Few feelings are worse than powerlessness. You turn the key in the ignition—and the engine won’t turn over. You need to make a phonecall—but your battery is dead. These sorts of minor inconveniences remind us that we are not as in control of our destiny as we might think. And when we face the far more difficult challenges of broken hearts and oncology reports, we see our powerlessness writ large.
God’s power is limitless. In theology, we call this His omnipotence, meaning that God is “all-powerful.” His greatness is revealed in His power and accomplishments:
For I know that the Lord is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
6 Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:5-6)
We should point out that in the context of this psalm, the Lord’s power makes Him superior (that is, “above”) to gods of Israel’s neighbors. Nothing in our world can ever match or rival the power of the God we serve.
This is why Jeremiah writes:
17 ‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. (Jeremiah 32:17)
I’d really like to think of myself as powerful. With just the phone in my pocket, I can take calls, order food, watch movies, order products, predict the weather—even find a romantic partner so long as I have the right app. But think about just the weather app for a moment. We think we have power over something just because we can predict its patterns (and even then, not so reliably). But our ability to do that is dependent on the fact that God, in His limitless power, has established rhythm and order to His creation that ultimately points to His character. We have no control over it; we can only marvel at God’s faithfulness in the regular rising of the sun or the changing of the seasons.
CAN GOD REALLY DO ANYTHING?
But can God really do anything? Are there things beyond His ability? If I were to show you the sheer volume of ink that’s been spilled debating and discussing this subject throughout history, it would overwhelm you.
Historically, there have been those who say that God’s power is truly and completely limitless. Others have said that God’s power is always dependent on the circumstances around Him. I think there’s an alternative, and that is to say that “omnipotence” means that God can do anything that is consistent with His character. That is, God’s omnipotence can’t be understood apart from God’s goodness, His love, or His ordered nature.
This means two things. First, God can do nothing that violates the laws of logic. God is a God of order and truth; His actions must be consistent with that. This means that God can’t do something like make a four-sided triangle, or create a married bachelor. But wait, you might object; what about miracles? Turning water into wine seems an awful stretch. True, but in the case of miracles, God transcends the laws of nature, not the laws of logic. We can conceive of a miraculous healing or the transformation of water into wine. But a four-sided triangle can’t be conceived of; it makes no sense.
Secondly, and more simply, God can do nothing that violates His moral character. It is not possible for God to sin, because to do so would be a direct violation of God’s holiness and perfection.
But what about evil? Did God create evil? If we read Isaiah, we might stumble on this verse:
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
The old King James translation actually uses the phrase “create evil.” But thankfully, the ESV translation above helps us see that the original Hebrew word refers to “calamity” or “disaster.” God is not the author of moral evil, but—in the context of Isaiah—God does bring justice to wayward people.
SO WHY DOES GOD SEEM SO POWERLESS?
The question of evil raises another, far more troubling set of questions. If God is all powerful, why would He allow people to suffer? Even if we grant that God enacts justice on those who disobey Him, why would God allow seemingly innocent people to suffer?
Historically, this question has been used to challenge belief in God. The argument has been variously stated, but it boils down to two objections:
- If God is all-loving, but allows evil to exist, then He must lack the power to stop it.
- If God is all-powerful, but allows evil to exist, then He must lack the love to stop it.
Let’s start by admitting that there is no easy answer to this question, nor, I suspect, a satisfactory one. Most often, we’ve understood evil and suffering to be the product of sin and the evil choices of man. And we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have a God who allows us freedom of choice and a God who protects us from the consequences of those choices.
Still, I suspect those seem hollow words for those facing the pain of real situations. The gospel might not have an immediate answer to these questions, but it helps us see what the answer can’t be.
The cross shows us that God can’t be unloving, because He sent His only Son to die in our place. And the empty tomb shows us that God can’t be powerless, because through His power He raised His Son from the dead, proclaiming victory over the grave.
In a world of power—and the illusion of power—we can be thankful we serve a God beyond limits.