(Ezekiel 36:26; John 1:12; 2 Timothy 1:17; Colossians 1:11)
It's like sniffing cocaine, I am told. The taste of power is exhilarating, so exhilarating, in fact, that the power-taster craves more, then more and ever more. A friend who is connected to the powerful in Ottawa tells me that power seduces and addicts more strongly than money. Power-hungry people will give up money, give up a great deal of money, for even a little more power.
All of us have run afoul of someone on a power-trip. We know now what to expect from any power-tripper: arrogance, a need for adulation, contempt for proper procedure, distorted outlook, even childish dreams of omnipotence and invincibility, and of course a craving for even greater power.
When we run afoul of the power-tripper we recognize immediately that his self-interest is swollen hugely; he coerces whenever he can and manipulates whenever he can't; he is never to be trusted since his only interest is his self-interest.
In the ancient world power was connected to magic. Ancient people believed that the universe was riddled with many different forces or powers, and magic was the means of harnessing, co-opting, exploiting the different forces.
We moderns do not believe in magic in this sense. Nevertheless we do know that there are different concentrations and configurations of power running through industry, the media, politics, volunteer organizations, sport, education, government. Some people are especially eager to exploit these, or especially adept at it, and thereby advance themselves to a position of prominence and power. The person who co-opts whatever power currents he can shares much with the ancient person who pursued magic: ancient and modern alike are consumed with self-promotion and self-enlargement.
Power, remember is like cocaine. Co-opting power is like sniffing cocaine. Both are addictive, and both are lethal.
I: -- A minute ago I said that ancient people tried to tap into magic. Ancient Israelite people, however, were forbidden to do so. They knew that power for the sake of power is demonic. Instead of exploiting whatever power currents there might be they were to trust God.
Israelite people knew that God is powerful. After all, he fashioned the cosmos out of nothing and sustains it moment-by-moment unaided. And yet it isn't the creative power of God which is at the forefront of Israelite consciousness; it is God's redemptive power, his saving power. God's creative power was a display of stupendous force; but God's redemptive power is a manifestation of patience, mercy, self-renouncing pardon. God's redemptive power is a self-giving which will absorb any hurt and withstand any humiliation. Israel knew this throughout its entire history, and came to know it most pointedly in Israel's greater Son. For it is in the cross supremely that we meet redemptive power.
A question shouts itself at this point: if redemptive power is a self-giving that will absorb any hurt and withstand any humiliation, can it properly be said to be power? Isn't self-giving, even giving oneself up to death, closer to powerlessness? Is it proper to speak of it as power, or are we simply misusing language? Would it not be more accurate to speak of such self-giving as "earnest appeal" or "attempted persuasion"? "Power", after all, means that something is accomplished. What does hurt-absorbing self-giving accomplish? Another question, related to the foregoing is put to me over and over: "What is meant by the expression God Almighty or The Almighty?" And unvaryingly I say the same thing: "Be very careful about using the expression at all." Yes, we all grew up hearing and using the expression. We all grew up assuming "The Almighty" was another way of saying "God", an accurate way of saying "God" (without appearing sentimentally pietistic.) Scripture, however, scarcely uses the expression at all. Despite the fact that older church folk especially assume it is the most common or most typical description of God in the bible, as a matter of fact it is used only two or three times. Therefore we should be cautious about using the expression ourselves. The expression, "The Almighty", makes God out to be the giant strongman, mightier than the world's champion weightlifter, able to do so many "almightynesses" that they couldn't be listed in the Guinness Book of Records. But such a notion identifies God with sheer power, and sheer power, remember, power for the sake of power, is what scripture means by the devil!
If we are going to speak of the power or might of God we must be clear as to what we mean by power. Power is the capacity to achieve purpose. Then what is God's purpose, and how does he achieve it? His purpose is to recover for himself a people who love him, obey him, trust him, serve him. His purpose is to salvage from the sea of human self-wreckage a people who live for the praise of his glory. His purpose is to deliver from the bondage and misery and degradation of human depravity (sin) a people who mirror his image, that image in which they were created and which they have marred through spiritual perversity. His purpose is to woo and win a people who know their greatest good to be, just be, his sons and daughters. God's power is God's capacity to achieve this purpose. How does God do it? By giving himself up for our sakes, over and over, throughout centuries of humiliating self-renunciation and then supremely in the cross. If we are going to keep the vocabulary of "almighty", meaning omnipotence, meaning all-powerful, meaning there is no limit to God's power, then we must always understand all of this in the light of cross and resurrection. The cross means there is no limit to God's self-giving; the resurrection means there is no limit to the effectiveness of God's self-giving. To say that God is almighty, all-powerful, is to say there is no limit, no final frustration, to God's achieving his purpose. And this is so. In other words, God is going to have a people (whether it consists of many or few) whom he has delivered and recovered, a people in whom his image is restored, a people who love him, obey him and live for the praise of his glory.
This has been a rather long answer to the question, "What is meant by the expression, God Almighty?" Still, the answer is crucial, for the notion that God is sheer power would make him no different from the devil.
II: -- Plainly the single most critical instance of God's power -- the achieving of his purpose -- is to render creatures of God children of God. In the prologue to his written gospel John says, "To all who received Jesus, who believed in his name [nature], he gave power to become children of God". To all who seize him in faith our Lord gives power to become children of God. I frequently hear it said that all human beings should be treated with respect because all human beings are children of God. I certainly agree that all human beings should be treated with respect; God himself, after all, treats us all with respect. I disagree, however, with the assertion that everyone is a child of God. Everyone is a creature of God in virtue of being alive; we are made children of God, however, as by faith we seize the crucified one himself.
John Wesley was thirty-five years old, had been a clergyman for thirteen years, and had agonized over his miserable, year-long missionary stint in Georgia when he finally admitted he had nothing to offer anyone. For over a decade he had recited liturgies, assented to doctrines and conformed to ecclesiastical pronouncements. And then on that never-to-be-forgotten evening of 24th May, 1738, the proud cleric saw that he had been trying to gain God's favour, had been trying to earn divine compensation, had been trying to out-moralize the most rigorous moralists. As the preface to Luther's commentary on Romans was read by a Christian of simple faith whose name we shall never know Wesley understood that God had visited him not with a deal to be struck nor with a program to be followed nor with a moralism to be pursued; God in Christ had visited him in mercy with a forgiveness which blotted out his past and drew him into a throbbing relationship. For the first time in his uptight, squeaky-clean life he understood what the prophet Ezekiel had meant when Ezekiel had heard God declare, "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; I will take out...the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh". The difference between the heart of stone and the heart of flesh is that the latter beats; someone is alive. Wesley wrote in his journal, "Heretofore I had only the faith of a servant [ie, no faith at all]; now, the faith of a son." To those who receive him our Lord will always give power to become children of God.
"Evangelism" is a word that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many. Everyone here knows why. Nonetheless, I am convinced we need to reclaim the word. "Evangel" is simply Greek for "good news"; evangelism is a good news broadcast. Who can be opposed to announcing good news? For a long time I thought that the church-catholic could recover the substance of evangelism while finding a different word, a word with a better press. What I discovered was that what was put forward as evangelism-under-a-different-name wasn't evangelism at all. It was congregational growth, financial appeals, denominational flag-waving; but the substance of evangelism -- namely, a declaration that the power of God renders creatures of God by birth children of God by new birth -- this was not heard. I believe now that the substance of evangelism will be recovered only as the word is reclaimed. Evangelism, then, is the church's persuasive persistence that the power of God can replace the heart of stone with the heart of flesh; that those who are dead before God can be made alive unto him; that those who are now spectators or even detractors can be made disciples who know the master as surely as they know their best friend.
I am always moved at a simple line of one of Charles Wesley's hymns: "O let me commend my Saviour to you". Charles Wesley isn't speaking from the position of a physician who recommends -- must recommend -- a medical procedure she has never had herself. No physician is expected to have undergone a procedure before she recommends it. (To think anything else is ridiculous.) But the exact opposite is the case the concerning the gospel. Here, the only authentic recommendation there can ever be is that of the believer who has already "tasted and seen that the Lord is good". "O let me commend my Saviour to you" means "The one of whom I speak has confirmed himself to me as Truth; I have proved his promises and I rejoice in his unfailing love for me and his ironfast hold on me".
Whenever people speak to me of a career in the church I wince. Of course there can be a career in the institution of the church, just as there can be a career in any institution -- if that's the game they want to play. But there is no making a career of our Lord. There is only a transparent, unself-conscious commendation of the one who is dearer to us than life. "O let me commend my Saviour to you."
Power is the capacity to achieve purpose. God's purpose is achieved as he whose self-giving is both limitless and limitlessly effective brings to faith yet another man or woman who is now added to the household and family of God.
III: -- What happens henceforth to the person whom God's power has rendered a child of God? Paul reminds Timothy that God has given every child of God a "spirit of power and love and self-control". He means a power for love and self-control.
Tell me: what kind of person do you admire? Whom do you admire most? For years I admired those who were extraordinarily accomplished, extraordinarily talented. Guy LaFleur racing down the ice, his lion-like mane standing out behind him, unleashing a shot that the goaltender couldn't see. Artur Rubinstein, at one time my favourite pianist, matter-of-factly telling a reporter that right now, at this moment, he could play twenty different two-hour concerts without a sheet of music in front of him. Paul Ardes, the world's leading mathematician, sorting out theorems in a few minutes that had left world-class mathematicians baffled for years. And then one day I watched an intellectually challenged youngster struggle for hours to grasp something that the person of normal intelligence grasps in seconds. Suddenly I realized that there was nothing heroic at all about my so-called heroes. LaFleur and Rubinstein and Ardes were simply exercising that talent with which they were born. Their talent had nothing at all to do with character. What they did, and received adulation for doing, was no more difficult for them than walking across the street is for the rest of us.
I asked myself all over: whom do I admire? and why? Admiral Nelson? (According to some he's the greatest Englishman ever.) Nelson's naval genius was simply the exercising of the talent with which he was born. Then what about his character? Nelson was an unqualified supporter of the slave trade. When William Wilberforce, battling against immeasurable odds, endeavoured to have the slave trade abolished, Nelson raged, "As long as I can speak and fight I shall resist the damnable doctrines of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies". Nelson's vehement opposition to the man who spent his life relieving the torment of black people tells me as much as I need to know. You might be interested in knowing that in addition to his wife Nelson managed to support Lady Jane Hamilton, his long-term mistress. Betrayal, infidelity, adultery -- they are no less reprehensible for being committed by someone nationally prominent. Supporting the slave trade is as little an instance of love as philandering is of self-control.
The child of God is promised power for both love and self-control. Love is the integrity of life-facing-out; self-control is the integrity of life-facing-in. Power is needed for both. As our love engages a harsh world we shall find ourselves souring; as our self-control meets with unrelenting temptation we shall find ourselves capitulating. Power is needed if love is to thrive and self-control strengthen. Every child of God, rendered such by the power of God, is promised as well power for love (as we confront turbulence "out there") and power for self-control (as we discover treachery "in here").
IV: -- Lastly, the apostle Paul knows that God supplies his people with "power...for all endurance and patience with joy". It is the hidden power of God that infuses his people with joy; and joy alone keeps patience patient and endurance enduring. You see, of themselves patience and endurance will tarnish, then corrode, and finally crumble. Of itself patience grows weary as it is tried day after day; patience-grown-weary becomes frustrated and slides into indifference; the last stop is apathy. Apathy may look like patience, but in fact apathy is patience whose nerve has gone dead. Of itself endurance grows weary as it is tried day after day; endurance-grown-weary becomes grim and then resentful. The last stop is bitterness. It is only as God-empowered joy infuses us that we can keep on keeping on and not slump down into apathy and bitterness.
When we are young we tend to think that human problems admit of quick fixes. Gradually we learn that very few human problems are set right overnight. To think that they can be, of course, is to want magic. When I am tempted by magic or frustrated because I can't have magic I recall any one of those I admire, someone who models that discipleship I should be most grateful to exemplify myself. One such, for me, is the fellow I mentioned a minute ago, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce worked twenty years before he saw the slave-trade abolished; he worked forty-six years before he saw the practice of slavery eliminated in the British Empire. Forty-six! And in it all he never gave up, never gave in, never gave out venomous contempt for opponents and detractors. His endurance never became grim nor his patience apathy.
Kingdom-work of any sort is going to test our patience and our endurance in two months. We shall survive the trial, even glory in it, only as we are possessed of that joy which the power of God alone can supply.
Power, remember, is the capacity to achieve purpose. It is God's purpose for us that we continue to shine as lights in a dark world, continue to be salt in a decadent world, continue to be the aroma of Christ (says Paul) in a world whose rot simply stinks, continue to be God's letter (Paul again) to a world which needs a word from the heart of God himself. This is God's purpose. His power is simply his guarantee that our joy-infused patience and endurance will continue as his purpose is achieved.
All of this, of course, has nothing to do with arrogance, manipulation, contempt for proper procedure, cravings for adulation, out-and-out coercion, as well as an addiction to even more power. All of this has instead to do with becoming a child of God,; it has to do with our outward and inward integrity as a child of God; it has to do with our usefulness as a child of God.
Power is the capacity to achieve purpose. God's purpose is a people who reflect his glory. His power will see to it that such a people lives now, and will live before him for ever and ever.
Victor Shepherd February 1998
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