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God’s will be done

13 May 2016

MANY Anglicans have joined in the Archbishops’ Pentecost prayer initiative “Thy kingdom come”. Many did not — the trickle-down of information about the initiative was patchy. But since all are enjoined regularly to pray for the Church and the nation, we don’t suppose the sum of prayers was diminished by much. Of course, the real work starts here if the prayers are to bear fruit. There are two bad approaches to prayer and one good one. The first is to pray for a particular result, then sit back and wait for the Holy Spirit to achieve it. This is a temptation for the Church in the West, saved from it only by a vast amount of unco-ordinated individual service. The second approach is to work for a particular result, and pray that the Holy Spirit will bless it. There is a spirit of managerialism abroad which seeks to counter complacency with effort, but is equally misguided. Only the third approach comes near to the pattern set out in the Bible, however: to pray for the Holy Spirit’s lead, and then, in the power of the Spirit, to attempt to carry out the Spirit’s bidding. The Archbishops do not give many clues, but this seems to be the sort of prayer they advocate: prayer that transforms those who do the praying, making them more conformable to the Spirit’s leading. To pray for others earnestly is to create a desire to help them, and a familiarity that shows how this might be done.

This said, Christians must not be afraid to pray with a caveat. The next line in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done”, is frequently prefaced with “but” or “nevertheless”. We pray for what we want, and what we hope God wants for us. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that these might not accord with God’s true purpose, which might be darker and less pleasant than we should like, at least for a time. Anyone who prays for him- or herself knows, as Christ did in Gethsemane, that not all prayers are answered as desired. This includes even those that do not depend on outside forces. As St Paul wrote to the Romans: “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” With this in mind, it is surprising that little account is taken of the will of those for whom the Church is praying. When he spoke in parables, Christ was acknowledging that not all wished to enter the Kingdom of God — and this was in a crowd that had actively sought him out. Those working towards the conversion of England, and elsewhere, need to live with the possibility that England might not want to be converted.

“Thy kingdom come” is a welcome initiative. But one caveat: any national exercise risks obscuring the individual nature of the task. The Church continues to exists because hundreds of thousands of individuals decide each week to belong and attend. If it is to grow and prosper, the number of those positive individual decisions has to increase. Christians who feel burdened by such a task can improve the odds of this happening by responding to the Spirit’s request to be loving, pure of heart, sacrificial, joyful, and sensitive. In this way they can ensure that any seeds sown by the Spirit will land in good soil. The increase is up to God.

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