for such disobedience, but He still gives us the choice.
As the nation of Judah drifted farther and farther from God, God sent the prophet Jeremiah with a solemn warning: “‘This is a nation that does not obey the voice of the LORD their God nor receive correction. … For the children of Judah have done evil in My sight,’ says the LORD. ‘They have set their abominations in the house which is called by My name, to pollute it. And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart’” (Jeremiah 7:28, 30-31).
God’s permissive will was allowing something that contradicted His preceptive will. He hated what the people of Judah were doing, but He didn’t supernaturally prevent them from doing it. He gave them the ability to choose, and they chose something awful.
Understanding how these first two aspects of God’s will can coexist can help us understand why evil exists in the world. Even though it’s not what God wants, He allows us to make those choices.
When we pray, “Thy will be done,” we are also telling God that we submit to what He allows—trusting that even when He leaves evil temporarily unaddressed, He has a reason and will take care of it at the right time and in the right way.
What God will make happen
A third type of God’s will involves the future events God promises to make happen. Unlike what He wants to happen and what He allows to happen, what God decrees will happen is going to happen. (That’s why it has been called God’s decretive will.)
“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
When He created the world, “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).
When He sent Jeremiah to warn Judah, He promised, “I will cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride. For the land shall be desolate” (Jeremiah 7:34). And, in time, that’s exactly what happened.
But one of God’s most important declarations concerns His coming Kingdom—a time when “the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
When we pray, “Thy will be done,” we are also asking God to do all His pleasure—to do the things He has promised to do.When we pray, “Thy will be done,” we are also asking God to do all His pleasure—to do the things He has promised to do.
It’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” We want a Kingdom established where “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (Isaiah 32:1), where the evils of this present world are ended once and for all, just as God has promised.
“Not My will, but Yours, be done”
When the time for His crucifixion drew near, Jesus wasn’t looking forward to the incredible pain and suffering He was about to experience. He prayed, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42, emphasis added).
It’s good and important to “let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). He wants to hear from us, and He loves to “give good things to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:11). But when Christ taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to include an important request: “Thy will be done.”
While we don’t need to pray those exact words, we need to come to God with that mind-set—understanding and acknowledging that our will might conflict with God’s will. We might pray for immediate healing, and God might allow death. We might pray for peace now, and God might allow restless nights. We might pray for swift intervention, and God might allow a painful trial to continue.
These moments are hard. They test our faith and trust in God. But Jesus set the example for us: “Not My will, but Yours, be done.”
God is bringing about a Kingdom that will forever transform the world into something wonderful—and even though we might not understand everything He chooses to do and to allow along the way, our job is to trust His will along the way.
And that’s what it really means to pray, “Thy will be done”: learning to want what He wants, learning to accept what He allows, and learning to follow Him toward the future He promises.
If you want to better understand why a loving, all-powerful God allows evil to exist, be sure to read our free seven-day Journey “The Problem of Evil.”