An update: I’ll be posting a separate blog every other weekend on www.cordeo.org.uk in a sharing of responsibilities with Peter Mead in our Cor Deo mentoring initiative. His first post is already available on that site and invites a visit! My first post there is set for next Sunday. Now let’s turn to today’s concern.
What drives us? Are there aspirations that explain our priorities in life? Certainly, there are, and one of these is our love of power. So I’d like to reflect here on the role of power—including our desire to gain and hold power—as a motivator for all of us.
What kinds of power? There are too many to count! The power of personal security is a good starter. That comes through our earning power—the ability to work for a good wage—which then gives us purchasing power in the markets of life.
Another is social power: the ability to influence others. This is the power we find in any given pecking order and it helps us to manage. If we have high standing at our job, for instance, we’ll find that others volunteer to help us more readily than if we don’t. More privileges are granted and deference given. We also look for power in the status and competence offered us by our education. Physical power is another motivator: people will spend hours in weight training or aerobic workouts to feel more fit and able.
Another is political power: the ability to shape a community through writing or applying rules and laws. Political power can range from holding the presidency of a local golf club all the way up to holding the power of the American presidency. Any kind of office, in fact, carries power within the realm of that office—from serving as a secretary in a corporation to serving as a manager of a local coffee outlet. And there is the power that some have to influence those who hold the keys of power.
I suspect that somewhere in this listing exercise we’ll have seen something of our own links to power, and if not, keep looking: there’s also the power of persuasion, parental powers, the power to convince others, and more.
Now let’s shift gears by now applying the moral question: is power good or bad? Or is it neutral—a capacity that can be used for good and/or for ill?
On the one hand, think about a common saying: “power corrupts.” We’ve also heard the extension, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And we can think of any number of totalitarian leaders throughout history and certainly in the last century who have given power a bad name: Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, and many more.
Even at a more mundane level most of us have been in work situations, in school boards, or in churches where we’ve seen someone above us begin to gather power and then to exercise it in bringing about unhappy and even ungodly changes.
And remember that the connection made here between the great and the mundane is only one of degree: Hitler was once a modestly skilled painter who came to power through painting new social realities. He used lies, distortions, mythologies, and even blatant thuggery to climb to power. Only when we look backwards in time, after first knowing how the story ended in a Berlin bunker, do we see evil early in the trajectory he followed.
God, however, handles power without corruption. As believers we speak of his “omnipotence”—an inclusive power to rule over everything he’s created. In the Bible God sometimes speaks of his power as a potter: his ability to shape our circumstances. In the reality of the Trinity, Jesus has the power to create, to heal, to forgive, to raise people from the dead, and more. So clearly God, in the Bible, is not put off by the reality of his ultimate power. Christians also know that the final outcome on Judgment Day—a dramatic moment of power—will have a final score of God:1; the world-the flesh-and-the-devil: 0. That won’t be the actual margin, of course, but we know who wins.
I know I’m simply stating the obvious so far. Now let’s ask another more penetrating question: how does the love of power differ from the power of love?
Here’s a blunt but reliable answer as offered throughout the Bible: one is demonic and the other is divine.
The shape of demonic power is the pyramid. Only one being can achieve the highest place while all others are left to scramble up the steep pyramidic slopes in an increasingly cutthroat fashion. At the base level are the despised workers; further up are the middle managers; higher still are the major managers; near the top are the rulers; and at the very top is the king. He is the one to be served; all others are meant to serve. This is how armies work; how businesses work; how colleges work; how the world works—an aggressive self-love is needed in order to overcome all the others who are equally but less effectively selfish in racing to the top. Those who won’t or can’t race are liable to be abused and crushed.
Jesus, of course, is the actual “capstone” of God’s own kingdom structure, but he still didn’t fit this scheme. His life represents an inverted pyramid that causes every power-broker to stumble.
Think about this: Jesus, in the humility of his modest itinerant teaching role, was still crucified by the power-brokers of his day. Why? Because those leaders were steadily losing their power over the people in the face of Christ’s upside-down kingdom. Jesus was making the last first and the first last; he came to serve and not to be served; he cared for the sinners, not the “righteous”; he healed the blind, not those who thought they could see; and he came to be beloved by all who knew him because he first love them.
God, of course, speaks of his own power and at times he displays it by crushing evil. What is surprising, however, is that more often than not he withholds its use. It is only applied as a last resort. In the time of Noah, for instance, he destroyed the earth; but later—despite the continuation of the very evil among men that stirred that judgment—he promised never to flood the earth again. Similarly in one New Testament setting Jesus and his disciples were refused hospitality. The angry followers wanted to take advantage of Christ’s powers by calling down fire from heaven to destroy the town (Luke 9:54). Jesus refused and rebuked the followers instead.
What explains God’s use of power, then, is that it pours out from a heart of love; and—as the Triune One—his love is eternally other-centered. In John 17:24, for instance, we find that the Son’s great ambition is to bring others to share the eternal, glorious fellowship he has with the Father because “you [i.e. his Father] loved me before the foundation of the world.” And the Father’s salvation is offered because he “so loved the world that he gave us his only Son”.
What we do see of God’s heart in Scriptures is his purpose to save people who are enslaved by the power of sin. In his inverted pyramid the greatest power is unleashed when the greatest number receive the greatest care and compassion—all of which is offered in the context of unique, personal relationships. God works through us to reconcile the world to himself not through coercive powers but through the power of his personal love for us. And that love is never forced upon us; rather he invites us to reciprocate his own prior love with our own love, first in response to him; then in our initiatives toward others. His love is a spreading love.
Let me end by inviting others to comment on this analogy of the two opposed power pyramids: how is the explanatory force best presented and applied? At the least, we can see by it that Christ’s calling and ministry was and is more radical than those who are well placed on the slopes of the standard pyramid will ever grasp.