Power and love

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The most amazing displays of God’s power have come through ostensibly weak vessels. Think of Mother Theresa. Think of Gandhi. Think of St. Francis of Assisi. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. By the world’s standards, none of these people started from a place of power. Their power lay in their yieldedness to God. Precisely because they were not in it for themselves but instead were moved by a higher calling did they possess such power.

Love, the most powerful force in the Universe, was the secret to their success. Without love, displays of power are ineffective at best and evil at worst.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
—1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Without love, power is envious, boastful, and proud (v. 4). It dishonors others, it is self-seeking, it is easily angered, it keeps a record of wrongs. (v. 5) It delights in evil and does not rejoice with the truth. (v. 6) In contrast, “Love is patient, love is kind…It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (vv. 4, 7-8)

Love never fails. Here’s the paradox. When you have forsaken the hunger for power and given your life to love, you become truly powerful. To varying degrees, each of the people I mentioned above had significant political influence. They most effectively subverted the powers that be by undermining the fruits of those powers: poverty, captivity, sickness (including idolatry, or spiritual blindness), and oppression. Except perhaps for idolatry, we tend to think of these as “social” problems rather than “spiritual” problems. How you address them depends on your particular political persuasion. But by forgetting or denying the spiritual forces of darkness that animate and give rise to these social ills (see Ephesians 6:12), we deceive ourselves. We think it’s a matter of “us” winning a battle against “them”—that those people are the problem. It is only natural then that we demonize our opponents and launch into full frontal attacks. Yet this was not the way of the people I mentioned. They chose the way of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

You might think this absolves you from responsibility to engage politically. Not so fast. Yes, put the horse (love) before the cart (politics), but don’t presume you can then ride off, leaving the cart in the dust. If your love is truly love, it will have power. It will subvert the “powers that be.”

I’d prefer this were not the case. When pressed, I’ve been apt to describe myself as “apolitical.” And such a pleasant fantasy it is! As a white, male, affluent American, I have not known poverty, captivity, or oppression. Yet as a member of humanity, I am responsible for these injustices. They are my problem. That my heart doesn’t break for my own brothers and sisters reveals just how little love I’m letting through. God help me. I have been believing a lie.

We need look no further than the words of Jesus, who quoted the prophet Isaiah to describe why he had come:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
—Luke 4:18-19

That about covers it, doesn’t it! Poverty, captivity, blindness, and oppression.

“Power corrupts.” We would do well to revise this adage. Power without love corrupts. Power is not evil. Indeed, if love is the ultimate power (and it is), then power is a good thing! If you have been oriented around love, it’s time to own your power. If you have been oriented around power, it’s time to own your love. It’s time to recognize the following truth and that every other formulation is a lie: Love is Power, and Power is Love.