About mid-way through his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul pauses to utter a doxology: ‘Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Eph.3:20-21). No wonder that F. F. Bruce refers to Paul’s ‘super-superlatives’! Paul has tried to ponder the imponderable and comprehend the incomprehensible in the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ and the fullness of God (Eph.3:17-19).
So often God will bless His people beyond what they could ever have asked or thought. After becoming king of all Israel, David felt convicted that he ought to build a house for God, as the ark of the covenant (the sign of God’s presence) had been carried about in a tent since the time of the Exodus. However well-intentioned David’s desire was, God refused it and instead promised David a different kind of house – one which would culminate in the coming of the everlasting King of David’s line who would rule over God’s kingdom forever (2 Sam.7:1-16). David wanted to build a house (a temple) for God; God gave him a household which would lead to the promised Messiah.
Indeed, before this Israel had sinfully demanded a king ‘like all the nations’ (1 Sam.8:5). Instead, God would ultimately give His people a king unlike all the nations, God incarnate, whose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). God answered in a way that the original supplicants could not have conceived. If we know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13)!
God often answers in unexpected ways. In order to escape the unruly students of Carthage, Augustine deceived his mother and made his way to Rome in 383. His mother, Monica, wept and prayed that he would not go to Rome and that he would become a Christian. God granted the latter petition but not the first. To Monica, they seemed connected; to God they were separable. In any case, He answered her in a way she could not have asked or thought.
Something similar can be seen in the life and hymns of John Newton. His hymn on prayer is often quoted, rightly so:
Thou art coming to a King;
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.
Yet he has another hymn which tells of his prayer for sanctification:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace.
He expected that God would answer his request, subdue his sins, and give him rest. Instead, he was put through the wringer, and finally learned God’s lesson:
These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou mayst seek thy all in Me.
A hard lesson, no doubt, but in the end greater than Newton could have imagined.
In 1972 one of the classic photographs of the Vietnam War was of a nine year old girl, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, running down a road. She was naked and shrieking in pain and fear, with a napalm cloud billowing behind her. She managed to survive this dreadful ordeal, and came to pray to the gods of Cao Dai for healing and peace, but found none. At the age of nineteen she came across a New Testament in a library, and wondered if Christ could make sense of her pain and isolation. By the end of 1982 she was a Christian, and praying for those who had so scarred her. Decades later, she realised: ‘Those bombs led me to Christ.’ Who could have imagined it?
Saul was looking for lost donkeys when Samuel declared that he would be king. Something similar can often be discerned in the lives of all God’s people. To cite Richard Sibbes: ‘Whatever God takes away from His children, He either replaces it with a much greater favour, or else gives strength to bear it.’ And at the end, as John Newton put it: ‘I am still in the land of the dying. I shall be in the land of the living soon!’
With warmest regards in Christ,