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Prayer Duncan Heaster  
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9-2 Limiting God

The Almighty allows His infinite power to become limited by our degrees of spirituality. His word is sent forth and will accomplish its purpose, Isaiah says; and yet we can make " the word of God of none effect" (Mt 15:6) by our traditions or our lack of preaching it. The word / Gospel will inevitably have a result, and yet it is also limited by the attitudes of men. Take another example: the widow woman was told to borrow pots in which to place the oil which would be miraculously provided. The extent of the miracle was limited by the number and size of the pots she borrowed in faith. Or take 2 Kings 8:10: " Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath shewed me that he shall surely die" . Ben-Hadad could recover, it was possible in prospect, but God knew he would not fulfil certain preconditions, and therefore he would not. Abraham told his servant that God would send His Angel before him, so that his mission to find a suitable wife for Isaac would succeed: " He shall send his Angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife unto my son from thence. And if the woman will not be willing to follow thee..." (Gen. 24:7,8). The Angel prepared in prospect for the success of the mission; but it still depended upon the woman's freewill. The whole incident in Genesis 24 can be read as typical of the search, through the preaching of the Gospel, for the bride of Christ. And consider how the men of Meroz " came not to the help of the Lord" (Jud. 5:23).

In a sense God requires not help from man; and yet in another sense He has delegated His work to us, and limits His achievements according to what we are willing to do. C.S. Lewis in The World's Last Night observes: " He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. Creation seems to be delegation through and through. I suppose this is because He is a giver" (p. 9). As any employer soon learns, delegation is a risk. We have been " entrusted with the Gospel" ; and therefore the world God so wants to love, the world God is appealing to, may never see Him; for He makes His appeal through us, as Paul told the Corinthians. Frederick Buechner remarked upon this " folly of preaching" : " to choose for his holy work in the world...lamebrains and misfits and nitpickers and holier-than-thous and stuffed shirts and odd ducks and egomaniacs..." (A Room Called Remember p. 142). Frequently missionary brethren lament such attitudes in the committee brethren who control their resources. But the point is, that we are all like this. And God has chosen to work through the likes of us.

Israel in the wilderness could have had honey out of the rock to feed them (Ps. 81:16), but because they " limited the Holy One of Israel" (Ps. 78:41), they received only water and manna. God had clearly promised them: " The LORD thy God shall deliver [the tribes of Canaan] into thine hand, and thou shalt destroy them with a mighty destruction" (Dt. 7:23). There are no conditions attached to this prediction in the record, and yet we must clearly understand it as meaning 'This is what is potentially possible for you, I have enabled it in my plan, but it depends upon your faith'. And tragically, Israel would not. They would inherit a land which was blessed with iron, and from whose hills " thou mayest dig brass" (Dt. 8:9); and yet they failed to make the effort to dig this out, and therefore they were dominated by the Canaanite tribes who had iron weapons. The Angels had made it potentially possible, but the realization of their potential plans depended upon Israel's freewill effort. When Lot says that he " cannot" flee from Sodom, the Angel responds by saying that he " cannot" [same Hebrew word] do anything until Lot has left- as if to suggest that the Angel's mission depended upon Lot's freewill decision for its realization (Gen. 19:19,22). The same word is found on the lips of another Angel in commending Jacob that he had " prevailed" (Gen. 32:28)- literally, he had 'coulded'. He had achieved what had been made potentially possible in terms of his relationship with that Angel. Caleb and Joshua perceived that Israel were " well able" to overcome the tribes and inherit the land, seeing that the Angel-hornet had gone ahead and prepared the way; and yet due to Israel's disabling of this possibility at the time, it was in some ways so that God Himself was " not able" to give them the inheritance, because they judged that they were " not able" to take it (Num. 13:30,31; 14:16).

Think of Jeroboam. The final comment upon him is that he was not as God's servant David (1 Kings 14:7-9). And yet he was set up with that potential possibility. Consider:

Jeroboam (1Kings 11) David

Man of valour v. 28 1 Sam. 16:18 RV

Young man v. 28 1 Sam. 17:58

Ruler over all v. 28 1 Sam. 18:5

I will taken thee and thou shalt reign over Israel v. 37 2 Sam. 7:8

Build a house v. 38 2 Sam. 7:11

v. 40 1 Sam. 19:2,10

And it works the other way, too. Prophecies of doom can be turned round by our repentance. Nineveh avoiding certain destruction on account of their repentance is a clear example. And one is tempted to think that Joshua's appeal to Achan to properly confess his sin was meant to give him the chance of avoiding the 'definite' condemnation promised. Likewise Acts 20:28-31 records Paul predicting the apostacy that was to come upon Ephesus; but he pleads with the elders to take heed and watch, so that his inspired words needn't come true. Indeed, every one of us in Christ is in effect nullifying the principle / prophecy that sin brings death, and for our sins we must return to the dust for ever.

According to Heb. 11:12, God's promises to Abraham were fulfilled on account of his faith; God in some way allowed Himself to be potentially limited by Abraham's faith. Indeed, the promised world-wide blessing of all nations was promised only " because thou hast obeyed my voice" (Gen. 22:16,18). In this sense the covenants of salvation were partly due to another man [Abraham] being faithful [although above all our salvation was due to the Lord Jesus]. In this sense he is the " father" of the faithful. Or take forgiveness. God is willing to totally forgive the repentant sinner. He could just forgive men; it is within His power to do this. But He doesn't. He allows His power to do this to be limited by the extent of our repentance. " If so be they will hearken, and turn every man from his evil way, that I may repent me of the evil which I purpose to do unto them" (Jer. 26:3). Likewise " Repent ye therefore…, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out...Repent therefore...and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee" (Acts 3:19; 8:22). The ability of God to forgive is controlled by our repentance (" that...may" ). This is used by Peter as the source of appeal for men to repent. The power of the Lord was present to heal the Pharisees- but they would not make use of what was potentially made available (Lk. 5:17). He could not do a mighty work in Nazareth because of their unbelief- as if He would have done a mighty miracle greater than the few healings He did perform there, but that possibility was discounted by their lack of faith (Mk. 6:5,6). The conditions on which God's love and forgiveness operate was likewise stressed by Christ: " When ye stand praying, forgive...that your Father...may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses" (Mk. 11:25,26). God's eagerness to forgive us is therefore reflected in His eagerness to see us forgive others. His desire to make all grace abound towards us is something beautiful, something wondrous.

The very idea of our limiting its application to ourselves should fill us with a sense of urgency to forgive others so this might not be the case. If we can accept that God allows His power (i.e. His omnipotence) to be limited, it becomes easier to accept that there are circumstances He allows His omniscience (i.e. His knowledge) to be limited. Thus the God who by nature cannot forget and for whom time is nothing, can therefore have the capacity to not remember our sins on account of the Lord's death (Isa. 63:25). We can also reflect how an omnipotent God could have achieved salvation in a less painful way than He did- but He made bare His arm in the death of the cross (Is. 52:10), i.e. He expended Himself greatly. The same idea is present when we read of Yahweh paying a price for the redemption of His people from Egypt. He didn't pay the Egyptians anything, but the figure is used to express the extensive effort He was involved in for His people. This idea of God limiting His omnipotence and also His omniscience also explains why God is described as if He suddenly becomes aware of something, makes haste to intervene, or is hurt by sudden apostasy. These ideas are hard to understand if in fact God has total knowledge, i.e. awareness, from the beginning. They either express God to us in human terms; or God limits His omniscience, as He limits His omnipotence, and therefore disallows Himself from foreseeing all our possible futures. The fact is, God 'the Saviour of Israel' can become " as a mighty man that cannot save" by our refusal to accept His salvation (Jer. 14:8,9). He so identified Himself with Israel that in Egypt, He Himself heard a language which He understood not (Ps. 80:5). He could have understood it, and in a sense He did; but so identified is Yahweh with His people that He allows Himself to be limited by their perceptions. It's all brought together in the way Elisha tells Joash to smite upon the ground with arrows; if Joash had perceived deeper what Elisha meant, he would have smitten many times and the Syrian threat would have been eliminated entirely. But he didn't, and therefore Elijah was frustrated with him; the great potential victory was limited by a man's lack of spiritual perception (2 Kings 13:19).

In all these things, God is seeking to work a new creation in the experience of men and women. He has done this for us in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and yet the reality of it is still dependent upon whether we will allow ourselves to put on the new man after the image of God, whether we will become born again after His image and likeness (Eph. 4:23,24).