Question 57 Part I

What does “Thy will be done” mean?

When someone prays, Direct my steps as you have promised, let evil win no power over me (Ps. 119:133), what else does he pray for than, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?

from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger

Thy will be done is not left opened ended – we are not volitionalists.  We are not praying that God’s will simply be done but we pray conditionally; that it be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray that it be done here as it is there, not simply that it be done. 

What does it look like for God’s will to be done in heaven? Deus autem noster in caelo universa quae voluit fecit (Psa 113:11, Vulgate). The Latin translation of Holy Scripture makes the connection between willing and doing explicitly. In English, the Grail Psalter renders this verse as But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He wills (Psa 115:3). Contrary to volitionalist views of God where God can will anything or do anything, even contradictions within Himself, through the Scriptures God reveals that should He will a thing to be, He will, in fact and in reality, bring about the doing/being of the thing. The distinction is subtle; it is the difference between saying that God can will all possible things and saying that God’s will accomplishes all real things.

Can God make a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it?  The volitionalist would say that He can, though this invites contradiction. The Catholic says God cannot but He can will to not lift the rock independently of how heavy it is. The problem with the volitionalist view that posits that God can will all possible things is that with all things possible the metaphysical framework collapses into a nihilistic sea of meaninglessness and the unreality of reality.  Willing all possible things rather than providing a view of an unbounded god, constrains God to the finiteness of far eastern mysticism by reducing God to a concept rather than recognizing Him as a being. When we understand that God does what He wills, or that God does not do and thus does not will all possibilities, we can see that the constraint upon God’s will and His action comes from His nature, His being.

The eternal infinitude of God is found in His being.  God wills according to His nature (if He willed according to anything else, such as justice, He would be a demiurge, and that anything else would be the real God). What is the nature of God?  Beauty, truth, oneness, righteousness, and justice – essentially goodness – are those things that can be arrived at this side of revelation from philosophy and natural theology. God wills the good because He is good and because He wills it, He accomplishes it.

This is true omnipotence.  As humans, it is easy for us to see how willing and doing what is willed often do not coincide For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do (Rom 7:19). This is not true for God, for what He wills, He accomplishes – His will becomes reality and there is nothing that can prevent God’s will from being accomplished.

This tells us something fundamental about God’s actions, about reality, namely that reality is foundationally good. Harkening back to Genesis and the often repeated And God saw that it was good takes on a deeper reality of creation being good because it, being the accomplishment of His will, is a reflection of God’s nature – it is good because He is good. Jumping forward to Isaiah 45:19  I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I have not said…: Seek me in vain… and Matthew 7:18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit, there is again a strong rejection of volition; that God can will all possible things thus rendering His will unknowable and His action both producing good and bad fruits from both willing the bad and the good (and at the same time). Rather, His doing, His accomplished will, that is reality, stems from His will, not a third thing, and His will is a reflection of His nature.

This can be put another way – God’s accomplished will, creation, reality, is a revelation of who He is, namely that He is good. Psalm 18 encapsulates this succinctly The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands. Day to day uttereth speech, and night to night sheweth knowledge. There are no speeches nor languages, where their voices are not heard… This is called natural revelation whereby the reasoned philosophical and scientific study of creation that we find a reflection, a revelation, of God’s very own nature. In the reality of His accomplished will, His works, in the clay pots of the Potter, we can see His fingerprints — His good nature.

Thy will be done is a prayer that petitions God that His good nature be reflected in the reality of His accomplished action. In heaven, His will is done. In heaven, all that is reflects His goodness, according to its nature and His grace. Heaven is holy and those persons in it holy because there is no mixture of the accomplishment of His will and the vain attempt of creatures to thwart which cannot be thwarted.