Can God make a rock so heavy He can’t move it?
Can God make a 4-sided triangle?
Does God know the future?
All of these questions speak to our fascination with the extent of God’s power, specifically whether or not God can do the impossible.
For many of us, though we speak of love and grace and forgiveness, it is the ability to do the impossible that, in our minds, truly makes God, God. So, when we are faced with a situation in which God seems incapable of doing something we panic, worried that that inability somehow dimishes God’s divinity.
I am not convinced it does.
In fact, I think the limits of God’s power, most of which I believe God has placed upon Himself, speak to a God deeply interested in an authentic, loving relationship that can’t be had without an act of kenosis. And that relationship, I think, is much more interesting, appealing, and powerful than the ability to do magic tricks.
In one of my favorite books of all time, The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis paints a beautiful picture of the limits of God’s power. In a scene towards the end of the book, Eustace, Jill, Tirian, and the Pevensie children are standing alongside Aslan in the new Narnia looking on at a group of dwarfs who believe they are stuck inside a dark barn. Frustrated that the dwarfs can’t see their true beautiful surroundings, Lucy begs Aslan to do something to make the dwarfs see the reality of their situation.
Aslan replies to Lucy saying, “Dearest, I will show you what I can and what I cannot do.”
Acquiescing to Lucy’s request, Aslan approaches the dwarves, shakes his mane, and instantly a magnificent feast appears in the dwarfs’ laps.
But they can’t see it for what it really is.
They think someone is simply hiding in the barn with them making lion sounds in order to scare them. They do know there’s food in their laps, but they give no thought to where it came from, instead greedily fighting over it believing they’ve been given hay and turnips.
In what I think is an act of beautiful theology, Aslan attempts to clarify the children’s confusion, “You see, they will not let us help them…their prison is only in their mind and yet they are in that prison and so afraid of being taking in out.”
In other words, no matter how hard Aslan tried, no matter the great miracles he performed, or even how much he desired in his heart that the dwarfs be set free, he could not give them that freedom because they refused his help.
The point I think C.S. Lewis is trying to make here is that there are some things God simply can’t do and that’s ok. Aslan’s inability to force the dwarfs to recognize their surroundings doesn’t take anything away from his divinity (if I can use that word, though Lewis does not) because what was being asked of him was itself intrinsically impossible.
The same is true for God.
For example, God can’t make a triangle have 4 sides. God can’t make the color red simultaneously be the color black. And if free will exists, then not only can God not force us to do things that are against our will, but because our actions are dependent on free decisions, God cannot know the future. God can know what God plans on doing in the future, declare those plans to humanity, and carry them out because God is God. But if we have free will, then the future hasn’t been written and therefore God can’t know it because it’s not something to be known.
Which is why God’s inability to do the intrinsically impossible is ok.
God’s inability to make a 4 sided triangle, to make the color red also be the color black, or even to know the future isn’t a deficiency on the part of God because those are things that cannot happen anyway, therefore God isn’t lacking in those powers because those powers themselves do not exist because they cannot exist.
To be clear, while I affirm the law of non-contradiction, I do believe in miracles. If God exists, and I believe God does, then God has the ability to work within the laws God created to do what seems to us to be the impossible – separate the sea, turn water into wine, walk on water, heal the sick, raise from the dead. I fully recognize the scientific problems inherent in these acts of God, but as they are not inherently contradictory things like 4-sided triangles or knowledge of a future that doesn’t exist, I feel comfortable affirming them in faith that like walking on the moon would be to a caveman, God’s intimate knowledge of the universe He created allows God to do things that seem impossible to us.
But I do believe that not only logic, but the Bible itself speaks to the limitation of God’s power, for even Jesus himself could not perform miracles in his own hometown when the people rejected him – a moment Lewis surely found inspiration in for the aforementioned scene in The Last Battle
There is nothing virtuous about denying the simple and Biblical truth that whether by choice or intrinsic impossibility there are some things God simply cannot do.
If we bury our heads in the sand at this point and refuse to acknowledge this reality (a reality God Himself created), then we miss the real beauty of what Jesus meant when he said, “With God all things are possible.”
In uttering these famous words Jesus was not affirming the Superman-Harry Potter version of God so many of us want to believe to, that so many of us need to believe in in order to support our theological paradigms and satisfy our need to have control over the world through a God we can manipulate through prayer to do whatever we wish.
When Jesus talked about God making the impossible possible he was speaking right after his encounter with the rich young ruler who went away sad after Jesus told him to sell everything he had. After the ruler left, Jesus made a joke about camels and the eyes of needles. Albeit a not so funny one in 21st century terms, but a joke nonetheless about how difficult it would be for the rich to get to heaven, even though everyone assumed they were blessed by God and therefore were automatically going to heaven. The disciples sarcastically asked “Who then can be saved?”
To which Jesus replied “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Jesus wasn’t talking about 4 sided triangles or multicolor colors. Jesus was talking about taking impossibly hopeless, corrupt, wicked, and selfish people and transforming them into saints and the world around them into the kingdom of God. Not by force, but through the sort of sacrificial love Jesus would demonstrate on the cross only a few chapters later.
This is the sort of impossible things God can do, that God wants to do.
God is not a magician or a genie or a superhero, and as long as we think of God in that way we miss out on the truly incredible things God is trying to do in and through us (not to mention we create highly problematic theological systems in which God has unbounded power but inexplicably chooses not to act).
In the end, I think our fear that there may be things God cannot do and our stubborn rejection of that truth in the face of reality, says much more about us then it does about God.
It says that Jesus isn’t good enough for us, that a God who would reject the temptation to exert absolute power isn’t acceptable to our human sensibilities that tell us might makes right, that one can only reign through force.
Like it was for so many in Jesus’ day, we expect, we want a conquering king who can do the impossible. When Jesus showed up in manger he was ignored by all but a handful of people. When he was hung on a cross he was rejected as a failure.
I only hope that we don’t become so lost in our theological systems and consumed by our lust for power that we once again miss out on the unexpected God who has come to save us.
Grace and peace,