Beyond All We Can Ask or Think

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Whereas the reality of human existence is quite firmly fixed in our world and its restrictions, the imagination of mankind has often soared to incredible heights. It often seems that there is no limit to the human imagination, for better or worse. We imagine stories in which we are the heroes and overcome all sorts of trials; we can imagine worlds in which people live in harmony and peace; we imagine all sorts of kinds of technologies and ways of living quite different from our own. We also can imagine in darker and more sinister ways, as modern movies can attest. Yet no matter how much we imagine we remain limited to our current existence. Since reality seems to never match up to our imagination, we cope in one of two ways. We either attempt to make the world fit our imagination, only to discover all sorts of complications and challenges we did not anticipate and only to find that the endeavor leads to the exact opposite result of our intentions, or we give up on the world, living in our imagination, so to speak. No matter which way we might choose to cope the end remains the same: our dreams and imagination are brought low by the cold, icy hand of reality. Therefore so many give up any hope of the greatest goods and content themselves with lesser goods.

Yet Paul, through his prayer for the Ephesians, invites us to question the strength of the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality, on account of the greatness of the God who made us and sustains us, praying for God, who “is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or think, according to the power at work within us,” may receive the glory in the church and in Christ forevermore (Ephesians 3:20-21).

That seems like a startling declaration, something easily debunked or disproven. It does not require much to ask for or think about all people hearing the Gospel and coming to the knowledge of the truth (Romans 10:17, 1 Timothy 2:4), being healed of all disease and suffering, and all sorts of other audacious possibilities. We have likely asked for such things in the past in prayer, and it is evident that we have not seen them fulfilled. So how can Paul make such a declaration? Is he manifesting a foolish faith?

We do well to consider a very important word in the prayer: “able.” God is able to do well beyond anything and everything that we ask of Him. Not only is He able to do so, it can be done through the power at work within us, the Spirit according to the message of God in Christ (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, Ephesians 3:16). Through the power at work in us God can accomplish anything He might purpose. Through us the world could hear the Gospel and come to the knowledge of the truth; through us God can advance any of His prerogatives powerfully. As the Creator, He can do all that can be done, what we can imagine and well beyond that (Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9, Romans 11:33-36). Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, we must never doubt God’s ability (cf. Daniel 3:17).

Yet just because God can does not automatically mean God will; ability is not automatically actualization. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego knew that even though God was able to deliver them, it may not come to pass, but that did not change their faith (Daniel 3:18). We can think of all sorts of reasons why God, despite His ability, does not act in certain ways: allowance of the consequences of free will decisions to come to pass for both the one acting and those impacted by the action, refusal to overwhelm the choice and will of an individual, and there are more than likely a host of other reasons, far better than we could ever imagine, that explain why God acts as He does. We do not have control over a lot of these reasons. But there is one possible reason over which we do have some control, and that involves our level of faith.

We must be clear that faith, in and of itself, is no guarantee of obtaining the desired result from prayer. We can pray fervently in all faith and still not obtain what we seek; there likely is far more going on in the situation than we can recognize. Too many people use a “lack of faith” as a blunt object to shift “blame” for unfulfilled promises upon those who have the least reason for “blame” in order to continue to justify their theological edifice. Furthermore, God can still find ways to accomplish His purposes in all power through us, despite us, even if we do not maintain the strongest faith, as can be seen in Gideon in Judges 6:1-8:28. Yet, especially when we consider the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11:1-40, we do well to ask ourselves: is part of the problem our lack of real, substantive confidence in the power of God to accomplish His purposes, and especially that through us?

There is little doubt that we pray good prayers and say many things which are good, right, and expected. We pray for the evangelization of the world; we pray for people to come to repentance and salvation; we pray for healing; we pray for the betterment of the welfare of those in distress. But when we pray these things do we actually expect them to happen? How often do we pray these things, even honestly and sincerely meaning what we say, yet always with a mental asterisk of doubt? “God, please heal this sick person (although I have little expectation for this person to continue to live, since the prognosis is grim).” “Father, we pray that the people of our community learn about You and be saved (yet we know they won’t, because they’re terrible sinners and they like being in sin, or they’ve been seduced by the false teachings of others, and won’t listen to us).” “Father, we pray that all may have food and shelter (but there is so much poverty, a lack of resources, and rampant corruption and war and all sorts of evil in too many parts of the world).”

Those parenthetical asterisks, things we would never imagine saying but are most assuredly thought of, are completely understandable: they derive from our experiences with the cold, icy hand of reality. They represent the despair that gets mixed into our hope and our confidence in God. Theologically we all recognize and agree that God is able to accomplish everything we have mentioned. Yet on a practical level we often maintain skepticism, doubt, and suspicion. Most of the time these prayers get answered according to our doubts; it seems that the grip of the cold, icy hand of reality remains.

It is not for nothing that James warns us against being double-minded in our petitions (James 1:6-8): if we pray but maintain doubt in prayer we have no right to ever expect those prayers to be fulfilled. They do not truly reflect the boldness of faith which we ought to maintain toward God; we have already cut off the hope of fulfillment by having no expectation of fulfillment. This is not the kind of prayer Paul prayed, and it is not the kind of prayer Paul would expect followers of God in Christ to pray. According to the Gospel, God has already accomplished the most difficult task of liberation from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 8:1-4) and wishes to freely give us all things (Romans 8:32). He is prepared to provide us a place of glory beyond compare and which make our imaginations seem tame by comparison (Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17). Yet the fantastical is not all about the future; Paul’s prayer is a bold declaration of what is possible right here and right now. God is able to strengthen us with power, root and ground us in love, give us the strength to understand the dimensions of the love of Christ which is beyond knowledge, to fill us with the fulness of God, but only if we ask Him to do so fervently and expect it to actually happen (Ephesians 3:16-19). Does God want people to be condemned? Has He proven powerless in the face of ungodliness, secularism, indifference, etc., so that modern man has no hope in the face of the menaces of our society? The first century was just as daunting if not more so and yet the Gospel thrived! Has the Gospel lost its luster? No, no, a thousand times, no! God remains as able to accomplish powerful things through His message today as He was in the first century; perhaps what is lacking is our confidence in God, that He is not only able but willing to accomplish these great things, and if we would only prove willing to stand before Him in prayer, pray the bold prayer for the powerful advancements of His purposes, and to do so without regard to the cold, icy hand of reality, without that mental parenthesis doubting and denying the efficacy of the prayer, and to actually pray and mean to pray for people to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved, to be healed through the power of God from afflictions, to be strengthened through trials, or for a thousand other things for which we might pray.

God is able to do well beyond anything we can ask or think, and there are many things for which we can ask or about which we can think! We have to maintain greater confidence in God than we do the cold, icy grip of reality, and believe that God can transform reality, else why do we bother with Christianity? Yet we do well to keep in mind the actual prayer Paul makes, for God to receive the glory in the church and in Christ for all generations (Ephesians 3:21). We cannot imagine God as our hitman or our genie; if we put our confidence in Him and He begins to do powerful things to advance His purposes through us, it will not be on account of our own strength, abilities, or any excellence in our own character, but because of His great power and strength, and inevitably despite our person and character. God will not give His glory to us or to anyone else; He will not stand idly by and allow us to be conceited into thinking that somehow “we” have accomplished what was really the work of God all along. He deserves the glory and the praise. He deserves to receive all glory in Christ, His life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return. In all things the church should give glory to God since without Him there is no life, and without His sustaining power the church will prove powerless in the face of its foes. When we recognize that it is not about “us,” but about God and His glory, we can understand that Paul does not have a foolish faith, and does not promise what cannot be delivered, because the parenthetical asterisks of our experiences with the cold, icy grip of reality do not restrict God and His mighty power! God is able to do more than we can ask or think unto His glory; can we maintain that trust in Him and make petitions accordingly?

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Bereans

And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Beroea: who when they were come thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed; also of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few (Acts 17:10-12).

The Bereans have received a lot of “press” on the basis of the six verses that mention them in Acts 17:10-15. A few cities have been named after the town; not a few religious groups use “Berean” as the descriptor for various congregations.

They have earned their favorable views for a good reason– as Luke says, they were “more noble” than the Jews of Thessalonica, because they “received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). On account of this attitude, many believed in the Gospel message; even some of the Greek women– many of wealth– and men came to the knowledge of the truth and were saved (Acts 17:12). On account of their example, a “Berean” is one who has a love for what is true, willing to investigate Scripture to determine what is truly accurate according to their message. A “Berean” is one not to be swayed by public opinion or received tradition if they are found at variance with truth. There is a nobility of mind among “Bereans” that is most exemplary and worthy of emulation.

The exemplary nature of the example of the Bereans is both a warning and a sober reminder for us. In the ideal world, the Bereans would not be notable– they would just be doing what everyone automatically should be doing. Everyone should be willing to question their presuppositions and their received understanding of things in light of truth. Everyone should be willing to give the Gospel message a fair hearing. When the Gospel message is given a fair hearing, uncolored by prejudice against the message or the messenger, its truth is hard to escape and easy to obey, as the Bereans demonstrate. The problem is, of course, that we do not live in an ideal world. Luke takes the time to tell us of the example of the Bereans because Paul’s reception there was utterly unlike the reception he received in most synagogues. Yes, it is true that some of the Jews in any given synagogue would come to the understanding of the truth and be saved, but more often than not, the Jews would become fierce opponents of Paul and his message (cf. Acts 13, 14, 17, 20, etc.). The Bereans were not automatically wedded to their traditions– they were willing to hear the word Paul preached, to investigate the Scriptures to see if the message he presented was consistent with what had been revealed, and were willing to change their ways because of that message. That is why Luke tells us– it is a wonderful abnormality, but an abnormality nevertheless. Most of the Jews and Greeks did not prove to be as noble minded as the Bereans.

The same is true today, and it is a sword that cuts two ways. We should not be surprised when we proclaim the Gospel and most people to whom we speak do not share the Bereans’ mindset. The power of cultural skepticism and suspicion of inherited authority still runs deep in American culture, and despite the fact that true Christianity has been rarely lived and properly applied, there is a general feeling that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. Many others will provide lip service to the message of Christianity, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of applying the lessons of Christ to life, prove far less enthusiastic about the whole matter. There is a great lack of the Berean mindset in our culture; very few prove willing and able to give the message a fair hearing, to be willing to question every assumption and every form of skepticism, and to be willing to change their ways when convicted that their views and ways are at variance with the truth. In fact, the very idea that there is something out there that can be called “the truth” is a hotly contested subject in our day!

Yet this is not just true of those who are “out there” in the world. Do you think that the Jews of Thessalonica would have agreed with Luke’s analysis? Of course not! They would have protested strongly. They would have attempted to justify their opposition to Paul and the Gospel which he taught in terms of holding firm to the truths taught by Moses and handed down by their elders ever since. They most likely believed themselves to be noble and holding firm to what is true.

This is not to challenge or dispute Luke’s analysis, for Luke has spoken truly. It is to remind us that, if asked, most everyone would declare that they have the Bereans’ mindset. Everyone thinks they are being noble, objective, and striving to hold firm to truth. But merely declaring oneself to be akin to the Bereans– or to describe one’s congregation as Berean– does not automatically make it so. Even among religious people, the true Berean mindset is depressingly rare. There are still plenty who are wedded to inherited tradition, cultural norms, or some form of experiential lesson that are at variance with truth. A spirit of questioning and investigation is rarely appreciated and, sadly, too often squelched or thrust out.

Truth has no fear of investigation; the Gospel message has always welcomed its detractors to try to show its error, and those detractors have failed for two millennia. Those who are noble minded will maintain the Scriptures as the anchor of truth and will compare any other message to it. Whatever is true according to Scripture they will embrace and promote; whatever is inconsistent with that message will be rejected. The time is well nigh for us all to have the mindset of the Bereans, not in pretense or name, but in deed and truth. Let us be noble as the Bereans, searching the Scriptures to see what is so, and follow after Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry