When we mortals think of God, one of the first thoughts that pop into our minds is the word, “Power.” The church has used the Latin word “Omnipotence” to describe this reality about God. He is all-powerful! He is the Almighty!
Now the declaration that God is Almighty is a source of great comfort to us. In a quick scan of Old and New Testaments we see the power of God exhibited in the creation of the universe, in the Exodus deliverance of Israel, in the fall of Jericho, in the miracles of Elijah & Elisha and in the ministry of Jesus and the early apostles.
The church of God has always carried the deep conviction that the Almighty God is Sovereign over the universe. Some, however, have moved from that valid declaration to then insisting that since God is all-powerful, then he is in control of all things. God they infer micro-manages all that happens. So if I fall off the sidewalk and break my ankle, God planned it, for reasons known only to him: perhaps to teach me something, to punish me, to warn me. When someone dies, it is an exercise of God’s sovereign power, for God, they say, has determined how long each person will live (a misreading of Psalm 139:16) and he alone is in charge of the “death department.” Sometimes this understanding insists that he even predestines and pre-determines who will be saved and who will be lost.
We need to look at the word “Omnipotent” again. It does means all-powerful, all-capable, all-able. But it does not mean all-controlling or all-determining. For in God there is something more powerful than his power. It is his love which guides all he ever does. Just because God can do any thing, it does not mean that he must do that thing. For example: we parents can do things much more easily than our children. We are more powerful. But we want our children to learn to walk on their own, so we quit carrying them, though we have power to do so. We want our children to tie their own shoes and to feed themselves, though we can do it much more efficiently. Simply because we could do a thing, does not mean that we should.
The omnipotent God is able to do all that he wills to do. There is nothing in this universe that could prevent God from doing anything he wants to do. Nothing can thwart his ability to do whatever he chooses. But God created humanity with significant powers of self-determination. He granted to humanity the gift of freedom: the freedom to make choices.
Whatever happened when humanity fell into sin, though it deeply damaged us, God did not rescind his decision to give people authority over their own lives, and power over the life of those around us and the rest of the created world. He gave us significant autonomy and responsibility. Now the gift of freedom is a terrible gift. It puts into the hands of people like you and me, responsibility for ourselves and for our neighbors. There are times I do not want this gift. It demands too much from me. At the same time there is no other gift I prize more highly. God has never taken from his creatures this necessity of making choices. It was an irrevocable grant that he gave us.
This does not imply, however, that God surrendered his power. He has all the power he needs to do his will. But in his love and wisdom, he decided to share power with us, his creatures: real powers with real consequences for good and evil.
There are some things, you see, that God cannot do. He cannot be unjust. He cannot be untrue. He cannot cease to care about his creation. And because of his character, he refuses to give freedom to humanity and then take it and its consequences away. He refuses to overpower us. He refuses to make us do his will. Instead he desires to empower us. He refuses to control us, but instead he grants us the gift of self-control.
The doctrine of omnipotence does not mean that God gets his own way. At these very moments God is looking downwards on our hate. And as in days of old he says, “How often I have longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34 NIV) There is an equally sad passage in Mark’s Gospel. The crowds are amazed at the deeds of power being done by Jesus, but the story concludes, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5-6 NIV)
In the opening frames of the movie The Fellowship of the Rings, the word power is used frequently. But there is one use that grabs our attention. The narrator says, “The race of men, above all else, desires power.” We want to control not only our own destiny, but that of others too. Our constant quest for money, for fame and pleasures of all sorts, are often disguises for our desire for control. I want the world on my terms.
But here is the marvel of the Omnipotent God: he shares power with us. Jesus could say that all power in heaven and in earth had been given to him, but then used that ability to empower the lives of all he met. As we approach the anniversary of the Day of Pentecost, let us ask God to empower us by his spirit, so that we might be strengthened with might by his spirit, and in the process be equipped for every good work as we do his will.
Think it Through…
Lord Acton, in an 1887 letter to Bishop Creighton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Is this always true? When nations, corporations, institutions or individuals gain power, how can they avoid the abuse of power?
If you suspect that you “control” persons not just things, take steps to share power with your spouse, your children, your parents, your colleagues, your neighbors. Find ways to empower the weak or the powerless in your community.
For the Small Group Leader…
How can we empower each other in the small group? How do we empower the leaders of the church? How do we know when we are trying to overpower others? Is the desire for power the very sin of Adam and Eve, and perhaps the dominant human temptation?
Published in Light and Life, May-June, 2003.