"What Does God Want?"
March 11, 2012
As Mark tells the story, it didn't take long for Jesus to start attracting large crowds of people. Some came to hear him teach. Some came to be healed. Some came to argue with him.
On one occasion the crowd was so large, the demands so great, that Jesus and his disciples didn't even have a chance to eat.
When his family heard about this, their anxiety shot through the roof. We can imagine them talking among themselves: “What's gotten into him? He’s not taking care of himself! I wish he’d stop acting like that! I’m just sick about all of this!” You know, all the things we say when people close to us don’t do what we want them to do.
Mark doesn’t give us the whole conversation, only the conclusion: “‘He is out of his mind,’ they said.”
And so Jesus’ mother and brothers set out to take charge of him.
We heard what happened next.
Someone comes to Jesus saying, “Uh, your mother and brother are outside looking for you.”
And in his brief reply, Jesus redefines the meaning of “family” for those who would follow him.
“Who are my mother and brothers?” Jesus asks. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Are we bold enough to pray to God with Jesus “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” Are we ready to become the sisters and brothers of Jesus by doing God’s will?
Perhaps before we answer, we need to ask another question: Just what is God's will? What does God really want?
This is an ancient question.
Some seven hundred years before Jesus the prophet Micah asked:
With what shall I come before God?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings?
Will God be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
In other words: “How much do I have to give in order to get God’s favor?”
Micah even went so far as to ask:
“Shall I give my first-born for my transgression?”
Leading us to shudder and wonder if this guy has indeed gone out of his mind.
What does God want? Often people fear it is some onerous behavior on our part, some dreary religious activity like praying, or reading the Bible, or sitting quietly in a sanctuary when we’d rather sing or shout or dance.
More and more I’m becoming convinced that God doesn't care too much one way or the other about our “religious” life. With the Psalmist who said, “God, you have no delight in sacrifice,” I'm inclined to think that the One who gave us life is not really all that interested in what we are giving up or how much time we spend doing church work. We in the church worry about that kind of stuff all the time. And we’re always trying to get other people to do more. But God? I don’t know.
Nor should we confuse the will of God with the results of human sinfulness. It is not God’s will ever that a child should be killed by a drunk driver or that someone should live with an agonizing disease that is the enemy of life. This is the opposite of the will of God. It is the result of the fallenness of the human condition, of which we are all a part.
In these moments of human sin and agony we can echo as strongly as possible the words of William Barclay: “This is not God’s will. God did not send it to you. But God can bring you through it. And out of this bitter experience you can become stronger and closer to God than ever before.”[i]
So what does God want?
The German theologian Hans Kung has been of more help to me in this area than most others. He says God wills nothing for God’s own sake. God wills nothing for God’s advantage or glory. God wills nothing but humankind’s advantage, true greatness, and ultimate glory." He concludes: “This then is God’s will: our well-being.”[ii] This sounds very much like those words of Karl Barth’s that I mentioned last week, about the “great movement of God in favor of the human race which began with Christmas, with Easter, and with Pentecost.”[iii]
God's will is life, not death
health, not sickness,
love, not hate
peace, not violence
What God wants is fullness of life for each individual and for all people. What God wants is our well-being.
“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,” Micah says—three phrases that pretty much sum up the will of God.
To a large extent, the will of God is concerned about our actions in the world, not our religious life—except for the ways in which our religious life upholds our actions that are just, loving, and humble. For the most part we will find ourselves doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God outside of the church.
Perhaps we will seek to be fair and honest in our work lives and our business dealings. Or we will develop relationships of love with a strong element of loyalty in our marriages and friendships. And we will orient our lives, our walking, toward God. The Hebrew word for ethics is halacha, which means “walking.” The idea is that the task of ethics is to describe how one ought to walk through day-by-day life.[iv]
This is all “beyond these walls.”
Of course, as we live this way, we might find ourselves praying, or singing, or drawn into a community of other people involved in these same activities. We might find that we’re opening the Bible more often. We might discover that we’re seeking to love each other and treating each other with unexpected kindness as we walk with God.
We might even find ourselves praying together ‘Thy will be done.”
So the first question comes back to us. Are we bold enough to pray with Jesus: “Thy will be done?” Are we ready to take our position as the sisters and brothers of Jesus?
To do the will of God requires a new focus, a single vision.
In Jesus Christ we have a model of a person with clear vision, a focus. He described that focus by saying: “I came not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me.”
In his hour of struggle at Gethsemane he prayed: “Not what I will but what you will.” Offered in the face of his death, this prayer signals a life ending as it had begun, with absolute dedication to the will of God—with the trust that God’s will continued to move in the direction of life and well-being.
Our lives are not so focused. Our purposes are not so single-minded. But if we pray “Thy will be done” is it possible to overcome some of the distractions that we face?
Ben Campbell Johnson, who teaches at Columbia Seminary in Georgia, tells a story that helps.
Three children were playing in a snowy field. The snow was deep and they were having a great time rolling in it. A neighbor paused to watch them, then called out, “Hey kids, would you like to have a race? I'll give a prize to the winner.”
A race seemed like a good idea so they gathered around the neighbor to get their instructions. "The winner," they were told, "Will not be the one who runs the fastest, but the one who runs the straightest line. I'll go to the other side of the field; when I give the signal, you race to me."
At the signal the children took off. The first one looked at her feet as she ran to make sure that they were pointing straight ahead. The second, worrying about how straight the kids on either side were running tried to line himself up with them.
The third child understood the game. She kept her eyes fixed on the neighbor at the other end of the field. She had her eye on the goal. She didn't waver from a straight course and won the race.
The others fell victim to two common problems that we encounter. The first is the problem of self-consciousness, especially as it manifests itself in feelings of inadequacy. The second problem is too much concern with how others are making the journey. Each of us has his or her own path to follow. We are not called to imitate others.[v]
When we seek to do the will of God, the task does not become easy. And we'll never walk in a completely straight line.
But if “Thy will be done” becomes our prayer we will clear from our cluttered hearts those thoughts of judgement and comparison, worries about “How am I doing?” or “What are they doing?” Instead we will focus on the goal, the vision in the distance—the abundant life that God desires for us, for each other, and for all creation.
Where are you going? What is your destiny?
What commands your loyalty?
What do you need to know of yourself to begin to clarify your vision?
Some knowledge of ourselves is necessary as we seek to do the will of God. Without an encounter with yourself and the grace of God, two fears will constantly plague you: the fear that you are unacceptable to God and the fear that God wills the unacceptable for you. The acknowledgement of your life before God dissolves both of these fears. The fear of your dark side is dispelled by the assurance of God's unconditional acceptance, and an assurance of God's unconditional love diminishes the fear of God's will.
Let us then pray with Jesus “thy will be done.” Let us seek with Jesus to do the will of God. We will discover that we are the sisters and brothers of Jesus.
And we will find in God a loving Parent, the One whose will is our well-being.
[ii].Hans Kung, On Being a Christian
[iii] Barth, Karl, Prayer, 2nd ed., pg. 59.
[iv] James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, pg. 192-193.
[v].Ben Campell Johnson, To Will God's Will, pg. 83 ff.