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Limiting God

by Tim O'Hearn

Some people ask questions about God’s power. Some are argumentative. “If God is so powerful can he create a rock so big even he can’t move it?” Others are serious. “If God knows everything that is going to happen, then how can you say we have free will to change what God knows?” Still others spring from a curious mind. “How can God listen to all the prayers of all people at the same time?” Sometimes we tell people that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present. But is he? Is he always?

Before you burn me as a heretic, be aware that the Bible says that there are times that God’s power is limited. Not only that, sometimes we are the ones that limit him.

Sometimes God limits himself. Perhaps the prime example of this is forgiveness. Since God is, by definition, in all times, he must necessarily constantly experience every instance of sin. By being everywhere everywhen, how could he not be aware of every sin? And yet he, himself, says that he forgets sin. “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” (Jer 31:34, quoted in Heb 8:12; 10:17) God limits his own knowledge. Imagine, if you can, someone who sees everything and cannot forget anything. Such a person would eventually go crazy, and probably not take long in doing so. God, of course, has infinitely much more capacity to remember than we, but even he chooses to forget. That is how he can be a loving and merciful God while also being a just God. His justice is limited by his forgetfulness. We should thank God every day that he limits his own power to remember.

It is possible that this ability to forget also answers the problem of free will. If God knows it is going to happen, do the participants have any choice? Yet few doctrines are so clearly taught in the Bible as the doctrine of free will. How, then, can God know everything and yet a person have free will to obey or disobey? God’s ability to forget, or from our time perspective his ability not to see the future, may answer that dilemma. There are other options to answer that problem, but each involves God’s choice to limit himself.

As important as God’s ability to limit himself is the idea that we have the ability to limit God. One way would be the choices we make. More specifically, though, the scripture says we limit God by testing him. “Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.” (Ps 78:41) The clear implication in the words of the psalmist is that we limit God by tempting or testing him. In the context, we may limit God’s power by a lack of faith in that power. The Israelites limited God by forgetting what he had done for them in the wilderness. “And they were offended at him. And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.” (Mk 6:3,5) The people who knew Jesus best limited his ability to perform miracles by their doubt. The passage does not say that he chose not to do miracles there; it says he could not.

It is wonderful for us that God chooses to limit himself through forgiveness. But consider; how much more could God do for us if we did not limit him? “Ye have not, because ye ask not.” (Jas 4:2) Do we limit God by not believing enough to ask? Do we limit God’s forgiveness because we don’t believe he could possibly forgive what we have done? Ours is a God of power. When we remember that, he remains powerful. When we forget that, we limit ourselves because we limit God.