Transformation V: The Many Shapes of Power
I see the good I want to do, but I don't know how to carry it out!
-The Apostle Paul
It’s easy for us to think that it’s only “evil people” who choose power over love. We think about it in those terms: bad people choose power and become violent. But the reality is that “good people,” even while rejecting outright violence (which, of course, they should reject) can just as easily choose some other means of power to protect them. Power is just more easily masked under a nice suit or a warm, sunny, Sunday face.
A marriage falters and fails because one spouse is unwilling to share their thoughts or fears or emotions, terrified of being exposed. (Power = Silent Treatment)
A religious man scorns others for not measuring up, while secretly hiding a life filled with addiction and shame. (Power = The appearance of righteousness)
A student wants to make a rousing speech in front of the class but is terrified of being rejected. (Power = Staying in seat)
Can you find yourself in this tension between love and power?
I sure can. When my wife and I have conflict—fights, I can more bluntly name them—on my end, it’s almost invariably linked back to some thing that I want to say that I’m also terrified of saying.
“You hurt my feelings.”
“I really want to be near you and I’m terrified that you won’t want that.”
“When you didn’t clean the kitchen, I interpreted it as you not caring for me at all because who could love me, hideous wreck of a human being that I am? AHHH!”
It’s easier to play it cool and not admit to any of those embarrassing thoughts or fleeting emotions. Power, for me = Not saying what I’m really feeling. And again, paradoxically, when I am honest, almost invariably I have the intimacy I so long for! To be human is to constantly be in this paradox: what we most desire we most eagerly avoid. Our spirit wants love, our ego abhors vulnerability. (This is the very tension between spirit and flesh/ego that Paul describes in Romans 7, quoted above.)
Of course, we all hide our truest thoughts and feelings, to some degree. Heck, to survive life, you have to learn how to do this; it’s not always safe or wise to vulnerably expose yourself. The problem comes in when, in the proper context, you can’t expose yourself. Life in that place is an ongoing experience of being “stuck” and alienated from love.
And many of us feel this with God. Because we don’t really trust His love, we are stuck trying to find other, compensating ways of being powerful. This is precisely what Jesus warns us about. Think of all the times he red flags the human tendency to embrace power or the appearance of power, through reputation, religion, or riches. (See, for example, Matthew 6, where Jesus addresses all three in order). Jesus knows the human propensity to build a mask or persona so that we look good or powerful, or to use money or pleasure to numb out our fear of vulnerability, so that we feel powerful. Again, it’s not just “evil” people that use power to protect themselves. In fact, we all do! Jesus doesn’t berate us for that, but he warns us that remaining stuck in selfishness and self-absorption, which is the heart of sin, will cripple us.
The move that Jesus implores us to take (implores, for he cannot coerce us) is into a radical honesty and humility, which is the only path towards transformation. This means being led by the Spirit of God to forego and surrender our mechanisms for feeling powerful, even when that’s terrifying for us. The invitation is: trust me, even if you are exposed, you will be clothed.
When we don’t make this turn, it’s because we don’t really trust Him, no matter how much our theology demand that we say “He’s good.” It’s only ruthless trust that allows us to bring ourselves, with our weaknesses, to the table. We think it’s strength and the appearance of competence that would qualify us, when in reality, it’s simply our willingness to be honest about our weakness. Honesty and humility is the choice that love always makes, which is what makes intimacy and union possible. Grace, in a tangible sense, is a gift which enables us to live without pretense or posturing, which is the only way to live in freedom. And humility is the cardinal virtue of a disciple, because it is the only thing which allows us to fall into grace.
If you were going to fast or forego one of your favorite ways of looking or feeling powerful, what would it be? (Gossiping, so that you look good? Always having the last word? Buying this or eating that?)
If you were going to practice honesty and humility, what would it look like, in practical terms, in your life?