Christian Living

Power and pride

In recent years I have become downwardly mobile, that is to say I used to be able to do more than what I can do now. Two words: small children. I mean I used to be able to go to the shops and even to the bathroom whenever I felt like it. Now there are very strong boundaries dictating what I can and can’t do!

On the other hand, I have also become upwardly mobile. The small children I mentioned are at my mercy: I can dictate pretty much every aspect of their life and there’s basically nothing they can do about it.

It is both humbling and a strong temptation to pride.

You see the more power I have, the less there is to remind me of my true place in the universe; and the more prideful I become, the more I seek power for its own sake – it is too much fun to boss people around!

In my last article I compared pride to driving with a blocked windshield because instead of seeing the world around you as it really is, your vision is focused on yourself. We all know what it’s like to share the road with a prideful, self-centred driver.

But sooner or later, even the most prideful driver will come to an intersection or will have to negotiate a semitrailer and they will have to choose between pride and staying alive! Most of us will choose to stop at a red light. But what if we had the magical ability to make everyone get out of our way, including semitrailers, and to run red lights with no consequences whatsoever?

Then there would be a lot less keeping our pride in check and it could escalate well out of hand.

This is why emergency service drivers need extra training so that they can remember what their power is actually for, and use it responsibly so that it doesn’t feed into a power-pride cycle where power enables pride to escalate well out of hand. (Pray for them whenever you hear those sirens by the way – they all have pretty tough jobs!)

It is also why God often takes his people’s power away when pride threatens to ruin them. It happens throughout the Bible, but consider the example of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon who, despite being warned, looked out onto his gardens and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30, ESV)

God dealt with this expression of flagrant pride quite firmly: he made  Nebuchadnezzar downwardly mobile – right down to the level of a beast in fact, so that he couldn’t even talk, much less force people to obey his voice. It took being totally stripped of power to weed out the pride in Nebuchadnezzar’s heart, so that he would finally acknowledge the King of Heaven.

But does power cause pride? Is power evil?

Let’s consider another king in another garden so many years later: In Gethsemane, the most powerful man in the world knelt and wept, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”

While Jesus often avoided the limelight and the praise of the crowds, Jesus certainly didn’t shun power. In fact he often used his power: to calm the storm, to send away demons, to rebuke religious leaders, defending the poor and the repentant.

Even at his arrest he seemed very much in charge. But rather than accepting worldly worship from his captors (John 18:6), he insisted they arrest him, strip him of all power, and enthrone him on a cross.

This is because Jesus acted out of love for his Father and the love that the Father and the Son share for their people. Jesus’ windshield was not full of himself, but full of us.

In Jesus we see humanity as we ought to be; God’s intention for us isn’t to lack power, but to make power a servant of love rather than a servant of pride.

This explains the apostles’ approach and attitude to power.[1] The same men who could speak in tongues and raise the dead also chose to hang out with normal people and even risk their reputations by investing in the ‘wrong’ kind of people.

Sometimes the apostles did incredible things and sometimes the apostles did ordinary things. It didn’t seem to matter so long as these things were in service of the gospel: in service of Jesus their Lord and his people, for his sake. We redeem power when we hamstring pride.

All sorts of power dynamics exist. They are not necessarily evil. I, for example, can cook much better than my three-year old! It is good for me to use my considerable power to insist he eat vegetables, not just ice cream. But it is also good for him to need constant care and feeding, severely limiting, even upending, my agenda for the day, to remind me that my power is to serve him, and not always on my terms. The way to stop power feeding pride is to use power to love.

[1] I am indebted to the insights of Richard J. Foster, ‘Power’, in Money, Sex and Power (London Sydney Auckland Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton).