More Than We Can Ask or Imagine
PhD, Professor of Theology, Church & Public Life
Vice President, External Relations
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every familyin heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 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, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:14-21 NIV)
This is a beautifully inspired prayer of the Apostle Paul. You can almost feel his heart bursting with gratitude as he penned the words! But for me, it is the first half of verse 20 which has been taking on new depths of meaning. There Paul says, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine . . .”
When I was growing up, I sometimes heard my Dad pray something very much like this: “Do more for us, Lord, than we can ever ask or imagine.” As a kid, I remember not exactly knowing what that meant, though now I think I’m starting to get it! For a long time I thought that this statement was saying, "Pray big! God can do miracles, so why ask for such little things?!” Now, it is true that "we have not because we ask not" (cf. James 4:2 KJV) and that our prayers are often too small. But I don't think that quite gets at what is being taught here. So what is Paul saying?
First, realize that this prayer is a "doxology." It is an utterance of worship to the immensely great and powerful God, not just a reminder of our human smallness. Thus, to see this as an implied command to “pray bigger” may actually miss the point. Paul isn’t so much saying, “God is so big that you can ask for big things” as he is saying, “Don’t presume that your prayer understands all that God desires to accomplish according to His purposes.” Or to put it another way, we should not only pray, but humbly admit that we do not always know what it is we need to pray about, even as we are praying! This is why we should preface our praying with an acknowledgement of God’s immensity and glory—because He acts and responds to our prayers in ways that we could never even anticipate!
The practical application 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, pray away! But perhaps the important reminder in this doxology is that once we've asked, we shouldn't be surprised if God's answer eventually comes in a form and manner entirely 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 my imagining that it is not an answered prayer at all!
We have probably all heard the saying that God answers prayers in three ways: Yes, No, or Wait. But what if sometimes God’s answer is none of these, but something entirely different than what we asked for. God may not answer with a “Yes” by giving us exactly what we ask; or He may not answer with a “No,” as if God is denying the appropriateness of what it is we have asked; and He may not answer with “Wait,” because, after all, “wait” is just a “delayed yes.” Rather, what if God is saying, “Yes, I will answer your prayer, but No, I will not do precisely as you ask so that I can do something much better?” That kind of possibility does not keep us from asking, but it also helps us to remember that we don’t have all the information, even as we pray.
Perhaps you have been praying about something but God seems to be slow to respond, or maybe even silent. Be encouraged: God is not restricted to the boundaries we impose on Him in our prayer, but in worship, we acknowledge that our limitations are not God's, and 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 own asking or imagining!