Vladimir Putin wants higher historic ranking. To be an Alexander the Great. Or Julius Caesar, Napoleon, or, especially, a Joseph Stalin. None achieved character awards, but they didn’t care. All had three qualities that, together, made them dominant figures in their time. And having this triad of abilities, their appetite for power over others flourished until they died.
What qualities? The trifecta of human wisdom, power, and wealth.
All these ability-based identities may seem useful and innocuous. But God, through the prophet Jeremiah, spoke of them as spiritually lethal. “Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches” [Jeremiah 9:23]. These are gifts of God never meant to be treated as ends in themselves.
Why not? Because wisdom, power, and wealth are pathways to personal success. And when all three are united in one person, that person can rise above normal rules, rulers, or social mores. Each of our historical strongmen achieved this malignant combination and became autocrats—dramatically destructive figures—beyond any challenge or restraint.
There’s more to weigh. Jeremiah continued his writing to make it clear that each of these qualities must be placed in a spiritual and social context: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD” [v.24].
Let’s pause to consider this relational context. Each of these qualities is empty apart from social settings. People are needed. Wisdom without relationships is inert. So, too, wealthy people need ordinary people to facilitate their wealth. And power only functions in communities.
So, let’s explore the second half of Jeremiah’s statement, where social values meet individual values. God calls all of us to relational identities—or “boasting”—“for in these things I delight.” And none of the men we listed thought much of God or others. By contrast, the God who “is love” applies a grid of social aims. If we love God, we will love others. And any gifts we have will be used, instinctively, to serve others. These are heartfelt values that delight God’s heart.
And if human wisdom, power, and wealth are shaped by God’s steadfast love, justice, and righteousness, they ensure a person will be “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [Eph. 2:10].
We have, it becomes clear, an identity-divide in play. If the selfish wisdom of God’s great foe prevails, “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” [James 3:15-16]. The text then describes the alternative wisdom God offers: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” [17-18].
Let’s return to Putin. His ambition to dominate others has a source: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” [Eph. 2:2]. And in our horror at seeing his evil ambitions unleashed, Jeremiah’s challenge comes alive. In the measure any of us seeks personal wisdom, wealth, and power apart from living with a greater value of knowing and loving God—the God who delights in lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness—we also share in Putin’s malignancy.
With that warning in view, we should pray God will raise up profoundly capable souls who love God and others above all else. Gifted people who will, as another prophet called for, “stand in the gap,” by sharing and applying God’s wisdom, power, and wealth for others.