The power(less) God

By Aian Macpherson

Power is one of the two issues we have with God over suffering. ‘If you are powerful you could do something and if you love us you would.’ God is in the ‘box reserved for the defendant’ as Philip Yancey put it. Yancey also identifies the danger of the modern approach to adjust our ‘notion of God… by questioning his power to control evil.’[1] Yet we must be clear about what we think of as divine power. A Christian seeking understanding, or anyone wanting to be empathetically critical of Christian thought, will need to turn from generalised preconceptions or philosophy and look to the scriptural and theological witness to the God of Jesus.

We all know what power is don’t we? In dialog it is vital that there are no hidden meanings but we probably do not all agree on what power is, or is for, even in general terms. Much less when we are talking of divine power. For example we all agree a nuclear missile is powerful. So we could argue that if someone is compassionate and has a nuclear missile they should stop murder and child abuse! This is clearly absurd; we recognise that a nuclear missile has no appropriate power to the situation. To the world at large power seems to mean doing whatever you want. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are respected by authoritarians because they are powerful, able to get things done. But is that how we would want God to use power?

Divine power must be defined by how God uses it, precisely because God is powerful beyond comparison. Isaiah 58 reads,

“my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”…
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

This, I would suggest, is the very definition of God’s holiness. ‘Holy’ means being set apart, separateness, and sacred. God’s holiness, seen by some as the defining characteristic of God, means simply that God is different from us, God is transcendent, mysterious, and, outside of what God does in the universe of time and space, – what God reveals – unknowable. ‘So are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ What we know of God’s power we know only by what God does with that power.

Three observations on the divine use of power.

First, God’s power is effective, for a purpose. If it were not effective at all how could it be considered power? But as with all power it has appropriate use and inappropriate use. A nuclear reactor cannot hold political office, and a king cannot wield the power of a mother for good or ill over a child. Genesis shows us the God who’s Word creates, orders, separates, makes, gathers, names, calls forth, and fills all things. This is effective power, not only making ‘stuff’, but doing so in such a way that life and growth and freedom were are possible within an order that is fathomable. But this effective power is for creation and freedom, not for puppeteering.

God’s power by and large does not relate to an individual. It orders whole universes together, power which separates light from darkness and sky from sea. Otherwise God’s power is more subtly used; wielded through dreams and visions, Word and instruction, warning and prophecy, and exceptionally miraculous wonders. The majestic power of God relates to all things, and to understand God’s use of power we may need to develop a less anthropocentric lens.

Humans have power to change things from the inside. That is why science is so exciting! Knowledge of the world is power! God I would suggest, with some exceptions, acts from outside – God’s power to great and interconnected with the foundations of the universe to intercede in the specific. (Which is not a denial of God’s interest in the specific, the hairs on your hear and the bird in the air. Matthew 10:29-31 But) with great power comes great responsibility because with great power comes great consequence.

Secondly, the closest scripture comes to claiming God is omnipotent is in the context of the futility of human aggression against God (e.g. Psalm 2). Joel illustrates the futility of human power against God brilliantly in a passage which reverses the prophetic images of peace.

Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare for war!
Rouse the warriors!
Let all the fighting men draw near and attack.
10 Beat your ploughshares into swords
and your pruning hooks into spears…

It is a passage of challenge which invites all the nations who have judged God and rejected justice to battle against the LORD only to find that they are the ones ‘in the valley of decision’ where subversively God becomes judge.

If God is transcendent, invisible and the creator of the universe it should be self-evident that human power is finite and accountable – God’s power and holiness are one and the same. Sadly it is self-evident that the warning is necessary; people continue to act as if they have no judge and no accountability, Christians among them, but no one can assail God, this is the scriptural meaning of omnipotence.

Thirdly, we see consistently that God comes through weakness. At the moment they rebel God clothes humanity. In the story of Noah God seemingly destroys only to then restore and more importantly promises not to destroy creation but hangs up his bow (the weapon of gods) in the sky. In Jesus, God acting from the inside, God acts to redeem all creation from sin (falling short) and death. God’s weakness subverts the totality of human power, God’s death ends in new life, God’s foolish act is wise beyond our current comprehension in its effective purpose for the shalom (peace/wholeness) of creation. God scatters the proud in their conceit and lifts up the humble (Luke 1).

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Jesus was tempted by the power to make things his way, to impress with miracles and to rule the world, and he turned it down in the desert. Even when God was within creation he turned down our way of using and abusing power.

Lèon Bloy wrote, ‘God seems to have condemned himself until the end of time not to exercise any immediate right of a master over a servant or a king over a subject. We can do all we want. He will defend himself only by his patience and his beauty.’

God does not lord it over us or use coercion, but, as we see the invisible God in Jesus, rather seeks to persuade with patients and lure with beauty and is otherwise ‘remarkable merely for the absence of clamour’ (R. S. Thomas). It is God’s weakness and not God’s power that saves us.

[1] P. Yancey, where is God when it hurts? 1998 edition

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