“If it be Thy will.” How often don’t we use those words in our prayers? “If it be thy will.” It’s important for us to use those words. When Jesus instructed his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, he taught them to pray “Thy will be done.” Later, toward the end of his ministry, Jesus himself prayed for his Father’s will to be done in the garden of Gethsemane just days before his crucifixion. Praying for God’s will to be done is a calling given to us by God himself, but it’s not necessarily an easy one. The truth is, because we still struggle with our old man, it is very much in our nature to want our own will to be done. Sometimes, we pray the words, “Let thy will be done” while our heart really says, “Let my will be done. Please, God, just do it my way.”
It is easy for me to pray, “God, keep me in safety and health if it be thy will.” It is not so easy for me to add, “But if it is thy will that I face sickness, then give me patience in that trial.” It is easy for me to thank God for the freedom we enjoy in this country and ask him to preserve it “if it be thy will.” It is not so easy for me to add, “But if that is not thy will, give me the strength to face fierce persecution.” It is easy for me to ask God to provide for my physical needs “if it be thy will.” It’s not so easy to add, “But if it is thy will that I live in poverty, give me contentment and keep me from envy.” When I pray for God’s will, whatever that will may be, I find I have a much harder time praying sincerely than when I pray for God’s will as I would like it to be.
Toward the beginning of this school year, I struggled to pray for God’s will when I found out that the father of one of my best friends needed major surgery to remove a tumor that was pressing against his brain. Not only am I close to my friend, but I’m close to the rest of her family as well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve eaten dinner at her house or hung out with her siblings even when she wasn’t around, and every single member of that family means an awfully lot to me. And her dad is just one of those people that you look up to. I’ve seen him lead his family in devotions, listened to stories from his childhood and heard him tell the corniest dad-jokes. As much as this man means to me, it’s nothing compared to what he means to his wife and kids.
When my friend first told me about the surgery, she asked me to pray for her dad and family. I told her that I would, but at the time, I didn’t realize just how difficult that would be for me. I prayed a lot in the months leading up to the surgery, and there were some things that it was easy to pray for. It was easy to pray that the surgery would go well and accomplish what it was supposed to do. It was easy to pray that there would be no complications. It was easy to pray that the recovery would be quick. But I will be honest with you, I could sometimes hardly pray the words “if it be thy will.” Because what if the things that I wanted so badly weren’t God’s will? What if it was God’s will for the surgery to not be successful or to have bad side effects, or even for my friend’s family to lose their husband and father. I didn’t even want to think about those possibilities, much less bring them before God in prayer. But that, I realized, was just what I was doing when I prayed, “If it be thy will.”
It can be very difficult for me to pray for God’s will to be done because sometimes I am afraid of what his will might be. I am scared that it might be God’s will for me to lose someone I’m close to. I’m scared that it might be God’s will to watch all my friends get married and have kids and never have that myself. I’m afraid that I might not like the plans God has for my life as much as the plans I would make for myself.
As humans, we have a very earthly idea of what is good for us. It is easy for us to imagine that if God loved us, he would make our lives on earth free from suffering, perfectly happy. After all, that is usually how we treat others when we are acting out of love. But in his love, God purposes something for his beloved that is greater than a life free of pain. He purposes eternal joy and salvation. His primary concern is for the spiritual welfare of his people, not their perfect happiness in this life.
The Christian life isn’t one of ease. We’re not just here to enjoy the ride. Instead, the Christian life is one of transformation. We who were the slaves of death and sin have been set free, and the Spirit of our Lord Jesus is working in us to sanctify us and make us the holy and beautiful bride of Christ. That transformation can be painful. In fact, Peter compares us to gold being placed under intense heat and melted down so all the contaminants are burned away. Often it is through pain and suffering that we are most transformed and drawn close to God. Throughout the Bible, we see that God uses suffering in the service of his higher goal, that is, our eternal good.
In order for us to pray sincerely for God’s will to be done, we need to believe that God’s will is perfect, and that his way is better than our way, even when that means suffering for us. God’s word is full of examples that prove that to be true. Almost every Bible character we read about faced earthly difficulties—mockery, persecution, betrayal, loneliness, sorrow, loss, fear, hatred, danger, uncertainty, false accusations, rejection. Yet God orchestrated those trials in the lives of his people for their ultimate good. In order to help us see this, I’d like to look at several examples from scripture in which good came out of suffering.
First, read Luke 15: 11–18, which records part of the parable of the prodigal son:
And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.
In this passage, notice that repentance came out of suffering. In this parable God used the hardships of a young man’s life to turn him from his sin and lead him to repentance. His heart was hard while he was in his father house. His heart was hard while he was living in the far country. Even when the famine came to the land he didn’t repent, but finally, when he was starving and employed in the most menial job, he realized his own desperation and his sin against his father and humbled himself to ask forgiveness. Sometime God uses a very low point in our lives to open our eyes to the desperateness of our own sinfulness and causes us to flee to the cross.
Next read 2 Corinthians 12:7–9. In this passage, notice that protection came out of suffering. Paul says, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
God placed a particular trial into the life of the apostle Paul, not to turn him from sin, but to keep him from becoming exalted above measure. When Paul asked God to remove the trial from him, God did not grant Paul’s request because that trial was serving his purpose as a safeguard in Paul’s ministry. God’s response to Paul revealed a further purpose for the thorn. He taught Paul to lean on his grace through this trial and revealed his own strength through Paul’s weakness. Paul acknowledged this in his confession of verses 9–10: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
What a beautiful confession! As Paul was required to rely on God’s grace, he saw the power of Christ revealed and experienced God’s faithfulness to him.
Next, look at 2 Corinthians 1: 3–6 and notice that preparation comes out of suffering. Paul writes here to the church at Corinth:
Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation.
God may use suffering in our lives not only to strengthen our faith, but also to prepare us to minister to others.
Next, think back on an Old Testament story in which the preservation of God’s church came out of suffering. Remember Joseph? He was sold as a slave into Egypt by his brothers. When he had proved that he was a faithful worker, he was unjustly accused and thrown into prison. Even after he had interpreted the visions of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, he was forgotten. He must have felt sometimes as if God had abandoned him and as if there was no purpose in his suffering. But God did have a purpose. He brought Joseph to the exact place that he needed to be in order to save God’s people from the famine. God exalted him to a position of power and authority, but he did it in his time, not man’s time, and in his way, not man’s way.
Look at Psalm 84:5–10 to see that God uses our suffering to cultivate in us a longing for heaven.
Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them. Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah. Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed. For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.
In this passage, the valley of Baca can be translated as a valley of weeping or a valley of tears. As the psalmist thinks on the sorrows of this life, it causes him to turn his eyes heavenward and find his lasting hope in God. In verse ten he concludes that he prefers the things of God’s house to the long life, status, or pleasures offered to him by the tents of wickedness.
C.S. Lewis addresses this idea in his book The Problem of Pain. He recognizes that while we are in this world, we cannot be free from suffering, but God uses that suffering to direct hearts to him. Lewis writes, “The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world.” He points out that life is filled with good things, such as the beauty of nature or the happiness of friendships, but he declares, “Our Father refreshed us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
One final purpose that I don’t want to miss is that the glory of God’s own name may come out of our suffering. Think of Jesus’ healing of the blind man from John 9. We are told, “ Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” That man had lived his whole life in blindness so that God’s power could be shown in him.
Remember the story of Lazarus in John 11. Mary and Martha sent for Jesus when their brother became sick and desired that Jesus would heal him. But it was God’s will that they had to go through the pain of losing their brother to death so the onlookers at the grave would see that Jesus received his power from God and that God’s name would be glorified.
At this point, we’ve looked at many examples in which God used difficult circumstances in the lives of his children to bring about a good end. But it needs to be said that we may not always be able to see that good end when God leads us in a difficult way. Maybe we will be able to look back on a trial years later and see good that we couldn’t see at the time. Maybe in this lifetime we will never really understand how God used certain circumstances for good. What we can be absolutely sure of, though, is that our God is faithful, that he is completely good and wise, and that his ways are perfect. That’s what faith is. It is our knowledge and conviction of the truth that God has revealed to us—not dependent on our own sight.
If we still need convincing that God’s way is best, let’s look at one final example from scripture. Listen to Jesus prayer to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane just hours before he was arrested by the leaders of the Jews. Matthew 26:38–39,“Then saith he [Jesus] unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Jesus prayed a heart-wrenching prayer of agony to his Father, yet God’s answer was that he must go the way of the cross. God was willing to pour out his wrath for our sins on his own son so that we might have salvation and eternal life in him.
By studying the scriptures, we become convinced that God’s will is best, even when his will requires us to walk a difficult path. God reveals himself to us as the one who is sovereign over all things, the one who loves us more deeply than anyone else is able, and the only one who is really wise enough to choose the way that is best for us. When we know our God this way, then we are able to trust him, to submit to him, and to pray that his perfect will be done. And when we pray with a sincere heart for God’s will to be done, we experience peace.
When we pray sincerely for God’s will to be done, we won’t wonder whether the suffering we experience in this life is really for our best. We will know that God fully understands every second of our pain because he put it there. It is given to us by his loving, fatherly hand. We know the assurance that our pain is not senseless or wasted, but that it is in fact God’s best for us.
When we pray sincerely for God’s will to be done, we also experience the reality of God’s faithfulness to his promises. Listen to just two of them. Isaiah 41:10: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” 1 Corinthians 10:13: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
When we pray sincerely for God’s will to be done, we find that by his Spirit he makes us desire his will more and more. As we learn the beauty of our God, he teaches us to desire what he desires and seek after what is truly pleasing to him. The pain of this life becomes easier to bear when we desire the holiness that God uses it to work in our lives. So let us pray to God for faith. Let us learn to trust his will rather than fear it. Let us pray from a sincere heart, “Thy will be done.”