Philippians 2 Restated

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I’ve been working through the first couple of chapters of Philippians with one of my seminary classes this week. The following is a paraphrase and prayer of response in today’s vernacular that I wrote as I reflected upon the great christological hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.

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Jesus, you didn’t come from God’s side as a big shot, going around trying to prove to us that which you already knew to be true. You knew you were God and didn’t see a need to chase after our accolades. Instead, you blended in amongst us as God incognito. We didn’t even recognize you, you were so much like us. Yet something about your pure humanity repulsed us, so much so that we thought the best thing to do was to get rid of you. And so, we acted the judge and sent you to the executioner. Yet you went willingly and quietly. To us, such willingness to die is human folly. But to you, it was God’s sovereign will that you should accomplish what you did by submitting yourself to torture and the grave.

But…no sooner were you gone when God took action and by His Spirit brought you back to life and recalled you to his side. Once there God appointed you by his authority to the highest political office—the King with jurisdiction over all kings, dictators, presidents and tyrants alike. Indeed, a day is coming, and is nearly come, when your simple name, Jesus, will mean that no one—no one who has lived, is living or ever will live—will be able to deny what you long ago already knew: That you are God. You are King. You are Creator. You are Judge. You are Saviour and there is none like you. And even in that highest of all positions, you now rule in humble honour to God your heavenly Father.

But you say our attitude should be like yours.

If that be the case, then guard me against the pride that makes me want to impress people with greatness, when all you ask of me is to live as I was created to be—a human creature reflecting your image. Rather than seeking ways to stand out, help me to seek ways to stoop alongside others, to perceive, and to accomplish, what needs to be done in service to them. But above all, let me be ready to share in your death. Even if it doesn’t mean I need to die a martyr’s death, nevertheless let me be a living martyr every day—a witness that continually says, “Not I, but Christ.”

And Lord, give my spirit the hope that you yourself had. Yours wasn’t a hope that sought for more stuff and greater comfort, but a hope in the raising of this corrupt and fragile body from the dead. And give my me a yearning for your true justice today in the midst of all present injustices perpetrated by human judges and criminals, and indeed, myself, alike. Let my voice be one that exalts your name above my own, a life that seeks God the Father’s Kingly purposes. And let me do it all in your mighty Name. Amen.

Hitchens on Cancer, Prayer, and God

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I just found out that Christopher Hitchens, one of the leading voices of the so-called “new atheism,” has been diagnosed and is being treated for esophageal cancer.  Recently, Anderson Cooper of CNN interviewed Hitchens. The video is available online here. There is also an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education commenting on Hitchens’ situation. The article is called justification by faith, and arises in reaction to  Jeff Goldberg’s (of The Atlantic) interview with Hitchens. (This interview, you will be interested to know, begins with an excerpt from Dylan’s “Gates of Eden“)

What I found so very intriguing is Hitchens’ perspective on death-bed conversions. He does not deny that it is possible to have such an experience, but he wanted the interviewer and listeners to know that if there are future reports that he has had such a conversion, not to believe it. He is convinced that it will only be drugs and delirium that would cause it. A priori, he already knows that he couldn’t really have a religious conversion in the midst of his suffering. But how can one know this in advance?

Hitchens himself has very recently commented on his illness, entitled “Topic of Cancer” in a Vanity Fair editorial. Some lines that stood out:

I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction [Editorial note: Hitchens was at one time, a heavy smoker] and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. . . To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

You have to hand it to Hitchens. He has at least taken his materialistic atheism seriously. He sees that his own state of illness is probably related to the banal material cause and effect, and he also sees that being angry is impossible. For after all, who can he be angry at? Certainly he can’t be angry at a “god” who does not exist.

But it will be fascinating to listen to Hitchens in the coming days. For though he seems resigned to his ‘fate,’ he is bound to have to grapple with some new concepts, particularly the fact that there are so many people praying for him! As he ends his reflections, he says,

Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if—as my father invariably said—I am spared.

I hope he is spared to write these reflections…

Barth – Credo – “Creator of Heaven and Earth”

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The confession of belief in God as “Creator of Heaven and Earth” (Latin: Creatorem coeli et terrae) is not meant to be a statement of a Christian “world view,” Karl Barth argues. Rather, it is a statement about God, and most specifically, about God’s relation to us and our world. The doctrine of God as creator captures the belief that were it not for the Father Almighty, we would not exist. Therefore, we are “completely and absolutely bound” (29) to the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, the doctrine of Creation has traditionally placed “man” at the centre of the creation account, as if humanity were to be understood as “the creature and the partner of God” (30). Yet the creed is strangely silent here about the creation of the humans. Why is this the case? As Barth puts it:

Will [man] recognize, fear and love God as God the Creator, without at the same time recognizing, as he looks down to earth and up to heaven, his own littleness and insignificance, both in body and soul, even within the creaturely sphere? Without indeed mentioning man, and significant in its failure to mention man, the statement that God created heaven and earth says the decisive thing even about him, and precisely about him. Of these two worlds he is the citizen, encompassed in truth with a special mystery, or the wanderer between these two worlds which indeed in God’s sight are only one world, the created world. (30)

[In other words, the absence of a statement about “humanity” in the first article is not a fatal omission, but an implicit setting of humanity into unity both with the rest of creation and with God the Creator. Humans are both included in “heavens and earth” as “created,”–“Not-God”–and also as possessed and owned by God.]

There is, Barth says, a “double content” arising out of the statement, “God is the Creator of the World”:

  1. God is related to the world, not in a manner of equilibrium or parity, but one in which God has absolute primacy over it in freedom. “Heaven and earth are not themselves God, are not anything in the nature of a divine generation or emanation, are not, as the Gnostics or mystics would again and again have it, in some direct or indirect way, identical with the Son or Word of God” (31). The world is characterized as: not God, not eternal, not a movement of God himself. [It’s hard not to hear the dialectical echoes of Römerbrief here!] Rather, the world is a “free opus ad extra, finding its necessity only in His love, but again not casting any doubt on His self-sufficiency: the world cannot exist without God, . . . but He could exist very well without the world” (31-2). Therefore, Barth insists, the meaning and end of the world “is not to be sought in itself.” Rather, “We must believe that the world as he created it is appointed to serve His glory, and we must not allow ourselves to be misled here by our feelings and reflections over good and evil, however justified” (32-3).
  2. Though there is an asymmetrical relationship between God and the world, the world nevertheless has a reality of its own, willed and upheld by God. That is to say, the world is both dependent God for its existence and yet has a relative independence given it by God. Simultaneously, the world stands bound to God who is its Creator, and yet never does the world become a “part” of God; never does the world and God fuse together: “God never and nowhere becomes the world” (34).

    This raises the question of the doctrine of Providence. How does God remain both sovereign over the world as its Lord, and yet allow the world its “relative independence”? Barth rejects the “Pelagian doctrine of freedom, the fatalistic doctrine of necessity, the indeterminism of the old Lutherans and Molinists and the determinism of Zwingli” because they represent “misreadings” of the doctrine of the human freedom of the will (35). He is more comfortable [not surprisingly] with Calvin’s answer in this regard, which allows a degree of human freedom, but not in such a way that it sets it alongside the “freedom of God” as if human freedom was a “god alongside of God” (35).

Barth concludes this chapter by describing what he sees as two limits of the doctrine of Creation.

  1. There are some questions of  faith that are not to be answered from the perspective of the doctrine of Creation, “as least not unequivocally and completely” (36). Barth includes the questions of sin, evil, death, and the Devil as “impossible possibilities” that cannot be explained from the perspective of God as Lord and Creator; “it cannot be said that God willed and created these possibilities as such” (36). Barth insists, “Dogmatics must not at this place carry the Creation-thought right to the end of the line. It must rather explain these possibilities as being such that we have indeed to reckon most definitely with their reality, but are unable better to describe their real nature and character. . . . These possibilities are to be taken seriously as the mysterium iniquitatis [“mystery of uneveness or injustice”]. The existence of such a thing, however, is not to be perceived from creation, but only from the grace of God in Jesus Christ” (37).

    [Aha! Barth finally returns to the question of the “chief problems of Dogmatics” and makes a bold pronouncement: You cannot answer the question (at least not satisfactorily) of why sin, evil, death and devil exist on the basis of a doctrine of Creation or providence. Yet, this has precisely where the bulk of systematic theology seems regularly to go! What is surprising, of course, is that Barth does deal with his famous doctrine of “Nothingness” in §50 entitled, “God and Nothingness” in the third part volume of his doctrine of Creation, written some 15 years after Credo (1950). An interesting question is: Is this a departure of Barth’s against his own good advice?]

  2. There are also some answers to the faith that should not be sought within the framework of the doctrine of God as Creator. These include the doctrines of miracles, prayer, the Incarnation, and the Church. Barth is insistent that it is inappropriate to develop these doctrines as an extension to the doctrine of God as Creator. This is because they are “very special forms of divine immanence in the world” (38). Here Barth’s argument is worth hearing in full:

These things [miracles, prayer, etc.] pass beyond our range of vision because they are all bound up with the central mystery of the Incarnation, which is most assuredly misunderstood if with Schleiermacher it is understood as the completion and crown of creation. It is not that in Christ creation has reached its goal, but that in Christ the Creator has become–and this is something different–Himself creature; the creature has been assumed into unity with the Creator as first-fruits of a new creation. Projecting our thought ‘consequently’ along the ling of the creation dogma, we should have in one way or another to deny the Incarnation, Miracle, prayer, the Church.  . . . In truth it is just in the knowledge of Jesus Christ that we stand at the source of the creation, faith and dogma. (38)

[Barth’s christocentric method come to the fore in this chapter. As for me, I find his argument quite convincing: prayer, miracles and even the Church are special forms of divine immanence that cannot be understood in terms either in light of God as Creator, nor even in a doctrine of providence, but only in light of Incarnation. Though I can’t even begin to spell the implications of this out in full, let’s take “prayer” as an example. The prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, of course, begins with “Our Father.” But such a prayer is a strictly novel in the Jewish context of his day, not an extension of the doctrine that God is Creator (even though God as Father in the OT does sometimes stand in as a shorthand expression for “God is the Creator). On the contrary, our ability to know what is “meant” by saying, “Our Father” can only be discerned in and through the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, in whose name we pray. Prayer, in other words, to God is not possible just because God is the one who created all things–a deist theology of God as creator has no real room for prayer because God is “absent” and “removed;” rather, prayer is possible to the Father only in light of the fact that Jesus is His Son in the flesh. Overall, a fascinating chapter!]

E-Prayers?

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Given the amount of communication we do through email these days, I’ve found myself quite regularly in situations where I will get an email from someone, requesting prayer on this or that issue. I’ve found myself on various occasions immediately emailing back with the “I will pray” kind of response. In such cases, I usually spend a moment just after I hit “send” and pray for the request, realizing that it is possible I will forget after that, especially if the request is regarding someone I only know casually or even don’t know at all. 

But I’ve also found myself more regularly responding with a prayer actually written right into the email. (The reason I’m writing about this right now is because I JUST did this for a request that came through.) But as I again hit “send,” I wondered, What happened there? Was this “really” a prayer? 

From a personal perspective, I’ve found that writing a prayer into an email really makes me think about what I’m praying. I’m just a bit nervous when (just like I did a few moments ago) I find myself “editing” the prayer! It was actually as I finished off the final edits of this admittedly very brief prayer and sent it off into the internet ether, that I wondered what I had just done.  

It may seem like a trivial question, but what did I just do? Is the “e-prayer” a legitimate prayer? The answer might be obviously, “Of course it’s [not] a prayer!” I’m just wondering if it is all that obvious though. I guess I’m asking, Is there any kind of biblical or theological precedent for the “e-prayer”? Is this a good practice or not? etc.

What do you think?

A Prayer for Harper and Obama

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God our Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,

We come to you by your Holy Spirit and we thank you and acknowledge today that all authorities, kings, and powers are established by your hand. We thank you also that we live in lands where we are given opportunity to vote in freedom and without fear of reprisal or persecution. In these recent days in which both Canada and the United States have cast election ballots, we pray that these leaders of your choosing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and President Barack Obama, will acknowledge in every aspect of their political capacity their status as men under your authority. We pray that they would daily acknowledge their dependence upon you, that they are men and not gods, and that these things would be in the forefront of their mind as they govern. We ask this so that the nations and people over which they have been given responsibility would also be reminded to remember you and to give you glory due to you as our Creator God.

We pray that you would give these men wisdom and discernment and that they would establish solid relationships with godly advisors–men and women who would think about your Name and your glory. We pray that their policy decisions would be ones that truly would further justice and mercy, not national glory or economic gain.

We also pray that your Holy Spirit, who convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgement, would sharpen these men’s consciences sharply and deeply so that they will be able to govern with wisdom, righteousness, and justice, and not merely for public acclaim or personal gain. As both of them stand at the cusp of a sustained period of time where there will likely be no forthright challenge to their leadership, we pray that you will protect them both from the political sins of pride, arrogance, hubris, and entitlement which so many who wield political power fall into. Instead, we pray, that your Spirit would infuse them with humility, grace, mercy, and sacrifice of such a degree that even they will know that these do not arise not from their own heart, but as gifts from your providential hand.

We pray above all these things that Prime Minister Harper and President Obama would have their hearts and their minds pricked and prodded by our Lord Jesus Christ to defend the cause of the most vulnerable of all in our societies: those who are poor, who are destitute, who lack justice, who are without home or hope, and especially, O Christ our Creator,  those little ones who in their mother’s womb cannot speak for themselves and who are created in your image. We acknowledge that you, the everlasting Judge, will hold these men and us accountable on that great day of judgement for the millions of lives lost in order to retain our own comfort and convenience. Be merciful to us and by your hand, turn the tide toward life and peace, we pray, and away from the culture of death that continues to encroach and darken our lands and the lands abroad where we continue to wage war.

We pray, O God our Father and Creator, that you would bring about a spiritual and moral redemption in these men’s hearts and the hearts of the people of our nations–a godly reformation of the heart and the spirit that will turn our nations back to you in unheard of ways in this generation. We pray that the church who confesses the name of your Son Jesus Christ will stand in the unity of love of the Holy Spirit and that we will be faithful witnesses to these men and their representatives even while we confess our sins and our failures both to you and to one another. May we become known as salt and light to our leaders, not as acid and darkness. In this, we renounce the works of Satan, the ruler of darkness who opposes your way. In the name of Jesus Christ, we rebuke the Satanic powers that seek to deceive and destroy them and us by every means possible. Cover both Prime Minister Harper and President Obama with your blood so they may be protected from such spiritual deception and destruction. Protect us also from despair, but give us true hope–a hope that can only be found in you. 

God our Saviour, in this time of political and economic upheaval, may we not become so distracted in the Church that we forget to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is for all people of every race, tongue, nation, and tribe. Give your church the courage to proclaim it boldly. And may these our political leaders be ready to defend the freedom of the Church to proclaim this Gospel, even as they defend the freedom of those who do not yet believe it, and even those who oppose it as men and women loved and created by you.

Heavenly Father, we your Church pray that as citizens of these nations of the world, of Canada and the United States of America, we would not forget that we are also citizens of your kingdom. May we never forget that this world and its care is passing away as we await the blessed hope of the return of Jesus Christ to establish his eternal kingdom where justice and righteousness will be perfectly upheld. In the meantime, as we await your future appearing, we ask for strength to be obedient to your expectations to uphold Mr Harper and Mr Obama in prayer and to give them the honour due them as your servants. We acknowledge that to damn these men is to blaspheme you in your sovereignty and so we ask that you would protect us from such blaspemy. And so we bless them, O Lord, and we do not condemn them, even when they do things contrary to your will, but we ask that you will strengthen, judge, and chastise them as necessary so that your name would be known and the glory of your kingdom extended. We confess our failure to uphold our political leaders in prayer, and we pray for strength to be faithful in this regard, knowing that it is even as we pray for our leaders to you the Heavenly King,  we do so as witnesses to them and to the world that they, even in their high position, are under your authority and will someday, along with us, pass away even as the grass of the field.

Finally, we ask for the humility to encourage these leaders when they do right, to courageously speak the truth in love to them when they stray from your way, and to honour them and give them the due that is theirs as your appointed servants.  And we pray that in all things, whether in word or deed, that we would do so in your name and for the sake of your kingdom. We pray that your will will be done in Canada and the United States today just as your will is already done in heaven. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

In the Name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Praying with the Sick

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A good friend of mine is taking the terrible journey through terminal cancer. He is not the first person close to me to have been attacked by this roaring lion of a disease. While some fend it off for a while, eventually, it seems, it often breaks through and attacks viciously and without mercy. Some miraculously escape, but the reality is–many do not. My mother-in-law, and my own father both died from cancer, and a nephew of mine came close (though we thank God that he was spared).

So how are we to pray for those brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering the attacks of serious illness like terminal cancer? I’m not the first to ask this question, and I certainly won’t the last. Who hasn’t struggled, as I do now, to know what to say and how to pray for my friend who is face-to-face with this ravaging disease? Sure, I email him once in a while, and give him a phone call, but even in those brief contacts, I’m usually at a significant loss for words. And to be frank, I’m not always much clearer in how to pray for him either. 

I am confident from Scripture and from the stories of God’s people that God can and will sometimes heal people of their illnesses, but I’m also very aware of the reality that he often doesn’t. When God does heal, we rejoice, realizing that healing in this present age is a sign of eschatological hope of the kingdom of God to come when these sicknesses will be finally over. But when God doesn’t heal as we wish, we lament and mourn, realizing that we still live in a world groaning under sin and awaiting its final redemption. So we try to give and take comfort in the promise that those who mourn will be comforted (Matt 5:4)–even if at the present time that comfort may seem so distant.  

Our pastor is continuing his series on Paul’s prayers, and this morning was preaching from the prayer found in Romans 15:5-6. Scripture there says,

 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

I had started writing this before the sermon, and though Pastor Blayne didn’t mention sickness per se, it struck me as I listened that it is precisely “endurance and encouragement” that the terminally sick brother or sister in Christ needs most. But the question is: How can we pray so that such endurance and encouragement might come? 

In the first place, it is vital that Christians struggling with sickness sense in our interactions with them that our words and our actions are done in the name of Jesus Christ (Cf. Col 3:17), in whom we are spiritually unified with that person. Let’s face it: In and of ourselves, we have nothing to offer. We cannot bring healing, we cannot enter the depths of the person’s heart and drive out darkness and despair. In fact, the words that we do say often slip off our tongues sounding so empty. Ministry must therefore begin with the theological realism of our human inadequacy. So as we haltingly enter into those situations where we walk alongside and pray for those who suffer, we must do so continually asking the Spirit to reveal to both sickand well person alike the unity we have in Christ. But why is this important?

Though I cannot speak from first hand experience of having gone through the valley of the shadow of death myself, I have sensed that critically, and especially terminally, ill people are constantly enshrouded in shadows–especially shadows of loneliness and helplessness.   Even if there are many people surrounding the sick person, terminal sickness tragically tends to isolate persons in their helplessness. Because neither sick person nor companion is able to “do” or “say” anything to change the situation, this helplessness may actually paradoxically result in an intensifying of the person’s loneliness and his overwhelming feeling of darkness. So even in the presence of friends and family, whose own helplessness is often palpable, the sick person can potentially end up feeling lonelier than ever.  Consequently, it at such times of loneliness and darkness that the reality of the unity the brother and sister in Christ has with the sick person is so vitally important to focus upon.  And though sickness may isolate, it is only as we pray for the Spirit of unity found in Christ alone that “endurance and encouragement” may come. 

But if the unity in Christ is the issue at stake, then we who are left to deal with the ever increasing realization that our loved one is fighting a losing battle are probably in need of a good dose of “endurance and encouragement” ourselves. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes we may leave the room feeling strangely encouraged by the spirit of peace mysteriously made manifest in the sick person. I saw some brief manifestations of joy in the last days of my mother-in-law’s life, and though I missed it with my Dad, my family tells me that this also happened with him in his last hours, even in the midst of his pain. And I know others have told me similar kinds of stories of saints gone home. Thus, perhaps we should not hesitate to interpret those brief moments, however fleeting, as a reminder that even in the face of death, the unity we have with the person in Christ is not broken. Death is still the final enemy to be conquered, but even death cannot rob the Christian of his or her joy. In fact, sick persons who have already come to the end of their own resources may sometimes sense in a more intense and acute way the presence of Christ more than well people ever could.  In such times, though it may be us who have come to minister to the person, we may find that we have to humbly accept being ministered to.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile, sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the Triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body.” (Life Together, 20) (This highlight as well that we must remember that theologically it is never us who ministers, but Christ who ministers through us. The fact that a sick person–even a sick person barely able to communicate to us–can actually minister to us is good evidence that ministry is finally the work of Christ).

But note secondly that Paul does not pray primarily for endurance and encouragement; rather, his primary request is that God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ might be glorified. Yes, we can pray for endurance and encouragement for the person who is sick, but in so doing, we may need to remember that these are by-products that arise as we sense and experience the unity of spirit in Christ and pray that God would be glorified. And so, though we may not be able to know what to say or do for the seriously ill, we can know how we can pray–that in the midst of sickness, whether through healing or even through death, that God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ may be magnified in and through it all. After all, the final purpose of both the healed or sick Christian is one and the same: to witness to the glory to God. Whether we mourn in loss, or rejoice in the triumph of healing, it is all pointless and seriously misdirected if we do not direct both our mourning and our praise to the God of encouragement and endurance. 

So my practical pastoral advice for praying with the sick is this: First, when called upon to be with those in serious sickness, by all means, do not hesitate to remind the person that you are there not just as a friend or even family member, but first and foremost as a brother and sister in Christ. It is this bond which is the most important, even more than being a relative or even a spouse. Second, pray with the person–even if it is short. Remember: Ministry is Christ’s to accomplish, not ours, and Jesus is able graciously to take our stammering tongues and to use them for his purposes. So by all means, pray that God would restore the person to health if you feel so led by the Spirit. But in praying for that, don’t neglect to ask God for the greater thing, mainly,  that  the sick person might have a renewed sense of her or his belonging to the body of Christ. And third and most importantly, pray with the person that in all things, whether in life or death, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ would have the glory. By praying this way,  we can wait expectantly that God will come in his own way to give endurance and encouragement both to the person in his or her suffering, and to those of us praying alongside.

Unimaginable, Unthinkable Prayer

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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!