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By Fr. Maurice Emelu, Catholic Exchange, June 30, 2017
The Bible is full of stories of God’s power and authority. As a refresher, let’s recount a few of the stories — two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament.
Let’s begin in the historical literature of the Old Testament. God promised Abraham and Sarah they would have a son through whose offspring the world would be blessed. From the purely human point of view, the promise was unusual and unrealistic. Abraham and Sarah were getting on in years. When told she would be the mother of Abraham’s child, the child of promise, Sarah laughed, betraying the inner doubts locked inside of her heart, as every woman who has passed the age of childbirth knows it is impossible. In response, God spoke the following words to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son” (Gen. 18:13–14). Needless to say, Sarah conceived and bore a son as the Lord had promised, underscoring the fact that with God, “all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).
Then, many generations later, when God rescued the nation of Israel from bondage in Egypt He led them through the wilderness and miraculously provided them manna for food. Nevertheless, the Israelites complained because they could not enjoy the delicacies they were accustomed to eating in Egypt. In response to their grumbling, God promised to give them meat for the entire period. The people were doubtful, as was Moses, who expressed his concerns to God: “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot; and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to suffice them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?” (Num. 11:21–22).
In response to Moses, God asked another question — a question vitally important to us today — “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not” (Num. 11:23). Certainly, God’s hand is not shortened; nothing limits His power. God miraculously provided quails in the wilderness, as he had promised. God’s ability to provide beyond human understanding is a running thread throughout Israel’s story. I can’t say it enough: our daily faith motto should be “With God All Things Are Possible.”
In the New Testament, we have many beautiful stories of God’s omnipotence. The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel records that when Jesus was teaching the crowd, He observed that His audience was hungry, for they had been with Him for a long time without food. When He looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward Him, He said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He asked this only to test Philip, for he already knew what He was going to do. God always sees the finish line from the start.Philip responded incredulously that half a year’s wages “would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Andrew pointed out that a boy had five loaves of bread and two fishes, “but what are they among so many?” But Jesus calmly said, “Make the people sit down.” There were about five thousand men, not even counting women and children.
Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:11–14)
Wow! What power must one possess to accomplish this kind of miracle — in full view of thousands of people and yet known to only a few.
Moving ahead to John’s eleventh chapter we find the story of the Savior visiting His good friend when many thought it was too late. After hearing of Lazarus’s illness, Jesus waited for two days before setting out to see him, and it seemed He had waited too long. But He had a plan. God always has a plan — a better plan than any we can devise with our limited reason. So He set out to see Lazarus.
By the time Jesus arrived, four days had gone by since Lazarus had succumbed to his illness. Everyone at the scene was afraid, despairing, or, in the case of those who were suspicious of Jesus, sarcastic. Lazarus was dead, and the game was over. The Apostles were afraid and did not want Jesus to go into Judea because the Jews were looking for Him to kill Him. Martha, who despairingly cried, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” had not conceived the possibility of the power of Jesus to raise her brother from the dead. And the Jews who observed Jesus weep said sarcastically, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” For all these people, the death of Lazarus was final; the dead are dead.
When Jesus asked to be shown where Lazarus was buried and for the stone covering the tomb to be removed, Martha replied, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” As we know, Jesus performed the miracle and raised Lazarus from death after four days in the tomb. The meaning of His initial wait to come to Lazarus was revealed: in the Jewish understanding, after three days the dead have passed to a place of no return to physical life. At four days after death, Lazarus was considered to be totally beyond this world. But Jesus made the impossible possible with just a sigh and a command. God creates out of nothing. He gives life out of nothing.
These stories are among many in Scripture that demonstrate God’s almighty power. Many New Testament accounts also show Jesus Christ to be truly God. From the creation narrative to the eschatological visions in the book of Revelation, we have substantial testimony to the power of God. It is therefore no surprise that of all His attributes, only His almighty power is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. Almighty power is an attribute that necessarily follows from God’s divinity. It expresses the idea of absolute authority over all of creation.
The concept of power has been an object of great discussion among sociologists and political philosophers. In any given situation, the person who has power calls the shots regarding the disposition of material goods, events, and even fellow people. Usually, when a political leader wields power, he or she does so within the framework of the law — civil or natural. Power wielded within the confines of the law is legitimate. Power wielded outside the confines of the law wreaks havoc on society. When a ruler is said to have “absolute” power it really is hyperbole. No human could ever have absolute power.
For God, the case is different since He is almighty and always just. To say that God is almighty entails three main ideas:
God’s power is absolute.
God’s power is universal.
God’s power is eternally integrated.
God’s Power Is Absolute
Think about the most powerful people in the world — CEOs, presidents, and so forth. These people wield considerable power in their companies and countries, but still there are always limitations to what they can accomplish. CEOs are limited by boards of directors and their competitors; political leaders are limited by other authorities within the government and, failing that, by the people. Even the most authoritarian leaders in the world must constantly shore up their power against threats.
This also applies to religious leaders. The most powerful religious leader in the world remains the pope, although this power is exercised most perfectly in service. Nevertheless, even the pope kneels and bows before almighty God. He is answerable to Somebody. An old story is told of a pope who went into his private chapel at night, removed his skullcap, and placed it on God’s altar, saying, “This is your Church. Take care of it because I need to go to bed. I will help you carry it tomorrow. Good night.”
Thus, neither the pope nor the most powerful political leader nor the most powerful CEO has unlimited power. With God, the situation is different. God has absolute power; it is unlimited and complete, neither shared with nor granted by anyone else. God does whatever He wills; He has no need to consult with anyone. He has all it takes to accomplish what He does because He is existence itself. Thus, God is also all knowing. The prophecy of Isaiah beautifully expresses this idea: “Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge and showed him the way of understanding?” (40:14).
God’s willing and existence are identical. Hanging on the Cross, Jesus spoke to the thief at His right side: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). So it happened that a thief entered heaven just by the very word of Jesus. He has absolutepower over life and death, over heaven and hell, for all power belongs to Him (Matt. 6:13). God can therefore do all things (Matt. 19:26; Mark 14:36), for nothing is impossible for Him (Luke 1:34–37). God is absolutely able to fulfill promises (Rom. 4:21). God is absolutely able to save us and to do so forever (Isa. 63:1; Ps. 54:1; Rom. 1:16; Heb. 7:25), to set us free from danger (Dan. 3–4), to protect us (Ps. 79:1; 91:1), and to rescue us (Ps. 79:11).
We, in and of ourselves, may be limited in what we can do to fulfill our purpose in life. But God isn’t limited in His ability to accomplish His will in and through us, if we allow Him to lead us. No matter how intelligent we may be, no matter how strategic our plans for the future are, without God nothing worthwhile will happen.
God’s Power Is Universal
God’s power is absolute because it is universal. This means God is not limited by space and time. After all, God created space and time! In the beginning, it was all chaos. It was God who by the power of His word ordered space and time and the rules by which they function. God is pre-time.
One of the challenges to the Catholic Church in Africa is the residual belief from African Traditional Religion that deities are territorial. African Traditional Religion, like most indigenous or traditional or nature religions, has an idea of deities as gods of specific places, peoples, shrines, or aspects of human life. The god takes charge of those events and lives for a limited time. Thus, the concept of a universal God who has absolute power not limited by territory or time is not readily assimilated by indigenous peoples. From time to time, people who have become Christians fall back to their prior idolatrous notions of God as territorial.
I’ve seen this in the way some people use the sacramentals of the Church. The Church is rich in symbols, icons, and sacra-mentals — such as holy water, blessed salt, and so on. We know that religious language is symbolic and in many cases sacramental in nature. Nevertheless, sometimes we observe an abuse of the proper use or meaning of these sacred signs. I have had to explain to some families that the holy water we use is not a magical element that brings about miracles. Crucifixes are not talismans like those used in pagan cults. They are simply sacramental. Their use is to inspire us and help us connect with Almighty God, who has the power to bring about His will, whether in the form of a miracle or a less noticeable pouring out of grace.
Similarly, God’s universal power covers my personal life as well as our collective existence as a people. We need to recognize that God has the overriding control over our lives. Although He grants us the freedom to make choices, this freedom does not in any way limit His absolute power over us. God is our ultimate Lord, to whom we pay homage. God is the master of history, governing hearts and events in keeping with the divine will. “It is always in thy power to show great strength, and who can withstand the might of thy arm?” (Wisd. 11:21).
God’s Power Is Eternally Integrated
The Catechism teaches that God’s almighty power is in no way arbitrary: “In God, power, essence, will, intellect, wisdom, and justice are all identical. Nothing therefore can be in God’s power which could not be in his just will or his wise intellect (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 25, 5, ad. I).” Thus, whatever God does is holy and perfect.
I suspect that some will now ask the age-old questions: If God is all powerful and all wise, then why is there evil in the world? And if God’s power is absolute and universal, why should we pray, since God does whatever He wills?
Many great minds have answered these questions, and the arguments never end. Let’s begin with some rhetorical questions: If there is no all-powerful God, then why has evil not overtaken goodness, beauty, and truth, despite its insidious and invasive character? If God is not all powerful, how is it that so many men and women still chant the Deo gratia amid the menacing ruins of evil? How is it that so many still see evil for what it is and do not mistake it for the good? We speak of evil and see the ugly face of evil in the world because the good God has put in our hearts a seed for goodness.
With respect to our personal free will, God’s absolute power implies His absolute honor of the freedom He chose to bequeath to us as rational creatures. In His almighty nature, God models for us the right use of power and authority and wants us to fulfill the very goal He had in creating us — namely, to choose from nature’s beatitudes the path we want for ourselves. God’s absolute power is indeed exercised every day in freedom; we are, in a sense, delegates of that freedom, deputized to live out God’s will in freedom here on earth.
We said earlier that by His gratuitous love and consistent with His being, God gave us freedom and equipped us to cooperate with His providence. This means that God wills us to have the privilege and power to change things and situations around us. God endorses the legitimate use of this right, but it is not absolute. It is not legitimate when exercised in isolation from the delegator.
For example, a Catholic bishop of the Latin Rite who is a local ordinary of a diocese cannot remain legitimate if he severs communication — and therefore communion — with the pope. Nor can an ambassador of a nation remain legitimate if he breaks ties with the represented country. We too cannot legitimately use the power of co-creation if we sever ourselves from our Creator. If this connection is severed, there are bound to be consequences — consequences that are never good for us.
In our relationship with God in the faith journey, one of the virtuous habits that keep us focused and properly disposed to His direction is prayerful obedience. Prayer in this sense is basically a communication; it places us where we belong and recognizes the place of God in the dialogue. Prayer becomes the place of encounter between God and us, His delegates. Through prayer, we delegates can tap into and execute some of the qualities of God as the Almighty.
This encounter is perfectly achieved in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the ultimate prayer: a sacrifice of God, the Son, to the Father and of humanity to God. It is where we can draw from the almighty power of God so that we can make wonderful things happen for the good of believers. It is in the Eucharist that heaven and the attributes of our God in heaven are uniquely instantiated in time, tangibly and before our eyes.
The implications of the theology of the almighty power of God in our lives are huge. First, it inspires us not to live in fear, for the “Lord of Hosts is with us and the God of Jacob is our stronghold” (Ps. 46:11). The faith journey is a courageous ride we take with confidence in divine providence and sovereignty. Faith empowers us. We do not need to fear death, hunger, pestilence, poverty, or whatever else might appear in our way. We are assured of the supremacy of the Lord in our lives: “Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4: 4).
Second, our weaknesses are not a barrier to God’s power to save us. Severing ties with God by rejecting His friendship can be a barrier, but it is one that we erect. Our God-given freedom can be our only nemesis only if, like the fallen angel, we use it to tell God that we will not serve Him. We have to step away from our weaknesses and hand ourselves over to God’s rule. He can transform our weaknesses to strength for the glory of His name.
Third, we should not allow ourselves to be taken in by the devil. Satan and his works and pranks, as expressed in witchcraft and voodoo but also in institutionalized evil and injustice, should not be given free reign. We stave off evil by proclaiming the good news of our very existence; evil, as St. Augustine teaches, degrades existence itself. The devil is not our God; he has no absolute power to do anything. The Lord Jesus Christ has already achieved victory over the devil’s tactics, and we equally are victorious in Christ, who is our strength.
If we really understood the power of God, we would not give so much credit to Satan. We would realize that because God is the Creator, Satan is but a creature — a fallen angel. We would know that God’s power is infinite, while Satan’s power is finite and indeed minuscule. God is not battling with Satan with the hope of defeating him; Satan is already a defeated foe, whose final demise is certain (John 12:31; 16:11; Luke 10:18). In the meantime, God is allowing Satan and his rebellion to achieve His purposes (see 2 Cor. 12:7–10). As Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said, “Evil may have its hour, God has his day.”
Fr. Maurice Emelu is a priest from the Diocese of Orlu, Nigeria and is the founder of Gratia Vobis Ministries, a Catholic media apostolate dedicated to evangelization and charity for the poor. Fr. Maurice also hosts the television show Word for a Wounded World on EWTN.