The 2000 movie Pay It Forward tells the story of a seventh grader named Trevor, whose new social studies teacher issues an assignment to think of something that could change the world, and then put it into action. Trevor comes up with the idea of doing big favors for three people that are not intended to be paid back but forward — that is, the receiver is challenged to do “a big favor” for three new people, and so on. Trevor’s efforts begin to change lives (including his own), becoming an expanding circle of kindness that exceeds Trevor’s dreams and eventually outlives him.
The movie inspired millions of people and gave birth to the charitable Pay It Forward Foundation. But the premise wasn’t exactly new. In some ways, it mirrored the teachings of Jesus about the kingdom of God.
Understanding the kingdom
During His earthly ministry, Jesus spent much of His time and effort defining and explaining God’s kingdom. He said it is like a priceless treasure. He said it can be hidden, yet it can grow in beauty and influence like you wouldn’t believe. He showed that it is a mysterious, wonderful, healing, life-giving thing that lives and grows within every follower of Jesus (Matthew 13:44-46; 31-33; Luke 21).
In his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner writes:
It is not a place, of course, but a condition. Kingship might be a better word. . . . As a poet, Jesus is maybe at his best in describing the feeling you get when you glimpse the Thing itself — the kingship of the king official at last and all the world his coronation. It’s like finding a million dollars in a field, he says, or a jewel worth a king’s ransom. It’s like finding something you hated to lose and thought you’d never find again — an old keepsake, a stray sheep, a missing child. When the Kingdom really comes, it’s as if the thing you lost and thought you’d never find again is yourself.
When Jesus taught His followers to pray, “Thy kingdom come” (Luke 11:2), He did not prescribe a mere hopeful sentiment. The phrase is intended to ignite and fuel something like internal combustion in a person’s life. To say, “May Your kingdom come” is to say, “I enlist in Your cause. I adopt Your agenda. ‘Here am I! Send me’” (Isaiah 6:8). As Philip Keller points out in A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer:
When I pray, “Thy kingdom come,” I am willing to relinquish the rule of my own life, to give up governing my own affairs, to abstain from making my own decisions in order to allow God, by His indwelling Spirit, to decide for me what I shall do. . . .
[W]hen Christ uttered the simple yet profound petition, “Thy kingdom come,” He envisaged His own future kingdom on earth and also the very Spirit of the living God coming into a human heart at regeneration to make it His holy habitation. He pictured the King of kings so permeating and invading a life that His authority would be established in that person’s mind and will. He saw a human being as a temple, an abode, a residence of the Most High. But He knew that only when such an occupied heart is held and controlled by the indwelling Spirit could it be truly said that here indeed is a part of the spiritual Kingdom of God where His will was done on earth.
That expanding kingdom not only occupies and grows within all committed followers of Jesus but also should spread outward from them, like a raging wildfire.
Thus, when I pray, “May your kingdom come,” it is a visual exercise for me. As I say those words every day (and often several times a day), I survey in my mind’s eye a panorama of where I want God’s kingdom to spread. The picture starts in me, with my heart and life, and spreads outward. I “see” God’s kingdom transforming my family, my children and their workplaces, my grandchildren and their schools, my neighborhood and church. I envision God’s kingdom changing “the east side” of my community, where people live in poverty and fear, enslaved by drugs and alcohol.
I visualize God’s kingdom invading the nearby prison until it becomes a place of reclamation and renewal. I see my nation’s capital, revolutionized by wisdom and teamwork and unity. I picture the Middle East (it’s amazing how far and fast you can travel in prayer), and see Jerusalem, a city I’ve come to love, where residents and neighbors alike enjoy peace and prosperity.
When I say, “May Your kingdom come,” I pray for mercy, grace, and peace — in me and in those around me. When I say, “May Your kingdom come,” I pray for His kingdom to invade seeking souls and hungry hearts. I pray for love to conquer all. I pray for wars to end. I pray for the church to be healthy, united, and effective. I pray for justice. I pray for diseases to be eradicated. I pray for racial reconciliation, sensible government, a healthy environment, and a vigorous economy.
Heeding the call
Every follower of Jesus Christ can play a part in that expanding kingdom, through prayer and action. The kingdom of God is not a static reality. It is a call to which you respond, a cause in which you enlist, and a daily task you undertake, like a soldier reporting for duty.
In The Servant’s Heart, Samuel Logan Brengle, the Salvation Army’s “prophet of holiness,” wrote:
No one can tell how much the future spread of God’s kingdom may depend on you. “See how great a forest a little fire kindles!” (James 3:5, NKJV). Keep the fire of love and faith and sweet hopefulness burning in your heart, and you may start a blaze that will someday sweep the country or the world.
Strike the match. Fan the flames. Pray and work until God’s kingdom sweeps through your whole family, community, country, and world.