There are two difficulties with our prayer, “Thy will be done.” We fret over the first, but the second is far more dangerous.
“What is Your will? How do I know it? Where can I find it? Is this Your will?” This is the first difficulty. The second accompanies it, and often escapes our notice.
There is a forgotten moment in Elijah’s early career. First the widow’s jars of flour and oil never fail. Then her son, once dead, revives at Elijah’s prayer. Later, Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal. Those prophets, masters of spectacle, cannot reach their gods’ ears. Elijah’s God silences them. And when Elijah’s God comes, a consuming fire on Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal are wiped out, along with the spectacle of their gods. The Word of the Lord silences them, and at that Word, heard once again by God’s chosen people, the drought breaks, rain falls.
But that Word, the Word on Elijah’s lips, was not so clear in the forgotten moment between the miracle of the widow and the miracle of fire. In that moment, two men meet before a Mountain.
After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.” And so Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. The famine was severe in Samaria. Ahab summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of the palace. (Now Obadiah revered the Lord greatly; when Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, hid them fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water.) Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the wadis; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it; Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself. As Obadiah was on the way, Elijah met him; Obadiah recognized him, fell on his face, and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” He answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here.” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would hand your servant over to Ahab, to kill me? As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom to which my lord has not sent to seek you; and when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would require an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. But now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here.’ As soon as I have gone from you, the spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where; so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have revered the Lord from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets fifty to a cave, and provided them with bread and water? Yet now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here’; he will surely kill me.” Elijah said, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah. – 1 Kings 18:1-16
Like Elijah, Obadiah is a servant of the Lord. Like Elijah, he defies the Canaanite gods of Jezebel, the Baals and the Asherah, gods tolerated by Ahab, King of Israel. Like Elijah, Obadiah defies the king. But he does so secretly. Obadiah defies Ahab in the king’s own court. He conspires against Jezebel’s plotting. In a time of drought, he secrets water away for prophets pursued by the queen.
Like Elijah, Obadiah’s faithfulness is dangerous. He is a faithful servant of the Lord in the house of Ahab. He risks himself for the Lord’s prophets. In this work, secrecy is his ally. He hides the prophets, fifty to a cave. He hides them.
Obadiah’s secrecy was his faithful service. He knew God’s will: hide the prophets. And he followed God’s will, risking martyrdom. Jezebel silences prophets. But Obadiah guards the word of the Lord on the prophets’ lips. He preserves them, and in preserving them, he preserves the Lord’s word.
When Elijah comes, however, Obadiah is caught. He is caught between two other lords. “Is it you my lord Elijah?” he says. But Elijah replies, “It is I. Go tell your lord Ahab that Elijah is here.”
How often we find ourselves caught between Ahabs and Elijahs – caught between lords, uncertain how to serve the one Lord?
Of course, to us, the decision between Ahab and Elijah is obvious. But it was not so clear for Obadiah. Has not Obadiah been serving both the Lord and Ahab to this point? Not only that, but his obedience to Elijah, another lord, risks the failure of his prior faithfulness. What will happen to the prophets if Obadiah is found out, if Obadiah dies? Who will preserve the Word of the Lord on the prophets’ lips?
Obadiah is uncertain. He is not uncertain as to his Lord – that is clear. It is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. It is the God whose Word is on the lips of the prophets. But what does faithfulness to this God look like in this moment? How does he choose between his prior faithfulness and this new Word?
This is the second difficulty of “Thy will be done” – that God’s will for one moment will become our idol in the next.
We focus our attention on easy idols. We love to preach against the Baals and the Asherah. We preach against injustice and immorality. But we’re afraid to speak of the idols that tempt us most: what God is doing through me, my gifts, my ministry, God’s will for my life.
How easily “thy will” becomes “my will.” Beware: the idol of “my will” is difficult to kick down. “God, if what you’re doing now doesn’t confirm, if it doesn’t extend, if it doesn’t expand the good works you began for me, I’m not interested. God, what about my sacrifices? What about my responsibilities? What about my gifts? What about my…”
“What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7) What do you have that was not a gift? Do not mistake your gifts for possessions. They came from the will of God, and there they must remain.
This is the second difficulty of “Thy will be done” – the temptation to turn “Thy will” into “my will.” Obadiah confronts this second difficulty. He pleads for himself. He pleads for his faithful service to God. And once again, the Word of God confronts him. “Go, tell your lord that Elijah is here.”
“So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him.” So ends the story of Obadiah. His departure is as sudden as his appearance. But even if his appearance is brief, his lesson lasts.
Obadiah could have usurped the Word of the Lord. Had he not won the right? While Elijah was away, in Zarephath, Obadiah was sleeping under the same roof as Ahab and Jezebel. Obadiah was hiding prophets. Obadiah was risking death.
And yet he obeys. And yet he submits. Confronted by the Word of the Lord, his prior service to God disrupted, his gifts, influence, and life risked, Obadiah obeys.
Another day, another man confronts the will of God before another mountain. Jesus prayed the prayer he taught his disciples, “Thy Will be done.” “Not my will, but Thine.” And in his prayer, he overturns our most tantalizing idols. He shows us that we too can pray that prayer – “Thy Will be done.”
But God, look at what I can do for you. Look at what I’ve begun. What about my gifts? You don’t give them in vain, do you?
All the gifts of God are ordered to a greater gift: the gift of Christ-in-me, so that all things might be conformed to the pattern of Christ, the One through whom God is reconciling all things to himself.
Unless we hold God’s will as Christ held his Father’s, our gifts corrupt. They grow into the most sinister of idols, more powerful than the Baals.
Obadiah came, and encountered the word of God. His will submitted to God’s, and in his obedience he prefigured Christ. Christ came, and was the Word of God. His will was the will of the Father, and the power of his obedience empowers our own.
Christ’s prayer in the garden, “Not my will, but thine,” silences the false gods and overturns the idols. Christ’s prayer in the garden, “Not my will, but thine,” empowers our own prayer – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” The prayer is there in Obadiah’s silence. The prayer is now on our lips.
And so we pray, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray … and we teach our children to pray, just as we were taught: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…Not my will, but thine.”
This post from our archives first appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2017. Featured image: St Peter in Prison, by Rembrandt.