Question: I think I heard you say recently that there are things God can’t do. Isn’t God omnipotent?
Answer: That’s the question that people have wrestled with forever. If God is all powerful, then why doesn’t God fix everything that is wrong, especially when faithful people ask God to do so? The conclusion is often something like this: If God is all powerful, God isn’t necessarily all-good; and, if God is all-good, then God must not be all powerful.
I would prefer a God that is all-good but that can’t necessarily do all things (for instance, God apparently can’t override an individual’s will, God doesn’t seem able to prevent natural disasters, God can’t rig elections or lotteries or sporting contests, etc.) to a God that could do all things but for some unknown reason chooses to not heal all the brokenness in the world.
A book that disturbed me and helped me (those ideas that threaten our preconceived notions often prove to be the most helpful) in the early 90s was Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner’s conclusion is that God is good but unable to do everything, which for him is preferable to the idea of a God who can do everything but chooses to allow good people to suffer anyway.
The word compassion means “to suffer with”…I believe God is infinite compassion, that is, God is with us in our trials, blessing us with ideas, with opportunities to make friends and summon hope and courage from our own depths, sharing our tears and our laughter, nudging us to do all we can for ourselves and for one another, and in the process we discover we are as resilient as we are fragile, that miracles are possible but they aren’t forced on us (or denied us) from on high, but are the result of our own choices, thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
I believe in prayer. It focuses us and reminds us of our connection to all life and to the Source of life. It lifts us up beyond despair and then we are able to see and seize many more opportunities and possibilities than we considered before. But prayer isn’t, for me, begging God to do what God wouldn’t do without our begging, and might refuse to do anyway. That is neither a powerful understanding of prayer nor a flattering understanding of God.
Rather than thinking of God as omnipotent, I tend to think of God as omnipotence. Rather than being a separate being that is all-powerful, God for me is All Power but can only do for us what It does through us.
It’s rather like any of the natural laws that once we understood them and learned to cooperate with them allowed us then to do the previously believed impossible (organ transplants, flight, space travel, instant global communication, etc.). The power to do these things has always existed, but we never benefited from it until we learned how to cooperate with it. The power needed us to be able to help us.
Prayer helps me tap into divine power, and then I can learn to direct that power more and more beneficially, but never in this process is my own responsibility for my life taken from me.
Middle Ages Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “Prayer helps us turn within to that power and presence, to commune with it and cooperate with it. But that is different than something beyond us denying our wishes or occasionally granting them. I really believe that what God does for us, God does through us. Our hands are God’s hands and the most powerful answer to prayer is when we let ourselves be our own answers to our prayers.
Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wisely taught, “