[Abba Isaac said:] “To pray, ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ is to pray that men may be like angels, that as angels fulfil God’s will in heaven, men may fulfil his will instead of their own, on earth. No one can say this sincerely except one who believes that every circumstance, favourable or unfavourable, is designed by God’s providence for his good, and that he thinks and cares more for the good of his people and their salvation than we do for ourselves. It may be understood thus: the will of God is the salvation of all men, according to that text of St Paul: ‘who willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ [1 Timothy 2:4].”
~ Conferences of St. John Cassian, 9.20
The acceptance of all things as God’s will is one of the most common and most difficult teachings of the fathers. In particular, the part where Abba Isaac makes clear this includes “every circumstance, favourable or unfavourable,” is especially hard to swallow. What might we make of this? What good does it do? How does it affect our spiritual practice?
One answer can be found in the text above: salvation. St. Paul writes elsewhere that “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
This is an oft-memorized verse, but I’m not so sure it is as comforting as it sounds at first blush. Indeed, at worst, it is sometimes used in a trite attempt to comfort others while they grieve, leading them, rather than being comforted, to despair whether they truly love God since, from where they’re sitting—death of a loved one, terminal illness, or whatever else—“all things” are decidedly not working for their good.
This is where a dash of metaphysics can come in handy. What is God? God is that goodness that transcends all that is transient (or, we might say, mortal) in this world. Stated apophatically, God is that which is immortal, incorruptible, and devoid of all that is tragic and evil.
Loving God, then, puts things in their proper perspective. It does not make tragedy less tragic, but it does give us something to hold on to that cannot be touched by tragedy. As St. Paul continues, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
St. Paul has this confidence precisely because of the paschal mystery: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) That is, if God is willing to give up what he most treasures so that we can have access to his goodness, what truly good thing would he deny us?
And in this we see the lens through which alone this can make sense: the cross. Christ is victorious over death by death. He is victorious over shame by bearing shame. He is victorious over the curse by being cursed.
We cannot avoid suffering in this life. Indeed, it is at our great spiritual peril that we try to do so. That is to embrace the world that is subject to corruption and thus unwittingly to embrace that death we so fear. Then, when we cannot turn our face away from it any longer, it will appear to us as a beast waiting to devour us, unready endure it. I am reminded of depictions of the Canaanite deity of death: Mot. He is basically like an evil Pac-Man—one giant mouth that swallows all things.
We may say, then, that if all things, “favourable or unfavourable,” are to our good, it is because only through enduring suffering can we learn to rise again with Christ daily, through whom our mortality is “swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
If we do not thank God for little hardships every day, enduring them as his will, seeing them as opportunities to cling to him rather than anything transient, to let go of death and embrace eternal life, then we gain nothing. It is not as if, swearing off God, we can somehow avoid tragedy. It will come anyway, and we will then lose everything else we have when all the pleasures of this life give way to grief and despair.
All of this, however, is contingent upon the correspondence between our metaphysical conception of God and the reality we experience in prayer. If one does not pray, no amount of philosophy can make up for it. God will not be there in that case, even if one believes he ought to be. Understanding is useless without faith—not a mere intellectual assent but as a lived reality, a continual trust and dependence upon God, whom one knows from experience, prayer most of all, is there.
To pray, “Thy will be done” is scary. It is to say, “All that comes to pass I accept for what it is without judgment.” For who are we to judge God?
This is not to say that we should not actively try to correct evil and injustice in our world. In fact, I highly recommend that people do what they can in this regard and take the time to learn to do it well (preferably the second before the first).
To accept all things as God’s will is rather to refuse to let despair win. It is to resolve to begin by repentance daily, turning the one small plot of God’s creation we have any real power over, our hearts, toward him, beginning our work there and valuing it above all else.
The other things, our projects to help God save the world, they do matter. But the results of our efforts are not always favorable. To live by St. Paul’s exhortation is to refuse to confuse what is unfavorable to us with God’s judgment towards us, to refuse to see the world through our will rather than his. His will for us is what is truly good, always what is good, always our salvation—how could he, being that goodness itself, will for us anything else?
When our will and efforts seem to be in vain, instead we must look to our hearts and remember that the effort that matters most is clinging to God, to goodness. Then disappointment becomes opportunity for humility, for giving up in the best sense of that phrase—giving up trying to be the world’s or our family’s or our friends’ savior, when in those cases we can only at best offer some meager, ultimately unnecessary help to God with no guarantee of success. Then the crosses of our lives can become our salvation.
And then we can honestly pray, albeit with fear and trembling, “Thy will be done.”