Pastor Banting is preaching through the “prayers of Paul” at our Church these weeks. Today his text was Eph 3:14-21. I was especially struck by his observation that the ability to comprehend Christ’s love is, really, beyond and above us, and can only be known “together with all the saints.” Only the Church as a whole can begin to claim full knowledge of Christ and his love, for it is the breadth and width of the church universal in all of history for whom Christ has given himself. My individual knowledge of that love, taken on its own, while certainly a “piece of the divine love pie,” is far from complete in its perception of God’s love in Christ.
That lead me to think a bit beyond what Blayne was explicitly focusing on, particularly as I pondered the statement in Eph 3:20: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us . . .” (ESV). I like also the way the NIV puts it, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”
I remember many times when my dad would pray something like this at the end of his prayers, apparently directly inspired by Scripture. Dad would say, “Do more for us, Lord, than we can ever ask or imagine.” I remember as a kid not exactly knowing what that meant, and I suppose I had never thought of it quite like I did today. Til now I had thought that this statement in Eph 3:20 was saying, “Pray big! God can do so very much, so why ask so little!” Now, that may be true as far as it goes. It is true that “we have not because we ask not.” But I don’t think that it really what is being taught here. So what IS it saying?
It seems to me that we need to realize, first, that this is a “doxology.” It is a statement uttered in worship of the immense greatness of the powerful God addressed in this prayer. Second, given the fact that this a record of the apostle’s worship of God, it is, maybe surprisingly, not even to be taken as a directive about how to pray as much as a revelatory reminder of our smallness relative to God’s immense greatness! In fact, let me suggest that this Pauline statement may be quite the opposite of the idea of “praying big.” If anything it is, “Don’t presume to think that your prayers can capture the immensity of what God can do. Whatever you can ask or imagine is, [to play on a favourite phrase of the early Barth and Kierkegaard] ‘infinitely and qualitatively less’ than what God can do. So when you do pray, go ahead–“pray big!” But when you do, be humble enough to accept that God’s answer may be far beyond what you could have ever dreamed of asking or imagining or thinking in the first place. And in so humbling ourselves, we may find that what we thought of at first as a “big prayer” was really, well, rather small and possibly even self-centred.
The practical import of this is that we sometimes approach prayer as if we knew, in advance, what it is that God needs to do. “Send me money! Heal this person! Stop that government bill! Find me a mate! Get me a job! Make sure that candidate is elected, etc. etc.” This not to say that we shouldn’t pray these kinds of things–by all means, if you are so led, pray away! But perhaps the important reminder of this doxology is that once we’ve asked, we shouldn’t be surprised if God’s answer eventually cames in a form and manner entirely qualitatively and quantitatively different than we might have expected from the outset. In fact, we may miss answered prayer simply because we assume that unless God answered in accordance to the limits imposed by my thinking and imagining that it is not an answered prayer at all!
But this doxology reminds us that God is able to do MORE than we can ask or imagine. We may ask, even in good conscience, for this, but the doxology always reminds us that in the end, the wisdom, goodness, and power of God–even that power of the Spirit living in us–may actually mean that the prayer is better answered with that.
God is not restricted to the boundaries we impose on him in our prayer, but in worship, we acknowledge that our boundaries are not God’s, and that his ways are not our ways! In short, we cannot, by definition, pray the unimaginable or the unthinkable. That would be to pray beyond our limits as humans. But thanks be to God that he is not restricted to answering our prayers in accordance to the confines of our thinking or imagining!