The Bible presents readers with some sharp oppositions. One instance, in James, pits the wisdom from below against the wisdom from above. Another is the truth of God’s word set against the serpent’s ultimate lie in Eden. Let me take up yet another for today’s reflection: the opposition of the love of power versus the power of love. Jesus lived by one, his enemies by the other.
A way to picture the two approaches is to visualize two pyramids sketched on paper next to each other. One is a standard pyramid with a broad base that supports a peak at the top. The other is an inverted pyramid with the narrow point at the bottom widening to the widest dimension at the top. In most life settings the working model is the standard pyramid: success is measured by “reaching the top”. The Bible, on the other hand, turns that model upside down: success is measured by serving others from below—always taking the position of a servant.
The two contrasting pyramids can be a problem among believers as often as it is in the workplaces of the world. It accounts for church splits, split marriages, and any number of the conflicts we find all around us. Call it an expression of self-love: those who seek to climb to the narrow upper reaches of success do so at the expense of those who are placed “below” them, even if—as Christians will do—they justify their advancement as crucial to God’s kingdom. Those who have been stepped on by the power-seeking climber will readily sniff out whose kingdom is really at stake! The sour smell of selfishness is evident to everyone but the sweaty climber himself.
Think of the times Jesus needed to confront his own disciples on this very issue.
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them would be the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them . . . . But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-26)
In what was, perhaps, the same episode as restated in another gospel—or (what I suspect) a recurrence of the same problem—James and John approached Jesus with a request for the highest positions in what they presumed would be the soon-coming kingdom. One asked to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and the other at his left. Jesus answered by asserting his commitment to the inverse pyramid of love.
But whoever would be greatest among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
Paul certainly got Jesus’ point and often summarized the upside-down quality of Christ’s mission of love—I think of the text in Philippians 2 in particular: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The measure for this reversal of fallen self-primacy was Jesus himself:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing . . . .
Indeed, it is the measure of the cross that expresses the love of both the Father and the Son to us. And it is this love that the Spirit pours out into the hearts of believers as the launching quality of salvation. Jesus told his apostles, as found in John 15, that there is no greater measure of love than a willingness to die for others, and that is the measure Jesus sets before us who are his own. In the upside-down realities of God it is in our service to others that we become feature figures in God’s realm of love.
Let me press the point to another stage. For many Christian readers the texts and examples I just cited are absolutely familiar and will invite ready calls of “Amen! Preach it, brother!” But my concern is that we have ingrained, systemic commitments to the love of power—the standard pyramid of life—in our Christian communities that utterly undermine what the Bible is telling us. It’s as if a man who lives one way for most of the week happens to be a hypocritical pastor who climbs into the pulpit on Sundays. There he uses his “preacher’s voice” to say things that aren’t the least bit true of the way he lives for the rest of the week. Like the discreditable pastor too many of us have “Scripture-listening-ears” that listen but don’t actually hear what has just been said!
Let me step on my own toes to make the point. For more than twenty years I served as an academic in a Bible College and Seminary setting. Our program was based on a standard pyramid of status. I moved up the ranks from instructor, to assistant professor, to associate professor, and was invited to apply for full professorship before I ended my climb. And over the years I found that the number of times we were called on to wear our academic regalia doubled; and the garments clearly denoted those who had doctorates and who didn’t—with more and fancier gear always encouraged. But no one on the faculty seemed to mind. Nor did the students, who had been well trained by our grading system to pay attention to who was higher and lower on the academic stair steps to higher status. We love elevation, even if we deny it when we use our preaching voices.
If the world shows any sensitivity about pyramid matters it has more to do with making sure that everyone has equal access to power. Power is crucial to those who see it as the chief measure of their significance. Yet battles over equal access to power quickly disappear if the power being sought is the upside-down power of loving service. There the queue is very short!
What is so striking about Jesus is that he avoided the sort of tension I felt when I held my teaching post and the academic status of “Dr Frost” with its modest but still captivating trappings. He rejected any roles in the power pyramids of his own day. Yet he also taught his followers that he was their head, their Lord, and their teacher. Was he being inconsistent?
The answer, of course, is no. Leadership and headship is altogether different if it has no other ambition than to love and serve those who are being led. And such leadership is never based on the power of a position, but on the strength and persistence of devotion and sacrifice. If someone says, “I love you and am ready to give myself away for your sake”, and I find them to be sincere and active in that ambition . . . well, I find them easy to be around! And I consider them to be natural leaders!
So, we have before us the love of power versus the power of love. Jesus lived by one, his enemies by the other. My prayer is that we will all become followers of Christ.
These biblical truths have changed the way I live in my community. I commend and seek to apply all such attempts to live life in the Kingdom of God.
Thanks for affirming the point, Terry. It really makes a difference to let go of ambitions for status-climbing, doesn’t it! And I’ve appreciated seeing how God has used your heart as a magnet to others to serve as well: it IS more blessed to give than to receive!