For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph 3.14-21)
My wife and I enjoy watching Antiques Roadshow on TV. The show moves around from city to city, and at each public gathering people are invited to bring in items they think are valuable. People bring in all sorts of items—furniture, old paintings, pottery, jewelry, old posters, civil war trinkets, and much more. Experts in the relevant fields do the appraising. Some bring in things they’re sure must be valuable and are disappointed when they find out their item is a worthless fake. Others bring in things they’ve had in their family for generations, things stuffed in boxes in the attic, or items picked up unsuspectingly at a garage sale, only to discover that what they thought was of little or no value is worth a small fortune. There’s always that moment when the owners are told the true value of what they possess. The reactions are priceless.
I’ve included one of my favorites for you to enjoy:
Some of us are in possession of treasures we don’t appreciate
because we don’t perceive their value. Others of us are holding onto
things we think are valuable but which in fact are worthless.
There is a crisis of faith within the Church today, and it’s a crisis of value perception. I’m not talking about the failure of some Christians to enlist in the culture wars over ‘traditional values’, like getting prayer back in schools, legislating the traditional understandings of gender and marriage, reversing Roe-v-Wade on abortion, or protecting the Church’s tax-exempt status. No, I’m talking about committed Christians who live their faith without the transforming experience Paul describes here in his prayer, a vision of the true value of things – the infinite value of God at the heart of all things, and then the immeasurable value to God of all creatures.
If there’s an ‘Antiques Roadshow’ moment in the NT, it’s the short letter to the Ephesians. In this letter (and let’s assume Paul is the author for now), Paul is like the expert appraiser pointing out the rare gifts that define our faith, as if saying “Notice this about your salvation,” “Now check this out,” or “Look at what’s over here” in an attempt to open our eyes to the treasures we possess in Christ, to the treasures that we are in Christ.
Let me suggest that part of the importance of Paul’s prayer is its location in the center of this short letter. Part of what the prayer means, part of the key to the experience of God that it describes, has to do with its place between Chs 1-3 and 4-6.
- Chs 1-3 are about ‘believing’
- Chs 4-6 are about the ‘doing’
- Chs 1-3 describe the truths that form the heart of Christian faith and belief
- Chs 4-6 are about living that faith
Where are we in Chs 1-3? We’re “seated with Christ in the heavenlies” (2.6):
- we’re freely chosen by God in love to be his (1.5)
- we’re saved by grace through faith (2.8f)
- we’re one body in Christ who is the head of all things (1.22)
Where are we in Chs 4-6? Our feet are firmly planted on the ground:
- we’re urged to walk worthy of our calling (4.1)
- to bear with one another in love (4.2)
- to ‘make every effort’ to maintain unity (4.3)
- to ‘put on’ the new self (4.24)
Chs 1-3 describe what is true about you in Christ:
- whether you realize it or not
- whether your faith is hanging by a thread or you’re doing better than you ever imagined you could
Chs 4-6 on the other hand describe what ought to become true about you, what it looks like to choose to live out the truths of Chs 1-3.
And that brings us to the all-important question: How do we move from Chs 1-3 to Chs 4-6? How do we go from ‘knowing these amazing truths’ to ‘living in the freedom they describe’? Paul’s prayer in 3.14-21 answers this question.
Before I comment on Paul’s prayer, I want to point out that many of us try to bridge the gap between ‘believing the right things’ and ‘living the right way’ without experiencing what Paul’s prayer describes. As a result we know only constant frustration and failure. Only by passing through the experience described in this prayer, an experience of immeasurable and unconditional love, are we empowered to ‘live’ exceptionally.
How many Christians today are attempting to live their spiritual lives as ‘law’? How many believe (if only unconsciously) they’re loved and favored by God when they perform well but not when they screw up? Or that they’re loved more the better they perform? We turn the gospel into another “law,” a way to recommend ourselves to God.
I totally get why we do this. Think about how we grow up. For the vast majority, there was nothing but conditional love around us 24/7. We are socialized into it, so it’s no surprise that we have a difficult time noticing or trusting unconditional love when it shows up. This is the importance of this prayer’s place here in Ch 3 prior to the commands and obligations that come in Chs 4-6.
Rest in this prayer. Park your weary soul right here. Memorize it, pray it, explore it—run up and down its length, try to stretch your arms around its width, climb its heights, dig underneath its depths – all the dimensions of love this prayer talks about. But do it before you take one step toward attempting to live out the commands of Chs 4-6. The order is crucial, because the order is what opens to us that moment each of us must have within the deepest narratives of our heart, where God awakens us to what he is worth, what we are worth in him, and what the worth and beauty of life really are. And like the girl in the Antiques Roadshow episode who couldn’t believe the value of what she had in her possession all time, this encounter Paul refers to will have profound transforming effects. “You’re kidding! I’m worth that to you, God? I’m accepted that unconditionally? You went through that to make me yours?” We feel differently and relate differently to things based on what we believe their worth or value is. When the true value of things presents itself to us in Christ, our hearts embrace it and we reconstruct or reorganize our whole life. The motivation and strength to live come not from rules and regulations, not law-keeping, nor from threat of punishment, but directly from the experience of oneself as unconditionally loved by God, when the value of the treasures presented in Chs 1-3 are realized not just in us, but as us.
The love that created you
The love that chose you
The love that values you
The love that wants you
The love that adopted you
The love that charted the course of the whole universe to find its fulfillment in Christ through you
I am specifically not talking about holding the proposition “Christ loves me” to be true, but rather an experience of being loved beyond the propositional. To ‘know the love of Christ’ is to ‘experience myself as loved and accepted unconditionally by Christ’, where who and what “I” am just is that act in which he gives and I receive. It’s simple to say. It’s not a complicated equation. But it is profound beyond all imagination, for being loved this way means standing transparent in my fallenness, in all my sorry history, in all my brokenness, in all the conditions that I think disqualify me, and—with all of that present—hearing Christ address me to say “I love you more than you realize and I accept you in spite of all that you think disqualifies you,” and (here’s the kicker) in that moment agreeing with Christ that what he says about me is true, because it’s only when I embrace my truest identity as unconditionally loved and accepted by Christ that the fundamental exchange takes place. That’s where life is born. That’s where the commands of the gospel become joy and love instead of burdensome duties.
We have a difficult time with this. It’s our fundamental struggle. Some are so shamed into believing they’re unlovable no matter what they do, they give up. Others of us are so drunk on the consolations of law-keeping—the high we get from achieving a sense of acceptance because we’ve ‘done well’—that when we hear we’re loved by God regardless of what we do, we actually become angry at the idea. It boggles our mind that God does not pay his love out as a wage for our doing right.
Let me share a second thought about this prayer. It may seem to present several requests, but there’s really just one thing Paul prays for. All that Paul describes builds together to one and the same experience. Three descriptions combine in a single prayer:
- First, that Christ may dwell in your hearts (or ‘inner being’) through faith
- Second, that you know the love of Christ that transcends knowledge
- Lastly, that you be filled with all the fullness of God
Knowing the love of Christ that transcends knowing is not a different reality than being filled with the fullness of God. Each description offers us a different perspective. The first (‘that Christ dwell in your hearts through faith’) describes how we enter (through faith in Christ) and where this treasure is possessed (in our ‘heart’ or ‘inner being’). The second phrase (‘that you know the love of Christ’) describes the nature or content of that experience. It’s an experience of value-affirmation, which is what love is and what it does. With the third phrase (‘that you be filled with all the fullness of God’) Paul has reached the summit of his reach. God ‘all in all’. God’s fullness in us is our experience of the immeasurable love of Christ.
Paul adds something amazing. He says that though we know the love of Christ, that love transcends knowledge. It is beyond knowledge. We know that which exceeds knowing? How can we actually know what is beyond knowing? And if we truly know it, what’s the point of mentioning that it’s beyond our knowing? Let me suggest an answer: the love of Christ is never reducible to our experience of it. No experience of ours can exhaust the love of God in the human heart. There will always be more to Christ’s love for you to experience than any particular experience of yours can contain, no matter how deep and indescribable your experience may be.
A final question. Is this possible? Do we really believe that it’s possible to experience ourselves, our truest self, as the free gift of unconditional love and that this love can define the social identity of human beings in increasingly transformative ways? To be so defined by Christ’s presence that it becomes impossible even to imagine ourselves as anything other than infinitely loved by God? I think Paul suspected that some of his readers would think he was describing something that was impossible or that he had lost his mind, and that this is why he concludes: “Now to him who is able to do….” To do what? “…to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory….” In other words, “to him who is able to do what I’ve been praying for and describing.” This isn’t just a comparative statement about how much muscle God can flex in comparison to us. The point is that God’s actually doing ‘more than we can ask or imagine’ happens through our ‘imagining it’.
I worked for several years in the Recovery community. I love this community because people in recovery don’t pretend they’re not broken and desperate. There’s a prevailing and honest shared awareness of brokeness and hope that’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in any church on Sundays. As it happened in our Recovery gatherings, I focused on the importance of perception and self-talk, the need to ‘re-imagine ourselves’ in terms of the truth about us per the gospel, because if you don’t see it, you can’t become it. Seeing that version of yourself is the first step to becoming that version of yourself. A vision of myself healed, loved, healthy, connected, free—that vision has to appear on the horizon of what I see for myself. Otherwise I’ll never move toward it. And if you’re to have a hope and identity which nothing in this world can define away, it will have to come from someone or something not of this world. That’s what Paul is praying.
The immeasurable nature of Christ’s love that this prayer talks about isn’t rhetorical excess. It is metaphysical excess. It presents metaphysics of an infinitely adventurous love, of ‘ever-moving rest’. Our end in Christ is to forever experience the novelty and adventure of God’s love where there will always be something to look forward to, always something surprising just around the corner and where we will always be perfectly at rest with what we have and who we are. That’s how we’re filled with the fullness of God. God doesn’t get crammed into us, we keep on expanding into him.
So yes, God can do more than we can imagine. That will always be true. But what’s equally true is that what God actually does in us he does through our imagining/envisioning it. He will give us more to imagine as we grow into what we can see, but the first reason we’re not who we could be is that we don’t imagine who we could be.