The Christian and Power

Christians are often, understandably, nervous about power. You know the idea, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I think there is certainly wisdom in this notion. But at its most basic level, power is “being able to do what you want.”  It is no different from strength, except that it is not associated merely with the physical body.

Anyway, I do not think that power is bad. I think that, sought for its own sake, it is an idol. But that is true of food, sex, spiritual disciplines, romance, justice, and essentially everything but God or “the good.”

But, power is one good, and as such has its place in the Christian moral landscape. I’ve reflected on this section of Proverbs before, but there’s more to say about it. Go ahead and read this twice:

Pro 24:1-12 ESV Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them, (2) for their hearts devise violence, and their lips talk of trouble. (3) By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; (4) by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. (5) A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, (6) for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory. (7) Wisdom is too high for a fool; in the gate he does not open his mouth. (8) Whoever plans to do evil will be called a schemer. (9) The devising of folly is sin, and the scoffer is an abomination to mankind. (10) If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. (11) Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. (12) If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?

Now, there are different kinds of power/strength. But nevertheless this chunk of Proverbs says at the very least to get:

  1. wisdom
  2. knowledge
  3. might/strength
  4. wise counsel

But, if we see it as a praise/blame speech about two kinds of people, the passage is praising:

  1. Those with wisdom
  2. Those with knowledge
  3. Those with strength
  4. Those who increase their might
  5. Those who use wise counsel to overcome obstacles
  6. Those who do not give up in hard times
  7. Those who protect the weak

The passage is shaming:

  1. The wicked
  2. Those who envy the wicked
  3. Those who do not increase their strength, wisdom, knowledge
  4. Those who plan evil instead of good
  5. Those who pretend not to see the plight of the weak

I propose that if you have power and use it wisely and justly, you do not have to envy the wicked and you can wage your various wars*, survive adversity, and assist/protect the weak. There are, of course several dimensions of power that an individual can have discussed throughout Proverbs (they are also observable to the keen eye in life):**

  1. Financial – earnings, savings, and generosity
  2. Physical – heath of body
  3. Vocational skill – the ability to do something well
  4. Personal – ones persuasiveness and charisma
  5. Cognitive – ones problem solving ability (this can be academic, practical, or both)
  6. Emotional – this is related to the previous two, but your ability to manage your feelings is crucial
  7. Spiritual/moral – ones habitual reliance on God and ability to say no to sin (see Hebrews 12 especially), it encompasses all of the others because a spiritually strong person can manage poverty or wealth well, can deal with a strong or weak body, and so-on.

The biblical authors only disparage human strength when it is arrayed against the purposes of God. The Bible assumes that humanity, operating under God, will develop strength. It would seem that taking dominion over nature necessarily would require persistent growth in power (in all its dimensions).

I would guess that the error on the stuffy suit and tie side is that Christians think of power as a good apart from spiritual and moral power. On the weird hair and wrinkled clothes side, the idea is that power is inherently negative. These errors both stem from a lack of engagement with scripture.

Anyway, I suppose that the reason I wrote this is that many Christians, who misunderstand passages about Jesus telling us to be the servant of all (Mark 10:35-45) or Paul saying that when he is weak, he is strong (2 Corinthians 12) are unjustifiably afraid of power. This unjustifiable fear has led many Christians to think that boasting in weakness means refusing to gain skill, refusing to use spiritual disciplines, and literally claiming things like, “I am thankful, that I am incapable of doing any good on my own.” In reality, Paul is thankful that Christ delivers him from death and he even claims that he worked harder than the other apostles (1 Cor 15:10). So, glorying in weakness is categorically not the same as refusing to work.

But the point is to encourage Christians to actually seek power and strength (see above to recall what that means). That sounds so weird to say, but again, Jesus says, “Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Making plans to grow in goodness under God’s guidance makes a lot more sense than simply not planning. The human heart is desperately sick with evil, I suspect that refusing to plan to grow in moral and spiritual strength is literally no different than planning to do evil.

The big questions are these:

  1. What are you doing to grow in power?
  2. Is it working?
  3. Above all, are you growing in spiritual and moral power?

*The text may refer to literal wars if Proverbs was written for kings, but it also means all life struggles since the book is clearly meant for sagely reflection and teaching and waging war is connected to fainting in adversity.

**I intentionally left political power out.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness | Shallow Thoughts

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