Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold rampage Columbine High School, cataclysm in their wake.
In Laramie, Wyoming, Mathew Shepard, a gay man, is beaten to death.
Hijackers fly airplanes into twin towers, a murderous act of terror.
Love or power, that is always the choice. Human beings always choose one or the other, and if we cannot believe in the reality of love--for us, specifically--we will choose some means of feeling powerful.
I was raised in a home that was often unsorted and dirty, and I felt ashamed. I was embarrassed to bring friends home, afraid of what they would conclude--that there was something wrong with me or my family, perhaps. My solution was to retreat into my room, where I could have control over my surroundings. There I made sure everything was clean and in order. Eventually, I became obsessed, to the point of OCD, with maintaining control over my environment.
This is a consistent pattern: whenever one of our natural longings (like the longing for acceptance from friends) is frustrated, we scramble for some way to feel powerful to counter-act our vulnerability, frustration, or fear. If we can feel powerful or if we can seem powerful to others, we think we'll be safe. No wonder Jesus talked so much about the temptations of money and reputation. Each one can provide us with a sense of power, even if the power is false or unlasting!
It’s said that Adolf Hitler had a micropenis. I doubt that’s verifiable (though God bless the historian who cracks the case), but it would make sense that the personification of evil in the twentieth century chose genocidal power to compensate for an intense feeling of vulnerability. That’s how history works, on global and individual scales. Such simple dynamics are the only thing that make history—the story of human behavior and why we do what we do--make sense. History, including each of the headlines listed above and the stories of our own lives, is ultimately the story of human beings in the struggle of saying “yes” to either love or power. It’s always some simple impulse driving us, and everything ultimately comes back to our desire for love or our fear of never having it. You don’t have to be Freud to see and believe that.
Some lives and the lives of nations, sadly, are consumed by the need to counter-act the feeling of being out-of-control. By the alcoholic who desperately needs to get control of an internal pain. By the religious zealot who’s hiding an intense sense of shame. By Nazis who have to convince themselves that they’re better than other races in order to feel safe. The “principalities and powers” mentioned in the Bible are surely reflected in the human propensity to choose power over love.
What is revealed in Jesus is the God of Love who has the power to cast out all fear and to release us from the need to feel or seem powerful. When you know you are loved and adopted, there’s little impulse left to try to feel powerful through some other means. It just ceases to make sense. Thus, the abundant life is a life committed to choosing love and saying “yes” to our adoption and rejecting short-sided ways of getting control, even when it’s challenging or painful to do so. This certainly recasts the idea of “obedience” as Jesus describes in John 15 from some sort of religious of legalistic “have to” into a clear “get to.” Obedience as Jesus means it is simply doing what Loves says to do and forsaking short-term ways of feeling powerful. In so doing, we claim our identity. This is not an easy walk, but it’s the only journey into abundance and joy.
We shouldn’t be surprised then that Jesus, though he’s the master of both-and thinking, often makes binary distinctions—between light and darkness, spirit and flesh, love and power—in order to help us see clearly. We need to label the behaviors (the "what") that get us stuck, but more importantly, we need to label the “why” behind them. It’s not enough to label the branches or the fruit; we need to label roots. Doing so catalyzes transformation because it creates space for Jesus to touch the real issue, which is way more effective than behavior modification alone. It’s one thing to tell someone “stop watching porn,” quite another to help them discover why pornography is so alluring or what deep fear is driving them to numb out. This does not mean understanding our motives completely (no one can do that) nor gazing endlessly at our navels (which stops transformation in its tracks), but rather developing a sober and healthy understanding of the “why” behind what we choose. This understanding is born from listening to the Spirit of Jesus within us, which is why unhurriedness and space for contemplation and listening are essential spiritual practices. Apart from them, there’s no space for encounter and thus, no place for transformation.
A pastor friend of mine told me that whenever someone came to him to confess something they’d done that they regretted or were ashamed of, he’d always look for the loneliness or sorrow beneath their behavior. I’ve learned to do the same, with myself and with others. When I do something that violates my conscience, I ask, “What was going on?” What internal anxiety was I trying to numb out or get power over? Then I can surrender not just the behavior, but the longing beneath it. Again, Jesus is not just interested in pruning branches but in touching roots.
This practice of labeling the things that drives us—which is connected to the labeling we do in confession and repentance, discussed in earlier blogs—can change everything. As we practice it(which takes discipline and commitment), we begin to get a vision for what it means to say "yes" to love.
Invariably, what calls someone out of addiction or any other destructive behavior is not just saying “no” (though saying “no” is important, too). What ultimately transforms is saying “yes” to something that’s bigger than the behavior. A vision that weighs more than just feeling or seeming powerful. And ultimately, Jesus is calling us to reject the violence we do to ourselves and to others when we try to be powerful on our own terms, so that we can discover that the love of God is truly enough to make us feel safe. Jesus describes this process as “losing our lives, so that we can find it.”
May we have the courage to lose, that we may find. May we have the courage to say “yes” to love.
Jesus, where in my life am I choosing power and control over trust and love?
What does it look like, in the context of my life, to choose love this day?