9-2 Limiting God
The fact that God so loves us is itself a limitation to Him. Because in any relationship, one person usually loves more than the other. And the one who loves the most- which is unquestionably God- has the least power. This is why He, the more powerful in physical terms, changes His mind to accommodate us. But the Almighty also allows His infinite power to become limited by our degrees of spirituality. We are kept “by the power of God through faith…” (1 Pet. 1:5); His power in practice is in some sense paralleled with and in that sense controlled by our faith. 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). Such huge potentials are planned in prospect for us- e.g. all the details of Ezekiel's temple could have come true at the restoration. But Israel would not. The ministry of John the Baptist could have made Messiah "manifest to all Israel", through his witness it was intended that "all men through [John] might believe [in Christ]" (Jn. 1:7,31). But they chose not to. We need to remember in our preaching that success is potentially possible; God is working through us to give those we intersect with the chance of a real salvation. Their rejection shouldn't be so discouraging the more we perceive that we on God's side in all this, He is working through us to try to appeal to them. And appreciating this will give a far greater intensity and urgency of appeal to our preaching. In Jer. 11:4,5 God speaks of how obedience is required in order for Him to fulfil the promises to us which He so wishes to fulfil: "Be my people... and this will allow me to carry out the oath that I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as I have in fact done". We see here how God allows Himself to be limited by us- we can 'allow Him' to carry out His purposes, or not. And yet in this example we see His grace, in the words "As I have in fact done". For Israel weren't obedient to the covenant- and yet He still gave them the promised land. His grace shines through, breaking even His own conditions.
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” (3). As any employer soon learns, delegation is a risk. We have been “entrusted with the Gospel” (Tit. 1:3 RV); 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. Those who did God’s work in the Old Testament temple were similarly given a “trust”, they were entrusted with God’s work (1 Chron. 9:22 RVmg.). 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...” (4). Yet weak Israel are described as God’s “strength”, the channel through which His strength would be shown to the nations; and they failed Him (Ps. 78:61). 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.
Every time Paul speaks of having been entrusted with the Gospel, he uses the common Greek word for ‘to have faith in’; and within a few verses, we find him using the same Greek word again, in the context of our belief in Christ (1 Tim. 1:11,16; Gal. 2:7,16). We had faith in the Lord, and He had faith in us, He en-faithed us, with the preaching of the Gospel we have believed in. Here we see the awesome mutuality between a man and his Lord. We have been entrusted with the preaching of the Gospel; the Lord believes in us to do His work.
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. In the very context
in which we read that Israel "limited the Holy One of Israel"
(Ps. 78:41), we find Israel described as "a deceitful bow"
(Ps. 78:57). In whose hands was that bow? Surely in God's. In the
same way as the quality of the bow limits the power of the archer,
and causes hurt to him if it backfires on him, so were Israel to
God; and so we are to Him. 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.
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)
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
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 (Is. 63:25). God clearly speaks of limiting
His omniscience in Is. 65:16, saying that “the former troubles…
are hid from my eyes”. 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).
All the Corinthian Christians could have been prophets, all could
have spoken with tongues (1 Cor. 14:1,5)- but the reality was that
they didn’t all rise up to this potential, and God worked through
this, in the sense that He ‘gave’ some within the body to be prophets
and tongue speakers (1 Cor. 12:28-30). He works in the body of His
Son just the same way today, accommodating our weaknesses and lack
of realization of our potentials, and yet still tempering the body
together to be functional. The fact we fail to realize our potentials
doesn’t mean God quits working with us. Reflect how Judah was given
the potential to possess the whole land, and yet they selfishly
only focused upon their own inheritance (Jud. 1:2,3). And yet God
still worked with them, giving them victory in what battles they
did fight (Jud. 1:4). Yet even then, Judah didn’t follow through
with the help God was so eager to give them. They took Jerusalem,
but later we read that the Jebusites were soon back living there
The Limitation Of Prayer
Heb. 11 cites women receiving
their dead back to life as an example of faith. Because of the faith
and prayers of the women, a third party, their dead loved ones were
at times resurrected. Lazarus being raised because of his faithful
sisters Martha and Mary is the obvious example we know about, but
the Hebrew writer may well have had his mind on unrecorded Old Testament
examples too. 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
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 (5). 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 " as...so" ; 9:29 " according to" ; 12:22 " inasmuch" ).
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. Job 42:8 implies that the forgiveness of Job’s friends was only because he prayed for them. 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)- as if Paul’s unaided prayers had less power than when the Corinthians were praying for him too. 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.
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!].
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”” (6).
(3) C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night
(New York: Jovanovich, 1959) p. 9
(4) Frederick Buechner, A Room Called
Remember (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984) p. 142
(5) The word " believe" is
omitted from many texts. Thus we could paraphrase: “Regarding that "
If you can..." which you said- as regards that, well, all things
are possible”. This is the view of F.B. Meyer and Marvin Vincent.
The RV reads: “And Jesus said unto him, If thou canst! All things are
possible to him that believeth”.
(6) C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last
Night (New York: Jovanovich, 1959).