Power. We are obsessed with it. Our lives are constantly affected by it. Our homes are vulnerable to it. And yes, our churches, businesses, and schools are constantly exposed to it.
Just think for a moment of how much “power” permeates our lives and thoughts today — power lunches, power ties, power plays, power moves, power books, power-tools, power psychology, self-empowerment; these themes and more fill our offices, businesses, and bookshelves in America. Power is big business. Some believe that leadership is about having (and using) … power.
The Love of Power
Napoleon was obsessed with power. He wrote: “I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies. I love it as an artist.” Nietzsche waxed suspicious of the Napoleons in his world, saying, “I have found power where people do not look for it, in simple, gentle, and obliging men without the least desire to domineer — and conversely the inclination to domineer has often appeared to me as an inner sign of weakness.”
Others throughout history have been less enchanted with power. Lord Acton is oft-quoted as saying, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Erich Fromm asserted, “The lust for power is not rooted in strength but in weakness.” James F. Byrnes warns, “Power intoxicates men. When a man is intoxicated by alcohol he can recover, but when intoxicated by power he seldom recovers.”
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it poignantly: “Being in power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
At home, often husbands and wives struggle with each other for power, children strive to pry themselves free from their parent’s power, or peer siblings contend with each other for power. On the job, some employers opt for force and fear tactics to motivate employees. Other employees pour their energies into forming unions to force change upon their employers. Power permeates our culture politically, socially, racially, sexually, and financially.
In Jesus’ day, power was a central issue. The primary “power” threat to the Jewish people had become Rome. Many of the Jews saw Roman culture as a power threat; the Romans, rather, preferred to view their own influence not as mere power, but as “progress.” The Pharisees perceived power as a chance to legislate righteousness among the populace in the form of tedious laws and traditions. The Zealots, on the contrary, were tired of talk; they were determined to fight fire with fire in the name of God…to overpower the “power brokers” of their day with the sword.
Jesus issued a warning to the Pharisees…“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Lk 11:43) He also issued a challenge to the men who followed him, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Mt. 20:26)
The Power of Love
Christ confronted a society obsessed with power with something even more powerful than power itself. Love. Not just another love, but a new kind of love (Greek – agape). A force of love that so powerfully touched and changed the heart of one zealot, the Apostle John, that his bio changed from a “Son of Thunder” to “The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.” John wrote about this “power:”
“God is love (agape). Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (I John 4:16b–19)
God is love. And God’s love is a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps one of the shortest sentences in the Bible, and yet so sweeping in its meaning and significance, is this one: “God is love.” Few adjectives are ascribed to God in so clear-cut a fashion as this one. It is as if God and love are almost interchangeable and synonymous. John the Beloved invites us to get to know God by getting to know love; to get to know love by getting to know God.
Power was an essential part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Yet, clearly, Jesus displayed his power only when it had a love purpose connected to it. Think about it! His healings were his demonstrations of love. They were not administered en mass, but one on one. When he multiplied the fish and loaves of bread, his love saw five thousand hungry stomachs. Love bailed out an about-to-be-embarrassed couple at a wedding when he turned water into wine. His love even helped the disciples pay their taxes when he led them to a genuine GOLD-fish.
Show Me the Power!
The Pharisees repeatedly asked Jesus, “Show us a sign [of your power]…” (Mt. 16:1–4, italics mine). Jesus response was emphatic…“A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign [of power]…” (italics mine).
At the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the devil, in essence, said to Christ, “Show me the power!” While Jesus responded, “Watch the love!” Just consider the three blows that Satan targeted towards Christ and how he countered them. (I’ll paraphrase the account from Matt. 4:1–11.) Satan confronted the man, Jesus, with three enticements.
First, while Jesus was deep into a time of fasting and prayer, the enemy suggested, “If you’re the ‘Son of God’, prove it! Show me the power by turning these stones to bread.” Jesus returned, “Watch the love of a heart that more deeply craves my Father’s words than bread itself.”
Second punch. Taking Christ to the highest point of the Temple, the devil urged, “Show me the power by jumping…and let’s see if the angels will spot you!” Jesus came back, “Watch the love that refuses to play games with God!”
Finally, the last punch: the Tempter positioned (if you will) a big screen TV in front of Jesus (in a manner of speaking) and ran the most panoramic and descript “video” anyone has ever seen of all the enticements and temptations the world has to offer and solicited, “Look at the power. Just worship me and all this can be yours!” Satan dug just deep enough, however, to discover Jesus’ stubborn streak. Our Lord soon retorted, “Watch the love that will not break faith with my Father. There is no one else a man should worship but God and God alone!” Now that’s power…power over the enemy. That kind of love was too tough for even Satan to penetrate.
Power often blinds us to love. Power often got in the way of Jesus’ disciples and kept them from seeing his love purpose. Jesus attended a dinner given in his honor at the home of Lazarus, the man who had personally experienced perhaps Christ’s most powerful miracle —being raised from the dead. As Jesus and Lazarus were being served the meal by his sister Martha, another sister, Mary, took her most precious personal resource, a bottle of perfume worth a year’s salary, and poured it on Jesus’ feet wiping them with her hair. Facing a cross within a week, Jesus was deeply moved by her sensitivity. On the contrary, Judas was incensed. Here’s Jesus’ response: “How beautiful!” On the contrary, this was the response of Judas: “What a waste! That was worth a year’s salary.” One event. Two views. The difference? Judas saw THE POWER of money while Jesus simply saw THE POWER of love.
At Jesus’ arrest, Peter abruptly drew his sword and lunged towards the blood-thirsty horde. He struck the High Priest’s servant and cut off his ear. Jesus rebuked his action, “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (ie: ALL WHO LIVE BY POWER WILL BE DESTROYED BY POWER). Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Mt. 26:52–54). The principle was clear. Jesus had power at his easy access, but a greater power kept him focused and controlled…the power of love, love for the lost souls he had come to save. Peter, once again, had let power get in the way of love.
Tony Campolo writes (The Power Delusion, p. 11), “…a craving for power interferes with love and destroys personal relationships. The desire to be powerful interferes with the possibility of our being real Christians. …Salvation lies in being surrendered to God, serving others, and giving up all attempts to be powerful.”