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Prayer Duncan Heaster  
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9-3 The Limitation Of Prayer

Our faith in prayer in some sense limits God's ability. The Jewish food laws were ended by the word of God (i.e. the Gospel of Christ) and Christian prayer before eating meat: personal prayer was a vital component to enable the sanctifying of food (1 Tim. 4:5). The widow woman believed that her little drops of oil would be multiplied; but how much they multiplied was limited, not by God, but by the number of pots she borrowed in faithful anticipation (2 Kings 4:3). So it was with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There was exhortation to " seek the best gifts" ; and yet they were distributed " according as God hath dealt to every man [according to] the measure of faith" (Rom. 12:3 and context). God doesn't just 'give' men faith. But He gave to each of them in the early church gifts which reflected the measure of faith shown by the individual believer. How much they could achieve for their Lord was limited by their faith.

We frequently commit the horror of limiting God in our attitude to prayer. All too often we see ourselves in the man who believed and yet still had unbelief: " If thou (Jesus) canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us. Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible" (Mk. 9:22,23). The man thought that Christ's power to help was limited: 'If you can do anything to help, well, please do'. The Lord Jesus turned things right round: 'If you can believe, anything's possible' - in other words, God can do anything, but His ability to directly respond to some particular need is limited by our faith, not by any intrinsic lack of ability within Himself. The man hadn't thought about this. He saw God as sometimes able to help a bit; Christ turned the man's words round to show that God's power is infinite, limited only by our faith (2). The same message is taught by putting together the fact that with God nothing is impossible (Lk. 1:37), and the fact that nothing is impossible unto us (Mt. 17:20). God's possibility is our possibility; and this is what the Lord was teaching the man who thought that it all depended upon the Lord's possibility alone. There are other instances where the extent and nature of the Lord's healing seems to have been limited by the faith of the recipient (Mt. 8:13 "" ; 9:29 " according to" ; 12:22 " inasmuch" ). The God who has given us His Son will, through His mediation, surely " freely give us all things" in response to our prayers (Rom. 8:32-34). And note how this passage is alluding to the LXX of Esther 8:7: " The King said to Esther, If I have freely granted thee all that was Haman's, and hanged him on a gallows [a cross]...what dost tho yet further seek?" , and the King then gives Esther whatever she requests. Note the repetition of ideas: if death on a cross had been granted, then all other things would be freely granted to the mediator / intercessor, for the good of her / His people.

The Lord Jesus went on to comment on the healing of the boy: " This kind (of cure) can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting" (Mk. 9:29). Only intense prayer could send forth this kind of answer from God; He does not act on emotional grounds, just because He feels sorry for somebody. It needs to be noted that initially the man's child was not cured because the disciples didn't have the faith to do it. This teaches that God's activity for others is partly dependent on the prayers of a third party. What stronger motivation could we have to pray earnestly for each other? The prayer of the man of God caused Jeroboam's hand to be healed (1 Kings 13:6). Again, the prayers of someone else can affect the fortunes of another in a way which would not happen if they just prayed for themselves. The Corinthians " helped…by prayer for us" (2 Cor. 1:11) and thereby preserved Paul “from so great a death”, presumably by an awful torture- as if Paul's unaided prayers had less power than when the Corinthians were praying for him too. He says that this blessing of deliverance was “by the means of many persons” praying for him. Stephen believed this to the point that he could pray for the forgiveness of his murderers, fully believing God could hear and grant such forgiveness. Job believed this, in that he prayed God would forgive his children in case they sinned. The friends mocked this in Job 5:4; 8:4; 17:5 and 20:10, saying that the children of the foolish die for their own sins, whereas, by implication, Job had figured that his prayers and sacrifices could gain them forgiveness. Yet in the end, Yahweh stated that Job had understood Him and His principles right, whereas the friends hadn't. And when the Lord asked Martha: " Believest thou this?" (Jn. 11:26), is not the implication that Lazarus was raised because of her faith…? This one needs some meditation upon the context.

The deeper we think about these things, the more we come to marvel at the intricacy of God's working with us in our lives. Zechariah had prophesied in the context of the restoration, that Jerusalem could have been a city without walls, with God's protection (2:4-6). But Israel lacked faith, and therefore God came down to their lower level and allowed them to build a wall, and worked with them in this. The exercise of building that wall was a display of great faith and zeal on Nehemiah's part; yet in fact the work He did was a result of Israel's limiting God by their lack of faith, even though Nehemiah himself had faith. Indeed the whole failure of Israel became " riches for the world." (Rom.11:12) Nothing is ultimately wasted or lost. Nothing can be done against the Truth (2 Cor. 13:8). Meditate on your own life and identify the countless failures through which, especially as you look back over time, the " invisible" hand of God is discernible.

If Judah had remained in the land and not fled to Egypt, God would have repented of the evil He had promised, and would there and then have restored the land and rebuilt Jerusalem (Jer. 42:10 cp. Zech. 6:15); the whole restoration from Babylon would never have happened. But Israel would not. And yet the whole restoration exercise, as it happened, brought glory to God through the faith and spirituality of men like Ezra and Nehemiah. Behold once again 'Divine ecology'. The closer one looks, the more conditional prophecies and Divine statements there are. " My house shall be called a house of prayer" had the extent of its possible fulfilment limited by the Jews turning the temple into a trading centre (Mk. 11:17). The statement that Nebuchadnezzar would be humiliated for seven years could have been changed by his repentance (Dan. 4:16 cp. 27-29). " Thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they be strong" (Josh. 17:18) was in fact conditional on their effort and faith- although it doesn't sound like that in the positive way it is spoken. Daniel understood that after 70 years Jerusalem must be restored; but he earnestly prayed for their forgiveness so that this would happen (Dan. 9:2 cp. 19). Perhaps he opened his window and prayed towards Jerusalem exactly because he wanted to fulfil 2 Chron. 6:37,38: " If they shall bethink themselves in the land whither they are carried captive, and turn, and pray unto thee…toward their land…and toward the city which thou hast chosen" . He knew that repentance was a precondition for the promised restoration to occur.

Abraham And Sodom

Perhaps the most telling example of the limitation of prayer is in Abraham's request that God would spare Sodom for the sake of fifty righteous men there. He then lowers the number to 40, and then finally to ten, assuming that surely Lot's family were righteous and would comprise ten righteous. If Abraham had left off praying at, say, forty...then this would have been the limit God set. If there were ten righteous there, the city wouldn't have been saved. But Abraham went on to set the limit at ten. But we wonder, what would have happened if he had gone further and asked God to save Sodom for the sake of one righteous man, i.e. Lot? My sense is that the Father would have agreed. But the city wasn't saved for the sake of the one man Lot, because Abraham limited God's desire to save by the smallness of his vision. This principle can possibly be extended even wider. David asks: " Let thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, according as we hope in thee" (Ps. 33:22). And whoever prayed Ps. 132:10 asked to be heard " for thy servant David's sake" - he or she believed that God would remember David and for his sake respond favourably [and how much more powerful is prayer uttered for the sake of the Son of God!].

The record of Abraham reasoning with God about how many righteous people could save Sodom's destruction is a lesson powerful enough. But it becomes the more powerful when we realize that Gen. 18:22 originally read: "Yahweh stood before Abraham". Walter Brueggemann speaks of the image of "Abraham as Yahweh's theological instructor. It is as though Abraham were presiding over the meeting. But that bold image of Yahweh being accountable to Abraham... was judged by the early scribes as irreverent and unacceptable. Therefore, the text was changed to read as we have it" (1). If this is so, and there is good textual reason to accept it, then we are left saying 'Wow!' not only to God's humility, but to the extreme willingness which He has to hear and go along with the prayers of men. And further; Ez. 14:12-20; 18:5 teach that there can be no 'acquittal by association'; if a righteous man stands before God and pleads for others, he can save only himself. Yet Abraham had the spiritual vision, driven by a pure love of others and God's glorification, which led him to go beyond this basic principle, and stand before God, or have God stand before Him, and plead for others- and be heard! God clearly is willing to change even the application of His basic principles in the light of intense prayers for others. It's all a huge challenge to us in our prayers for others. Indeed, Abraham's prayer seems to show that God can be 'persuaded' to see things from quite another perspective. For Abraham reasons that God's Name will be profaned if the righteous perish with the wicked. "Far be it...." (Gen. 18:25 RSV) is the same Hebrew translated "profaned" in Ez. 20:9. Abraham is saying that God's Name will be profaned if his prayer isn't heard... and that prayer required God to abrogate, at least temporarily, the principle that a righteous man can only ultimately save himself. The whole record of the Yahweh-Abraham encounter in Gen. 18 is perhaps intentionally intended to echo the language of barter in a Middle Eastern bazaar- the 'price' moves from 50 down to ten. But in Middle Eastern culture, the buyer has more 'power' than the seller... and again, we see the almost disturbing message that we in our prayers for others can have some sort of 'power' over God when praying for others. It's like Jacob wrestling the Angel to a draw; through his prayers that night, he had power [Heb. 'power as a prince'] over the Angel and prevailed (Hos. 12:4). I say all this is "disturbing" because it demands such a huge amount of us in prayer, if these indeed are the possibilities. But shining through it all is God's grace. For the required ten righteous people weren't found; yet all the same, for Abraham's sake, Lot and his immediate family were not destroyed in Sodom (Gen. 19:29). And it could be argued that the whole theme of Isaiah 53, the innocent one saving the many, is somehow an allusion to Abraham's saving of Lot by intercession.


All this works the other way, too. It is not only so that we can limit God by our prayers. It is also true that prayer and spirituality can to some degree change the stated intentions of God, such is His openness to it. That God has intentions proves of itself that there can be a degree to which what He intends to do is governed by human response. James reasons that because we have seen " the end intended by the Lord" (James 5:11 NKJ) we ought therefore to do the maximum of our ability. Thus Amos pronounced what the Lord had shown him: that the land would be destroyed by grasshoppers, and then by fire. But each time he begged Yahweh to relent. And " the Lord repented for this: It shall not be, saith the Lord" (Am. 7:1-7). Israel's salvation was to some degree dependent on the love and prayer of Amos. God may have prepared great things potentially, which are only 'released' by our prayer for them. Solomon asked God for a wise heart- but he was told that God had already given him this (1 Kings 3:12). The process of educating Solomon in wisdom would have started long before; but it was released, as it were, by Solomon's specific prayer.

To summarize. God's response to our prayers is not a charade. He doesn't pretend He is answering our prayers when He is only doing what He was going to do anyway. Our requests really do make a difference as to the ultimate actions of Almighty God. God is not to be understood as looking with a great unblinking cosmic stare towards us on earth; He is open to having His mind and actions changed by our little words of prayer. Yet because of this, God in some sense allows Himself to be limited. Hasidic scholars coined the word zimsum to describe this self-limitation. When God 'chose' a world of time and space, He chose a medium with specific restrictions, just as an artist is 'limited' by his canvas and paints. He could have done it all another way. But this was the way He chose. C.S. Lewis summed it up: " Perhaps we do not realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling our finite free wills to co-exist with omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of " divine abdication" "(2).


(1) Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982) p. 168.

(2) C.S. Lewis, The World's Last Night ( New York: Jovanovich, 1959).