Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Thinking About Power

Somewhere between 6:00 and 6:30 am on Monday mornings, I am lifting weights at a nearby gym. I am engaged in a weekly routine that is a mix of weight training, tennis, swimming, and cycling. At this stage of life, it is everything just to stay ahead of the curve and work against the inevitable decline of bone density and muscle mass. But I must admit it is more. Behind the disciplines I am thinking about how to gain more power than I have. I am thinking about the velocity of that next serve, the strength to reach, and the endurance to go the distance of a match (and a lot of other things).

When I stop to think about it, much of life is focused on power. Will my preaching have a certain authority? Will my arguments have weight to them? Will this blog have a formidable impact?

I suspect you think about power as well, asking questions like–Am I in command of this situation? Is there potency in my presentation? Are my investments performing at an optimal level? Will I have the willpower to say no to certain distractions? Are my prayers filled with might? Do my threats to my detractors have teeth?

And yet, at the same time, we have a certain suspicion regarding power. And rightfully so; too often power is used to abuse. I see this in the numerous prayer requests that come in each week from people who have been battered or neglected. Most of us are familiar with Lord Acton’s words: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see evidence of this most nights on the news. People get a taste of power, and rights are dismissed, life is compromised, or values are shelved for accommodation. This is evident in so much of the Mideast I travel to. But one does not have to go abroad to witness autocratic power. We need not look beyond our own evangelical circles, where in their quest to align with power (e.g. political parties, corporate ladders), believers have too often abused their role and lost their prophetic voice.

Power seems to be a popular subject at present. Walter Brueggemann’s latest book, Truth Speaks to Power, traces the historical confrontation between God’s revelation and world empires. God’s servant Moses, in all of his weakness, stands before the raw, ambitious power of Pharaoh and his empire. When Moses proclaims God’s truth, Pharaoh’s power is effectively checked. Power must acknowledge truth.  One can trace this from Moses to Daniel to Jesus to Paul.

Like Moses, Jesus stands before Pilate, the Roman governor, representative of the lone super power of his day. Like most empire representatives, Pilate wants Jesus to know that he has the authority to release or crucify. As Brueggemann puts it, “Power, whenever and wherever it can, will present itself as a totalizing system, the wishful thinking of every empire, every regime, and every orthodoxy.”  But the Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzars and Caesars are not prepared to deal with truth. And maybe this is true of most world leaders today. When power is confronted with truth, it turns out that power is put on the stand. In the interface between Jesus and Pilate, it is really Pilate who is in the dock. And every Christian needs to know this when one’s faith is challenged. Our primary mission is to bear witness to truth, and when we do, faithfully and compassionately, we have overcome (John 16:33).

Alongside Brueggemann’s book also belongs Andy Crouch’s newest book, Playing God. His subtitle is “Redeeming the Gift of Power,” making the point that while power has a negative side, it can also be, in fact should be, for flourishing. This is how God intended it from the beginning. God used power so that all things could be (Gen 1-2). He restrained the waters by His power so that they might fulfill His will. And He has entrusted His power to us as His image bearers so that we might exercise it for His glory. Isn’t this what Pentecost is about? Isn’t this behind Jesus’ words in the upper room—“Greater things will you do”?

What we must do daily is awaken to seek for a fresh infusion of divine might. And why not? Who wants to be lame, powerless, helpless, feeble, or toothless in these days? The issue is how we steward what power God gives us. Will I use God’s power to serve or use power to get my way? Will I take advantage of the spiritual power present to listen rather than do what takes no power–speak my mind? Will I call upon the force of God to speak words that are timely and compassionate, or do what is effortless—speak words that are thoughtless, severe and caustic? Will the church dominate culture by seeking to grab the levers of power and control, or will it influence the world with the far greater power of grace and humility?

Power, rightfully used, just might be the best thing about us. Power, the kind that is corrupt,  may be the worst things about us. Power is a gift worth seeking, but should God grant us this gift, we need to properly steward it. This is Crouch’s helpful point. And this, I hope, will have some application to what happens tomorrow in the gym.

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