How the Christian should view power:
It is often said that the Christian needs to be on guard against the temptations of the three Gs: Gold, Girls and Glory. All three areas can easily trip up a believer and render him ineffective for kingdom service – and worse. Another similar way to put it is to watch out for money, sex and power. These can be the main ways in which Christians stumble and fall.
Here I want to concentrate just on one of these: power. And I want to utilise two recent classic works on the big three. I refer to Tim Keller’s 2009 volume Counterfeit Gods and Richard Foster’s 1985 book, Money, Sex and Power (later released as The Challenge of the Disciplined Life).
I pen this article for two main reasons. Recently I wrote a piece on two of the big three: wealth and power, especially in terms of the political realm. You can find that here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/05/16/money-power-and-our-political-wasteland/
And of course just recently Tim Keller passed away after a battle with cancer. I wrote this up with a number of quotes from him: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/05/20/vale-tim-keller/
So let me feature each author in turn, with some key quotes about power and how the believer should deal with it.
Foster on power
The 82-year-old theologian has penned other famous best-selling works, including Celebration of Discipline (1978). Since he is a Quaker, I do not necessarily agree with all his positions, but the book of his I am drawing from here has plenty of great insights and truths to run with.
Foster has several chapters on power, looking at its destructive as well as creative side, and how believers should come to terms with power. I will here mainly focus on the first of these three chapters. He writes: “Power can destroy or create. The power that destroys demands ascendancy; it demands total control. It destroys relationship; it destroys trust; it destroys dialogue; it destroys integrity.”
He looks at biblical examples of this, including King Saul and his intense envy of David: “Saul was the king; he was supposed to wield the power. But power cannot command affection, and the people loved David. Saul was powerless to control the hearts of people, so he turned in rage against David. He would rather have murdered than allow power to slip through his fingers.”
Samson is another example of power and pride bringing about a downfall. So too the disciples who argued about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God. Foster says this about them:
“Amazing isn’t it, grown-up people deeply exercised over who is at the top of the heap! Of course, whenever we are deciding who is the greatest, we are also deciding who is the least. This is the problem for us, isn’t it? To be the least means to be helpless. If we are at the ‘bottom rung’ of a company, we are completely without authority, completely without power.”
And he reminds us of the importance of the spiritual principalities and powers that we read about in the New Testament. They underlie political and social systems. He writes:
This is a terribly difficult concept for us to comprehend in our modern society. We are accustomed to viewing institutions as sterile, neutral structures that have nothing to do with the spiritual life. There has been, however, one outstanding historical event that can help us develop a new appreciation for the biblical emphasis upon the powers. When Adolf Hitler took over Germany, the powers of state and race took on hideous new dimensions. In the Third Reich the very idea of volk – race – became captive to the egomania of Aryan supremacy. Those who have seen the crematories of Dachau and Auschwitz do not find it hard to believe in the demonic powers.
He looks at various examples of these powers in action today, and then says this: “We must never fool ourselves. The powers against which we wage the Lamb’s war are very strong. . . . This is no minor league game we are playing; we are in the major leagues, and the stakes are high. The principalities and powers do not just have power – they are power. They exist as power; power is how they manifest themselves. To dominate, to control, to devour, to imprison, is their very essence.”
He goes on to discuss how these powers can be defeated. The chief element of course is to realise that Christ has already defeated the powers (Colossians 2:15): “On the cross Christ could have summoned ten thousand angels to his aid, but instead he renounced the mechanism of power in order to defeat the powers of the abyss.”
Keller on power
In his chapter on “The Power and the Glory” Keller says: “In any culture in which God is largely absent, sex, money, and politics will fill the vacuum for different people. This is the reason that our political discourse is increasingly ideological and polarised.”
He looks at Nebuchadnezzar as an example of the misuse and abuse of power, and speaks of how others – such as Reinhold Niebuhr – have addressed these issues. Writes Keller:
Nebuchadnezzar is a classic case study of what Niebuhr says about sin, politics, and power in The Nature and Destiny of Man. In the chapter “Man as Sinner” Niebuhr argues that “man is insecure, and . . . he seeks to overcome his insecurity by a will-to-power. . . . He pretends he is not limited.” Human beings have very little real power over their lives. Ninety-five percent of what sets the course of their lives is completely outside their control. This includes the century and place they are born in, who their parents and family are, their childhood environment, physical stature, genetically hardwired talents, and most of the circumstances that they find themselves in. In short, all we are and have is given to us by God. We are not infinite Creators, but finite, dependent creatures.
He goes on to say that idols of power “are not only for the powerful. You can pursue power in small, petty ways, by becoming a local neighborhood bully or a low-level bureaucrat who bosses around the few people in his field of authority. Power idolatry is all around us.”
He continues to look at the life of king Nebuchadnezzar and how God humbled him:
“One of the great ironies of sin is that when human beings try to become more than human beings, to be as gods, they fall to become lower than human beings. To be your own god and live for your own glory and power leads to the most bestial and cruel kind of behavior. Pride makes you a predator, not a person. That is what happened to the king.”
The reverse of all this is found in Christ and his example: “Jesus shows us another way. By giving up his power and serving, he became the most influential man who ever lived. Jesus is not only an example, however, he is a Savior. Only by admitting our sin, need, and powerlessness, and by casting ourselves on his mercy, will we finally become secure in his love, and therefore empowered in a way that does not lead us to oppress others.”
The world is enthralled with power. The Christian should be enthralled with Jesus and his renunciation of power, and his desire to be servant of all. He is our role model here. Yes, one day Christ will return with ALL power and authority. That too is who he is. But for now the believer is to imitate the incarnate Lord and the way he handled power.
What Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is worth closing this piece with:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.