Daring to Pray for the Impossible…

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

“Who can be saved!?” the disciples asked in astonishment. For Jesus had just told them that camels passing through needle’s eyes was more probable than rich people entering heaven. For ancient Jews like the disciples, there was a centuries old understanding that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and blessing. The astonishment comes when they try to fathom how those apparently loved and blessed by God won’t get into heaven! “If not them, then what about us” they ask? Who can be saved?” The answer Jesus says is, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26).

In another place Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengths me” (Philippians 4:13). So is it true? Can God do all things? Well, yes—and no. For example God cannot get tired (Is. 40:28), loose his holiness (Is. 6:3), cannot go back on a promise (Psalm 89:34), remember sins he’s chosen to forget (Is. 43:25), abandon us (Deut. 31:6), stop loving us (Jer. 31:3) or lie (Titus 1:2).  We could sum all these up this way: God cannot be inauthentic to himself and his character, He is judged by no one but himself to which he is always, simply, God.  God is God. That means he can never be not-God. So when we say God can do anything, or look at verses that say, “everything is possible with God” what we mean is that everything is possible with God that is possible. It is not possible for God to not be God, or for God to be inauthentic to himself. In a similar way, when we say that we can do all things through Christ, we mean, all things we can now do, all things given to us. We can face that storm, we can live in his promises and strength, we can, if God allows, be conduits for his miracles. But, “all things” doesn’t’ mean all things imagined. We cannot go back in time or jump of a cliff and fly or shoot fireballs out of our hands at our enemies. So we can do all things through Christ that are allowed possibilities for us. With me so far?  

Of course many of these possibilities are not possible alone. When Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of needle than a rich man to enter into heaven, he is not saying it is difficult, he is saying it is impossible.  That is the point. Camels cannot pass through needle’s eyes. And that is why the disciples in astonishment cry out, “Then who can be saved?!” Answer: no one. Unless.  Unless that which is not possible for man is made possible by God.

When Paul says that we can do all things through Christ, he is saying that we can now do things that previously on our own were not formerly possible but now with Christ’s partnership are in the realm of possibilities. Christ makes possible for man what is not possible for man alone. Christ partners with human agency to produce human-divine action.

All the more sad then is this news when we ponder how often our prayers are too small, too narrow, to in the realm of human possibilities. Karl Barth, the twentieth century theologian used to use a phrase that God is the God of “impossible-possibilities”. And we need to pray with this reality in mind.

Often part of the problem with our prayer life is that it is too possible or shallow. It asks for fickle and transient things. It asks for luxury and self indulgence. These are petty requests. Rather, a bold prayer life prays for things that are impossible: that workers join into the work of the harvest, that the deaf hear, the blind see, that unbelievers come to faith, that the Gospel spreads, that the Church be more than a negative stereotype, that the addict is set free from their addiction and the angry learn to find peace and offered-forgiveness.

These prayers are impossible. They are not in the realm of human possibilities. But we pray to the God of impossible possibilities. In this sense prayer is a risk. It not a test of God. It is a dare to rely on God’s power and not our own.

We may have a loved one or friend who does not believe. Or maybe we are so racked with doubts and confusion we think we will never regain our faith. Pray. We may know a great sickness where there is little hope, physical or mental, and the outlook is grim. Pray. We may see a person ruining their life, making bad choices and not open to wisdom. Pray. We may feel lonely and unloved, hopeless and depressed assured only that our futures will be grim or worse. Pray. It may be that we cannot do the things we know are right, that we want to repent but we simply cannot give up the destructive behavior. We do not have the power. Pray. It may be that we feel God has abandoned us or that our sin is too great and offensive, despicable or terrible to be forgiven. Pray. We may be so rejected by others or have had an abusive past and have trouble learning to trust, or fear that we cannot be what we want to be for others. Pray.

The call to pray is not meant to be a platitude. My point is simply that prayer dares to call the impossible into reality. It trusts the One who can do all things to do impossible things. It rests its hope on God’s power and not man’s agency. It finds rest and security in knowing that the stubborn friend who refuses to believe will be met by the God of grace. It means that God will not give up on those who gave up on God. Our faith looks to a crucified man, dead no longer but now alive, it looks to loaves and fishes, living water and bread of life that find no end and cannot be exhausted.   To be a praying Christian is to be a person who knows the impossible becomes possible in Christ.

But what about when the prayer does not come true? Perhaps this needs more time in another post. But to respond quickly, the power of prayer is not in its effect but in the Giver. If we do not receive the impossible for which we asked it is not because our prayers didn’t “work” but because God has said no. It is impossible for us, who when we want something desperately cannot see why we should not have it, to know what God has hidden from us in the deep of his wisdom. He does not tell us how he makes decisions and so speculation is not helpful. However, he promises to make all things new and restore all things. And so even the “no” is a temporary state of affairs in the grand economy of God. This is true even if this “no” results in a death. For as people of the resurrection we know even death has not the final word. The final word is always and ever God’s alone. Christ is always the final verdict of the Divine Court.

But now, as we live and love and have life and breath, let us live and love with accompanying prayers of expectation. Let us dare to pray for the impossible: for salvation, for conviction, for repentance, for healing, for restoration, for forgiveness, for rest.

If we can begin to pray this way, would we not undergo a new formation? Would not our prayer life become a teacher, teaching us that the God we serve is powerful, in charge, loving and kind beyond imagination? And wouldn’t our prayers give us a type of peace in knowing that what we cannot do, God can?

So dare to pray for the impossible. For we love a God who makes a way where there is no way, the God of impossible possibilities.  

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC