There are two contending definitions of power. Both sides agree that power is needed to hold people together in social structures for the benefit of those involved. However, what constitutes effective motivations for maintaining a cohesive society depends entirely on what paradigm one embraces from the beginning.
In the spiritual arena, many insist that right living must be supported by a background of threats of punishment if right choices are not made consistently enough. In this external oriented system, good needs to be rewarded while punishment is always waiting to be inflicted for non-compliance with the rules. What is less noticed but is fundamental for this system to be successful is that the incentive for avoiding punishment is to avoid pain and appeal to our natural desire for self-protection. Likewise hoped for rewards also appeal to our natural cravings for pleasure or recognition. Yet in truth none of these motivations do anything to develop a genuine sense of caring or promote selfless service for others. We may feel prompted to commit acts of kindness and benevolence for others, but most often if the truth is admitted they are for the purpose of earning rewards or approval so we can feel better about ourselves.
In this system most widely relied on both by the world and within religious structures, power is considered anything that can effectively activate our selfish motivations to nudge us toward good behavior and conformity to social norms. To provide impetus, the ever-present threat of outside powers to inflict pain in punishment is viewed as the kind of power indispensable for maintaining law and order. Social shame is also power we rely on to compel people into social conformity. Thus the systems most commonly used in this world to maintain order and 'peace' are versions of power that tend to violate the freedom of those being manipulated.
Nearly everyone is in agreement that without such artificial measures that chaos would be the sure result. It is argued that without a system of rewards and threats of punishment, law-breakers would take over the world and mayhem and destruction would be unavoidable. Based on this it is concluded than any alternative to the long established reward/punishment system firmly in place is simply not feasible. The only option we are willing to consider is how to tweak our systems to improve the effectiveness of the desired outcome. But to challenge the validity of the underlying presumptions is usually out of the question and not open for closer examination.
What is far less familiar because it is so foreign to the thinking and logic of the counterfeit system, is how God defines true power and how He intends to relate to power. The first thing we must come to confront is that God refuses to agree with us that selfishness is a most basic requirement for keeping social order. God's enemy insists that God's claims about agape love are nothing more than an illusion or wishful thinking, in fact a deception designed to manipulate us into offering God worship that is meant to satisfy His own self interest.
This assertion, that God has some level of self-interest involved in the way He relates to His children lies at the very core of the war of sin we all find ourselves caught up in. It may be so subtle that we don't even believe we think that way. But deception is so subtle that those deceived cannot see how infected they are until the light of truth exposes the hidden motives of the heart, hidden even from those in which it remains. Unless the Spirit of God arouses conviction by exposing us to the real truth about God's heart, it is impossible for anyone to even be aware or to be able to change their thinking. We are so dependent on God for everything that even repentance has to be a gift for us to receive and embrace.
I have recently come to realize that godly power is very different than power as we are accustomed to thinking about it. While it is true that God is the original source of all raw power that exists anywhere, the way in which He relates to that power is the main point of contention at the very heart of the war between Christ and Satan. Satan declares that God leverages His advantage in order to steer circumstances in such a way as to satisfy His own selfish motives. God says that the only effective way for the universe to be cohesive and achieve perfect harmony and peace is for agape love to be the only motive freely embraced by the heart of every willing participant. Any other motives introduce the virus of selfishness that destroys the ability of agape love to maintain perfect social order and happiness.
One of the strong arguments against a kingdom founded only on love and freedom is that God is the absolute sovereign and as such is immune to the things He says we must do. In such thinking, the word sovereign itself takes on the meaning of how humans have practiced sovereignty which of course is saturated with selfish desires and exploitation. By making humans the standard by which we measure God rather than the other way around, we always end up with conclusions that blind us to the real kind of power that God has that is revealed in Jesus.
Sovereignty arguments defending the idea that God must exercise force and use punitive measures to quell the power of evil and selfishness on this earth actually are self-defeating. By claiming that God does not need to be consistent with the principles and guidelines He lays out for the lives of His children leads us to want to find a way to be exceptions ourselves. Because we cannot help but reflect the kind of God we believe in in our heart, believing that God is above law makes us act the same way in our relations with those around us. This is largely why we are seeing such an increase of abuse of authority in our world where police act violently with very little accountability, soldiers wound, rape and kill with little fear of consequences and those in powerful political or military positions find it so appealing to ignore basic rights of those under their control. These all stem from the belief that position brings privilege, meaning that sovereignty is really about exemption from accountability.
What is the model that God uses that is so different from how so many portray Him as an abusive sovereign?
The part of us that is most like God and that is at the very heart of our design is our freedom to choose for ourselves without threat of retaliation. This is the exact opposite of the teachings of those who like to emphasize the sovereignty of God. It is true that God is sovereign ruler of the universe, but how He relates to that position as Creator of all things and having all power and authority makes all the difference in whether we can serve Him from genuine appreciation for our freedom and a growing awareness of His complete goodness, or whether we will have mixed motives of admiration mingled with fear and dread for what He might do to us if we cross His will.
Sovereignty versus Freedom.
The first system emphasizes the model of sovereignty as God's primary attribute.
The second system emphasizes the freedom of will on the part of willing participants as the pivotal element God relies on to achieve a perfect society. He is more interested in preserving our freedom, even if it costs Him His own freedom, than in tampering with the very part of us necessary to respond in love to His invitations to intimacy with Him.
The first system insists that freedoms must at times be sacrificed in order to retain security. Thus desire for security is given priority over the very heart of us needed for living in love.
The second system insists that only in true freedom can true security be realized. This is not like the security attempted by imposition of inhibiting factors that appeal to our desire for self-preservation or pleasure, but a security achieved because everyone comes to understand and appreciate that in perfect freedom agape love exists and thrives.
Coercion not only fails to effectively resolve the problem of evil in the long run, but it actually serves to compound the problem. Coercion ignores freedom and thus destroys the most important aspect of our makeup necessary to live a fulfilled, satisfying existence in harmony with others around us. All of the presumed methods of this world for achieving social order relying on fear and force are doomed to failure because they reject the premise that God designed into us already, that we were made for love.
God's solution to the sin problem will never be through use of compulsion or intimidation but will be achieved through the increasing revelation of the truth about Himself.
God's remedy to heal the disease of distrust in our heart is always by persuasion, never through force.
The contention that God is forced at times resort to the use of compulsion and force to overcome the apparent advantages that sin has over His preferred ways of love and respect for our freedoms, aligns with the original claims of Satan who first offered to improve God's government with just such techniques. It was this very notion that launched the rebellion to begin with, and all who continue to promote the belief that God must do things this way, at least part of the time, in order to achieve victory over the power of evil side with the arguments of Satan against God. Not a good place to be.
The reason so many struggle to see how God could ever win without tapping into at least some of the methods of His enemy is because our own perspective has been so deeply shaped and conditioned by the pervasive practices and presumptions of violence and fear in the world where we live. Not having seen any other way to overcome evil, we find it very hard to imagine that such an approach could have any legitimacy or hope of success. So rather than choosing to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, we choose doubt itself which is the easy way out. But what we do not realize is that in choosing doubt we give permission to the powers of darkness to reinforce within us the very mentality of lies that are so familiar to us that increase our internal resistance to the ways of love which seem so strange to us.
The reason Jesus increasingly found Himself at odds with so many when He walked this earth, to the point that the establishment found it necessary to exterminate Him, was primarily over this very issue. In the beginning of His earthly ministry, the many miracles He performed attracted large crowds of eager believers who were attracted by the sudden revelation of access to supernatural power to defeat sickness, demonic harassment and even death itself.
Their imagination immediately begin to churn with pregnant ideas about how such power could benefit their lives. They became excited at the prospect of a leader with power to multiply food at will for large groups of people without need for access to outside resources or suppliers. Their imagination of what might be accomplished through a leader with power to heal the infirm, strengthen the weak, eliminate disease, restore those wounded in battle and even raise people from the dead knew no bounds. They readily began to scenarios of practical applications for such amazing power, but in ways that fit neatly into their longings for national pride. They had long viewed themselves as God's chosen ones and wondered why God had allowed foreign forces to subjugate them with humiliating oppression. What they longed for most was power, the kind of power that could overwhelm the mighty legions of Rome. They were filled with intense hatred toward their oppressors and longed for a powerful hero who would come with just such access to supernatural power who could deliver them from oppressive force similar to how God had delivered their ancestors.
With the kind of power they saw Jesus using, they easily imagined how wonderful it would be to bravely march into any battle, facing overwhelming odds in any military conflict knowing they had the advantage of a king who could immediately reverse all their casualties into fresh combat soldiers who could fight with even greater strength and enthusiasm. Going to war with an awareness that death at worst would only last a few minutes before they could be raised to continue fighting to victory would be the ultimate weapon. Of course it was assumed that their enemies would be left to suffer and die without remedy so it would require very little time before the Jews could conquer the world militarily and establish their own glorious kingdom they had longed for from generations past. And this kingdom would be one enforced by supernatural defenses of God's favor for His chosen people on earth.
With these ideas spreading like wildfire in dry grass, those wanting to become followers of Jesus quickly multiplied until sometimes it became difficult to even get close to Jesus to receive healing or blessing. We read stories of people so tightly packed around Jesus that the sick could not readily gain access to Him, yet the religious elite seemed to always be close by to carefully monitor His theology and political correctness.
Jesus allowed His popularity to surge for a period of time partly to expand the circle of awareness about His ministry so that the widest audience possible could be alerted to what He came to do. Yet at the same time He was keenly aware that the motives of most who were clamoring to get close to Him and google at the miracles He performed had little interest in the true message He came to deliver from His Father.
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Matthew 16:24-26)
With the mindset of the masses set on accessing the kind of power they lusted for to use for defeating their enemies, such teachings of Jesus conflicted sharply creating reactions of offense. Loving one's enemies does not fit well at all with using violence to maim and kill enemies. Laying down one's life for others does not accommodate beliefs in the necessity of taking lives for defense of God and country. And worst of all, any mention of a cross – the chosen instrument of Roman torture and humiliation as something to willingly choose was extremely reprehensible to any self-respecting Jew. How could they ever conquer and gain the whole world so as to rule over it with might and power as they had been taught to believe was their divine destiny, if they chose instead to believe the bizarre teachings of this humble peasant with such radical ideas? After all, was not life about winning at the expense of others, survival of the strongest? The kind of power Jesus seemed to be outlining simply found no place within the expectations of most people, either outside or inside religion.
Yet it remains that the main reason Jesus came to this earth to begin with, contrary to what most people wanted to believe then as well as now, was not to unlock greater resources of the kind of power we are used to lusting after but rather to reintroduce a kind of power that to us often appears useless and even defeating. It was true that Jesus had power and authority to rebuke demonic entities and loosen their control over their human victims, and He could access power to multiply food and reverse the curse of sickness for those willing to be healed. But the far greater reason Jesus worked physical miracles went much deeper than just to draw attention to Himself as the ultimate messenger from God. Physical miracles are merely outward demonstrations of a more important kind of healing, one more desperately needed in all of our lives, the miracle of a complete overhaul of our internal concepts about God.
Healing blindness, as wonderful as it was for those who had suffered under this condition, was not that effective considering that those healed were still left under the general curse that debilitates the human body and eventually sends it back to the dust. What Jesus sought to emphasize was the need for all of us to be healed of the far more dangerous condition of spiritual blindness. Yet most people are unwilling to admit that they are blind believing that their ideas about God have little need of revision or improvement. This ignorance of our true condition is itself the far greater blindness that prevents us from even wanting or becoming willing to be healed. It causes us to resist and resent any suggestion that maybe our opinions and settled beliefs might be the very thing obstructing light from entering into our souls and transforming our hearts.
Healing the lame could produce a great deal of excitement as others could watch with wonder while someone lame from birth began to dance with joy or run around and leap like a little child. Yet Jesus longed for them to see that such lameness represented a far more serious problem of spiritual atrophy crippling many more than were seen with physical handicaps. The religious elite who appeared healthy on the outside increasingly displayed their disdain and discomfort with the behavior of those who had been healed, but their uneasiness was really because such spontaneous celebrations magnified their own blindness and spiritually crippled condition by contrast. We begin to understand why religious leaders so readily criticized and censured those who had just been given a new lease on life physically rather than joining in the celebration of their new life.
Even raising people from death and restoring them to full health and vigor was not the same as the last resurrection where we receive a completely new body. The body/spirit combination they received was the same as they had previously except fully delivered from disease. Yet it would not be long before decay again began to do its work in their body until it culminated yet again in taking them to the grave. But even in this spectacular displays of divine power unrivaled by anything ever seen by them before, those entrenched in unbelief and resistance to accepting Jesus' version of God only wanted to kill Lazarus shortly after he was raised from the dead because of their mounting jealousy of the popularity of their Nemesis.
How often we experience similar things today. While physical healings are much more rare in our day than when Jesus walked this earth, those who experience dramatic spiritual deliverance and become overjoyed with a sudden awareness of the acceptance of freedom they enjoy in Christ, often find themselves the target of shame messages, censure and criticism on the part of others who suddenly feel threatened by such exposure to spiritual enthusiasm that threatens the status quo. Just like the Jews jealous of Jesus and seeking to suppress His testimony about His Father, long held traditions about what is acceptable in church or what should be considered sacred becomes far more important for us than stooping to celebrate with people filled with a joyful passion for God as they taste newfound freedom from sin.
In reality is is our own selfishness and coldness that is being exposed by such displays of affection for God, and we find it easier to condemn the work of the Spirit in others than to confess that it is we who are in desperate need of repentance and conversion. Rather than seeking to dampen the joy those whom God is rescuing we should see these times of discomfort as calls to repentance in our own hearts.
This penchant toward criticizing others who find joy in discovering the goodness of God is a serious symptom of mental and spiritual illness that if not remedied will prove to be fatal for us. Not only is this condition a threat to the health of those infected with it but it also poses a threat to many others. It is like a contagious virus that can infect many with the poison of bitterness and unbelief, and that is exactly what the enemy wants us to do. So long as we feel pious and in little need of change or repentance, we will be immune for taking seriously the urgent warnings of God to our own souls, believing that they only apply to others with more obvious sins that we view as more offensive.
This spiritual blindness is a terminal condition that is most deadly for those who have the greatest confidence that they are spiritually mature and ready to instruct others about the right way to live. When a person is so confident that they have all the truth and have little need of any further light, when they are unwilling to have their fundamental beliefs about reality, religion or salvation seriously challenged, they are in a far worse condition of spiritual sickness and helplessness than the open sinner. Jesus had far more success in attracting true followers to repentance from the openly sinning crowds than He had winning disciples from among those who appeared most serious about religion.
Today this is commonly referred to as a Laodicean condition. The same Jesus that healed people while on earth delivered an urgent warning through John to all who are comfortable in their practice of religion believing they have the truth and their job is only to compel others to believe as they do.
For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:17)
This is the diabolical nature of deception. A person deceived almost never senses their danger unless something can break through the walls of resistance to inform them of their blindness and need for true sight. Being blind is tragic enough as it is, but to be blind and have no desire to know better is far more tragic. Yet millions are in this condition which is largely caused by system of religion leading them to rest their destiny on false foundations rather than the one foundation of truth about God, Jesus Christ.
Throughout the entire time that the war between Satan and God's government has been raging, this issue of what constitutes effective power remains in place. Our fallen nature craves the kind of power that protects us, elevates us at the expense of others, fuels our pride and enables us to exploit others for our benefit. And while some of these abuses of power are obvious, many are still so subtle that they can easily remain hidden behind what appears to be a life full of goodness. This is the problem we inherited from the Tree of Good and Evil. We assume that all goodness is equal. But this is far from true. The good found in that system may appear virtuous and approved by God while in reality it ends in death just as the evil does from that same tree. Just because something appears good does not mean it is godly. True goodness can only be found in the God who is agape love, something very different than how we are used to measuring goodness.
This difference may be most readily exposed in how we think about power. So long as we remain stuck in believing that power is something to exploit or to leverage to advance ourselves, we are infected with motives of selfishness and are still not turning away from the tree that ends in death. We must embrace fully the truth about God as revealed by Jesus and choose to believe that His version of power, a power of self-control in self-sacrificing love for others is the only true power able to hold the universe together for eternity. And this kind of power must be embraced now if we ever hope to participate in the joy of the future life in God's presence.
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. (1 Samuel 2:9)
He said to me, "This is the word of the LORD...: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts." (Zechariah 4:6)
This spirit is the very spirit brought into clear view by the Son of God come into humanity. It is the spirit of humility and loving service. It is the spirit of unconditional love and forgiveness. It is the spirit that holds together all the society of heaven and is the real power of God's government. It is this gentle spirit of kindness that draws us to repent of our lust for exploitive power and allow the Spirit of God to rewire our thinking to prepare us to enjoy the society of heaven instead of being incriminated by it.
This is true power.