CHRISTIAN ADVANTAGE? (4)
What good will these pieces on this subject do? I don’t know if they’ll do any good. On the other hand, before they're done maybe, just maybe, they’ll help some of us to depend less on divine magic for strength in our war against the world and stand up, by God’s grace, and be noble humans rather than wimps who feel God hasn’t kept his promises to strengthen us.
[“Well, you know, I really wanted to take the world on but I was expecting God to give me inner and unbeatable energizing in order to do it. But he didn’t live up to his promises.”]
It’s written all over the NT that God strengthens believers in Jesus Christ, empowering them in the war against “the world” of perverted powers and authorities. There’s no doubt about that!
The statements of empowerment are explicit and plain. Here’s the kind of thing I mean from Paul in Ephesians 3:16-21.
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
It’s hard to read a text like that without thinking Christians must be super-men and women. The empowering comes from the Almighty and loving Father who can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. The strength he gives is by his Holy Spirit and it occurs in our “inner being” and the strength he gives is said to be “power”.
Everything about the section seems to scorn the notion of weakness, of barely hanging on, of hardly making it.
Preachers, while in the pulpit and authors in their studies, carried away by the glory of it and forgetting their own weaknesses and failings, soar to the heavens with excitement as they tell their often weary congregations that they’re the most powerful people on earth, that sin doesn’t have a chance with them and that they should be turning the world upside down. Ephesians 3:16-21 is a text like that—isn’t it?!
Wouldn’t we all just love to feel that surge of power flowing through us every moment; just love to almost hear the hum and feel the throb of spiritual power coursing through our minds and hearts? Striking sins dead as they approach, scoffing at temptations, treading them under our feet and living in glorious and virtual sinlessness! Isn’t that how the passage is preached and commonly understood and isn’t it how it looks on the surface?
Looking a gift horse in the mouth isn’t a popular practice but when the gift you depended on to gain some fine goal turns out to be a liability it can breed resentment, bitterness and despair.
Why shouldn’t we read that Ephesian text and believe what he says? I believe we should; but what does he actually say and what does he mean by what he says?
Paul says that he prays the Ephesians will be strengthened in the way he describes. He didn’t say that was their present condition, though they are indeed in Jesus Christ and are already indwelled by the Spirit. If this power Paul describes is the present possession of all who are in Jesus Christ then why does he pray that they might gain it? Whatever he has in mind, it can be obtained or he wouldn’t be praying for them to gain it.
If they presently experience anything of which he speaks they experience it only in its initial stages and if that’s the case we need to know that and we need to say that to sensitive people who tend to worry that they don't have it at all.
I think the word “power” seduces us. Paul knew what he had in mind when he used the word but what he had in mind and how the word was most commonly used in his Roman world (and ours) is not what he had in mind. At the heart of our use of power is the notion of “coercion” and force that aims to coerce.
We see the people who use “power” overwhelming those who don’t have it or who haven’t enough—it has nothing to do with persuasion or mutual agreement or non-coercive shaping; we see it as force that breaks down resistance. Like waves against a sea-wall. We even sometimes speak of the “power” of the gospel (Romans 1:16) and happily remind one another that the Greek word in that passage gave us the English word “dynamite”.
I don’t deny that in some ways and at certain times God has exercised coercive power. I suppose creation was an act of “raw power” when God sovereignly willed it and creation came to be—no persuasion, no mutual agreement; but that isn’t the only face of God’s sovereignty.
How is Paul using “power” in the Ephesians 3 text? He speaks of their being made powerful so that Christ might dwell in their hearts by faith (3:17). He prays that they might be given power so they can grasp the dimensions of Christ’s love (3:18) and he prays they might have power so that they personally could know that love in order that they could be filled with all that God is (3:19).
There's nothing in this section about “brute strength”—it’s all about a power that comes in a relational way. We speak about the power of friendship or role models and we don’t have “force” in mind; it has nothing to do with coercion in any form. Friendship does indeed have “power"— astonishing power— but its power is never mechanical or an exchange of atoms; it isn’t like an infusion of blood that obliterates anemia. The power in this section is a dynamic power that takes it nature from the nature of the relationship between the believer and God.
The growth of power in a Christian is the deepening of his/her relationship with God in Christ. The relationship isn’t only the way to power, it is the power Paul speaks of. Paul is praying that God will enrich and deepen their relationship with him and that is the empowering he has in mind. The mystery of how an honorable friendship grows between two humans is like the mystery of how we grow in our relationship to God through Jesus. There is no reduction of our humanity; there is a free and growing commitment that is power that results in more power.
God doesn’t take people who turn to Christ and pour some kind of divine energy into them so that they are invulnerable to temptation and sin. He’s a Holy Father to them—weak and wayward at times though they may be (see what Paul says to the Ephesians in 4:25-31) and in the free exchange of a commitment to each other (note 3:17) the relationship deepens and strength increases.
Spiritual and moral strength comes from God but there's no divine magic. Don't ask for that! He isn't interested in producing "Stepford Wives"—he wants a free loving relationship with you and he'll bring it about with your agreement and in the meantime he works through you for the human family.
[To be continued, God enabling.]
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.