4 Portraits of Power from a Magazine Rack Near You
November 1, 2016
Humans crave power. The Christian acknowledges that all power belongs to God—that he is omnipotent, infinitely powerful, delegating power as he chooses. This means that, practically, any power we possess should be used to bring glory to its Source. But ever since the Fall, each of us is a power broker, looking for ways to use and amplify power for our own ends.
Let’s consider four of the most common sources of power we seek, and the implications of using them either to glorify self or to glorify God. To identify these sources, we need look no further than the covers of the magazines in the grocery store checkout line.
Based on their faithful report, our culture grants power to the strong, the beautiful, the wealthy, and the charismatic.
1. Sports Illustrated: Physical Strength as Power
We lavish glory on the physically strong among us. They wear Super Bowl rings, boast Olympic medals, endorse sport drinks. We pay a premium to watch them exhibit their dominance. But we often cross the line into idolatry of physical strength, an idolatry that filters down to the common masses in simpler forms. We see it in the way we glorify fitness, but most tellingly in the way we marginalize those who don’t possess physical strength: the elderly, the disabled, the unborn. We see it in the way domestic violence and violent crime overwhelmingly target women and children. Physical strength that worships self degrades into intimidation and brutality. By contrast, when we employ our physical strength to glorify God instead of self, we protect the weak among us with every bit of energy we can employ.
Women, in particular, hold a unique and important vantage point on physical power. Our biology, crafted by God, dictates that we’re relatively physically weak compared to men. This is especially true when we carry a child. A pregnant woman experiences a biologically imposed period of weakness, and is restored to strength once she delivers her child. Perfect health assumed, women live in the biological middle ground between the strongest among us (men) and the weakest among us (children). We feel compelled to nurture and protect the weak because we understand both the gift and also the responsibility of physical strength in a way we cannot take for granted. But all of us, men and women, regardless of how much we can bench press or how far we can run, are called to love God with all of our physical strength. All believers are charged to pursue the true religion of visiting orphans and widows in their affliction, words of James that paraphrase easily to “looking after the weak and vulnerable” (James 1:27).
2. Glamour: Beauty as Power
Our culture (and doubtless every culture) gives power to the beautiful. There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry dates a beautiful blond woman named Nikki, using her attractiveness to gain preferential treatment wherever he takes her. At one point he intentionally tests the boundaries of what she can get away with, breaking the speed limit and boasting of his top speed to the cop who pulls him over, confident Nikki will get him out of the ticket. She does, of course.
We laugh at this joke because we know it’s true. The beautiful among us live a charmed existence where power isn’t earned or coerced; it’s simply granted. So we’re willing to spend thousands of dollars and hours to achieve or maintain physical attractiveness. The beauty industry feeds us the tantalizing lie that if we fix the outside, we’ll fix the inside. Products and services promise we’ll feel better if we look better, which isn’t entirely untrue. But for the believer, how we feel and how we look don’t rank high on the list of factors that help us serve God and others as we should.
External beauty conveys privilege on the bearer, which is why aging is so hard for the beautiful person—it’s the mandatory relinquishing of power. No matter how much plastic surgery you endure, you will not grace the cover of Vanity Fair at 85. Contrary to what the beauty industry claims, true beauty begins with internal change, not external change. Will we content ourselves with cultivating the kind of beauty that cannot withstand the passage of time? Or will we cultivate the kind that points toward eternal purposes: the unfading beauty of a quiet and gentle spirit. True beauty has staying power. It doesn’t terminate on its owner but points others toward its origin.
True beauty has staying power. It doesn’t terminate on its owner but points others toward its origin.
Our first impression of a person’s physical attractiveness is always tempered by getting to know them. Some grow more beautiful on further acquaintance, but for others, not even flawless bone structure can compensate for the exposure of a flawed character. How hard we labor for external beauty versus internal beauty reveals where our treasure lies. But how we treat others also tells a story. Though culture grants privilege to the physically beautiful, the church is charged to show preferential treatment to everyone in our sphere of influence. We’re called to notice and treasure not just the average, but those whose physical appearance causes others to recoil: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Inner beauty has eyes to see the least among us, and to see them as beautiful when others do not.
3. Forbes: Wealth as Power
The wealthy among us receive our admiration and our envy. Nothing opens up opportunities quite like money. We may not be Donald Trump or Bill Gates, but all of us have some experience of the power money conveys, whether it’s because we have it or because we don’t. Wealth gets better seats at the hockey game, a better table at the restaurant, better nutrition, better health care, better education, and better clothes. Wealth stratifies society. Anyone who has managed to move up the economic ladder can sheepishly identify with the oft-repeated sentiment of writer Beatrice Kauffman, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better.” There’s more truth there than we’d like to admit.
To be poor is to be powerless. We know this intuitively. But in an American-dream culture of “self-made” financial success stories, we can quickly grow to view our personal wealth as our rightful possession, along with the power it grants, to be enjoyed and employed solely by us and for us. Because we’re not Bill Gates, we feel no heavy obligation to share the wealth we have—leave that to the multimillionaires, we have bills to pay. Precisely because wealth confers power, the Bible goes to great lengths to give us a correct understanding of how it’s to be viewed and employed. It contains ample warnings against the greed, arrogance, and self-sufficiency that accompany wealth, as well as ample admonitions to use our wealth to care for the poor among us.
Regardless of how much money we’ve been given to steward, for the Christian, the question must always be, “Do I control the money, or does the money control me?” A believer unable to give liberally to those in need reveals she has lost control of her role to steward the wealth entrusted to her. Those of us who’ve been given more than our daily bread must turn our eyes to those still waiting to receive theirs. We employ the power of our finances to elevate the condition of the financially powerless. We do so joyfully, knowing we have nothing we didn’t receive from our Father in heaven.
A believer unable to give liberally to those in need reveals she has lost control of her role to steward the wealth entrusted to her.
4. People: Charisma as Power
We also grant power to those with charismatic personalities. Gifted with persuasive speech, humor, or the ability to cast a vision, they draw us in with their communication skills. They know how to work a crowd or write a book. They form networks of relationships they use to forward their causes. They may be those who seek political glory or those who seek pulpits. They are CEOs and NFL coaches, screen actors, self-help gurus, talk show hosts, and news anchors. They’ve discovered the tantalizing truth that ideas and words have power both to destroy and also to create. But they don’t just land on magazine covers. In everyday life, they rise to the top of the mommy group, the PTA, the dinner party, or any other group they bless with their presence.
If you have the gift of a magnetic personality, you know how easily you can shift from motivation to manipulation. The charismatic person can love the sound of her own voice so much that she crosses the line from communicating truth to crowd-pleasing or crowd control, placing herself as the sun at the center of a solar system filled with admiring followers. Most of us don’t have the charisma of a presidential candidate or a televangelist, but we all taste the power of personality to some extent. Believers who are extremely likable and proficient with words face the challenge of drawing others to themselves rather than to Christ. The rest of us must guard against following the cult of personality. Wanting to be in the entourage of someone we perceive as influential indicates a desire for collateral power.
But we must do more than be wary of worshiping those with a compelling voice. We must also remember to listen for and give voice to the needs of the voiceless as we’re able. For whom might we speak? How might we mobilize others on their behalf? Use your gift of communication or winsomeness to shed light on their situation or cause. What human rights issue could use your voice or influence? What animal rights or environmental issue could you advocate for as a steward of creation? Our words have the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21). Those who recognize this delegated power will use them in life-giving ways for the voiceless.
Your True Model of Power
Physical strength, beauty, wealth, and charisma—these are just a few of the most obvious sources of power we chase. Yet it’s significant that during his earthly ministry, Jesus impressed or overpowered no one with his physical strength. Not one description of what he looked like is found in Scripture, other than “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). He didn’t possess personal wealth, nor did he use money to gain privilege. And though his ministry and message convinced many, he chose silence rather than persuasive speech when facing his accusers.
Jesus was rejected by the Jews in large part because he didn’t use power as they’d expected. Or as they’d hoped. Rather, knowing all power belonged to his Father, he walked humbly among us, demonstrating divine power only as it served the greater purpose of his ministry, leaving for us an example of how that power is nowhere more clearly understood than through the filter of human weakness. Jesus demonstrated perfect trust in the strength of his Father.
Power is nowhere more clearly understood than through the filter of human weakness.
And yet, those miracles. What must it have been like to see Jesus speak peace to the storm? We pray we might see miracles like that. We tell ourselves, If I could witness a miracle like that, I’d be able to lay to rest any doubt. If I could see the power of God calming the storm or raising Lazarus, belief would be simple. We crave the spectacle of it, the assurance of it. Like the Jews of Jesus’s day, we want the Messiah to use power according to our expectations.
It’s not wrong to ask for a miracle. I’ve asked for a few myself. But we must remember that Jesus demonstrated power over the physical realm to point us to his power over the spiritual. Every visible miracle Jesus performed during his earthly ministry was a whisper, an outer fringe. As his parables murmured of a message deeper than harvests or homecomings, so his miracles murmured of a transformation deeper than the calming of tempest or the healing of disease. They pointed to the most dumbfounding miracle of all: the display of his power to transform human hearts like ours from stone to flesh.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Jen Wilkin’s book None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different Than Us (Crossway, 2016)