Love vs. Power

This post is from Bev Mitchell… His information is at the bottom.

The opposite of love is power

In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth – when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water – God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. (R.E. Friedman, Commentary on the Torah)

Yet, in Matthew’s gospel we read (NIV):

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

(the tempter then said) “If you are the Son of God …. throw yourself down. For it is written: …”

(Then, showing him everything than might be controlled by power, he said) “All this I will give you…..if you will bow down and worship me.”

What is going on here? We believe that the same Holy Spirit is involved in both accounts – Jesus went into the dessert “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4) and “God’s spirit was hovering”. In one account it appears that God is acting by using his indescribable power. In firmly rejecting the three temptations, Jesus is apparently turning his back on the use of power. Yet, the same Spirit presides in both situations.The very thing that the Spirit of God created seems to be offered to Jesus to control, yet he declines saying “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

On another occasion Jesus says: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: … (KJV) before going on to say that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love other people. There is a very large clue here. Yes God is powerful enough to create the universe, and Jesus could have used this power to rule the universe – but what about the greatest commandments? How can we get by this apparent contradiction? Was the tempter correct? Did Jesus miss his big chance?

We are dealing here, just as Jesus was, with the choice of doing things God’s way or the deceiver’s way. God’s way is love. Or as John puts it in 1 John “God is love”. In case we think this essential attribute of God lets us off the hook in any way, we should read from the beginning of the sentence – “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (NIV)

So, what is the relationship between power and love? Why does God appear to use power at creation and eschew power later on – even going to the point of telling us we can only know him through love? Are we missing something? Is a popular way of interpreting this correct? What was God doing when he said “Let there be light”? Was he exercising unfathomable power or unfathomable love? Is power even the opposite of love? If it is, how does that change our thinking about God, his attributes, his sovereignty? Does God’s love derive from his power, or does his power derive from his love?

To show that this is much more than a chicken and egg question, we should consider the nature of power (as we know it) and the nature of love (as we know it). The chicken and the egg are morally neutral. Power and love, and certainly in our hands, are not. The following comparison may help answer the questions listed above. You can decide for yourself which way to go.

Power and love are like water and oil, like darkness and light. “When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Tanakh, JPS 1985). Power looks to violence, love looks to healing and restoration:

power destroys – love creates
power enslaves – love gives freedom
power brings darkness – love brings light
power engenders fear -love engenders hope
power coerces – love persuades
power controls – love cooperates
power closes – love opens
power hoards – love shares
power spreads falsehood – love reveals truth
power brings sadness – love brings joy
power is ultimately ineffective – love is ultimately effective
power is Satan’s way – love is God’s way
power is well understood – love is poorly understood
power is in a hurry – love is patient
power is prideful – love is humble
power is heavy – love is light
power is discordant – love is harmonious
power screeches – love whispers
power kills – love resurrects.

And even better from 1 Cor 13 in the contemporary language of “The Message”:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first”,
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the following of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies.

And yet, one might still counter, but what about the end? Will not every knee bow to Christ? What about this verse? “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” Romans 14:11. or as the Isaiah 45 passage puts it “every tongue shall swear allegiance.” (Both quotes from ESV). Just as in thinking about God’s ability to create we can think about his ability to “get” all to bow down – all that is required is the love of God. Love, even in our hands, can do wondrous things. Just try to imagine how effective such love can be through the one who is love itself! Yes, there will be a Judgement Day, and the first just accusation we all will face will be “But you did not love enough.”

Dr. BK (Bev) Mitchell
Biologist, writer,
hopeful theology popularizer,
aspiring critical realist.
NB Canada, Oaxaca, MX

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://Whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    I strongly disagree with the antithesis being presented here, but I LOVE the dessert comment! :)

  • Scot McKnight

    Andrew, explain yourself. (but not the dessert statement)

  • Bev Mitchell

    Andrew,
    Well done! I’d like to say I put it there for your amusement, but it’s a plain old error – can’t even blame it on the iPad keyboard. However,  it does remind me of the pastor’s banquet so amply supplied that by the end of dessert everyone was a full gospel pastor.  :)

  • http://www.saet-online.org Gerald Hiestand

    Hi Dr. Mitchell,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I wonder, though, if the better anti-thesis is between abusive power and love. Because it seems to me that love stripped of power becomes impotent to actually bless. For instance, when a person is drowning, if the lifeguard doesn’t make use of benevolent power, all hope is lost. It is precisely because the life guard has power (a power that the drowning swimmer lacks, no less) that he is able to bless.

    From what I can tell, Jesus doesn’t ask us to eschew power, but to deploy power in benevolent, other-exalting ways. As it happens, I just published a piece this morning on the issue of power and gender (http://wp.me/pudhv-1e). Should you take the time to read it, I would be interested in your thoughts.

    blessings,

    Gerald

  • Marshall

    I don’t know why you would think that Power can’t act from Love … for example, if you stood on a rock and PULLED a drowning person out of the stream.

  • James Rednour

    I’s say that the opposite of love is apathy. At least hatred implies that one cares about something. Apathy implies that one cares about nothing. And I agree that power can be used in love.

  • http://www.pastormack.wordpress.com Drew

    Human experience shows repeatedly that power, as Lord Acton observed acutely, corrupts. Absolutely power corrupts absolutely, if you happen to be only human.

    Love, it seems to me, is true power. At least in the light of the gospel, God’s power shines and is “made perfect in weakness,” and certainly love makes us vulnerable and weak.

    Sometimes loving well means exercising power. Jesus had laid down all of his authority, but not all of his power, with which he lived, taught, and healed (as in Luke 8:46). I think Jesus shows us that the only lasting power is love, and that power which exists for its own sake is a mere shadow. In the end, it will take power to destroy the last enemy, death, and that shall be a glorious day indeed.

  • http://www.wyattroberts.com Wyatt Roberts

    I think Dr. Mitchell is presenting a false dichotomy. They are neither opposites nor are they mutually exclusive. Power takes many forms, not the least of which would be loving one’s enemy.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    Scot & Dr. Mitchell …

    Yes … gonna go on about cHesed again!

    Since I believe that love (cHesed) is the ultimate form of power — covenant-keeping power that seeks the best interest of the other — through loving submission, gracious service and merciful initiative — I think that we might be better served to say that the opposite of cHesed as power FOR one another is domination/coercive power OVER one another.

    God’s faithful cHesed results in his loving restraint of power in order that we might develop true relationship — with him and with one another. After all, it is the properly restrained response of cHesed that enables us to keep covenant … when the unrestrained, subtly corrupting use of power leads to domination or coercion and breaks covenant.

    Scot, my cHesed Tweetinar was disrupted by my three weeks away from internet, but it will be back soon….

    Be blessed!

  • CGC

    Hi Bev,
    Maybe some might want to nuance the power of love contra the love of power but in the end, many in the church want power over love, leadership over servanthood, strength over vulnerability, and a thelogy of glory over a theology of the cross. We somehow have been duped into thinking that if we fight with the best the world has to offer, the weapons of this world, the church will win in the end. And as the church opts for trying to accomplish God’s will by Satan’s methods, the church continues to lose and looks very much like all the other fallen world structures rather than something different that is trying to redeem them all.

  • Bev Mitchell

    CGC,

    Yup. Well put. You get my point.

    All, so far,

    I didn’t mean to start an argument over a hypothetical dichotomy. Instead, I am hoping we can challenge ourselves to imagine what love might accomplish if we only understood it as God understands. I really mean it when I said we understand power much better than we understand love. Yet Scripture says we can expect a great deal from love, if we step out in faith and give it a try. We have barely begun to imagine what this might be.

    In short: 

    How can we better understand love? 
    Do we dare try to imagine what love can accomplish in God’s hands?
    Could love, in God’s hands, accomplish absolutely everything we imagine him doing through his power?

    So, if power is not the opposite of love, it may well be rendered irrelevant by love.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W. Frye

    My friends who are my age in Ukraine would not dilly-dally with the meaning of power as many have in these comments. Dr. Mitchell, I assume, is speaking of power as exercised by the powers of this world. People who live from the bottom up, in oppressed and/or under Communist regimes know instantly the distinction that Mitchell is trying to make. I think 1st century Jews and Christians would have understood her point, too. Many, if not most of us who post on this blog have lived and live in a soft society and probably known diddly squat about abusive powers (with the exception of Native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics).

  • Steve Sherwood

    It seems to me the kind of power God would value looks something like this from I Corinthians 1:

    18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]

    20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

    Or, the kenotic love of Phil. 2.

    The weak power of God. That looks a lot like love, no? And, not much like what we generally mean when we speak of power.

  • http://www.trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    As already stated, there is no antithesis here. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, as commonly held in orthodox Christianity, there is no conflict.

    Rather, they are perfected in each other. In His perfect Love God’s power is perfectly exercised.
    Our “this kingdom” concept of power is merely that – but the reality is God’s kingdom, love and power.

    The Upside Down Kingdom indeed (Kraybill).

  • Alan Cassady

    For research purposes, do a simple search for the word “power” in the ESV. I was looking for a particular passage and was amazed to find all of the passages in the NT where God’s power is referenced. I understand and agree with the sentiment expressed, Greg Boyd has a similar idea, I think as others do here that it is incomplete.

    A similar thing happens when we emphasize the cross over the resurrection, we end up with Good Friday and no Easter…”it is always winter and never Christmas.”

    Romans 1:4 (ESV) — [he] was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

  • Bev Mitchell

    To several.

    There may not be a dichotomy here in the strict sense, but there certainly is an asymmetry, an hysteresis. We would speak of the power of evil without quibble or misunderstanding. No one would never associate the concept of love with evil. 

    We do speak of God’s power as well as his love, but tend to misunderstand each other when we speak this way. This may be because we understand power so much better than love. In the same way that death is swallowed up in victory, perhaps power has been swallowed up in love. It’s certainly not the other way around, though we very often act as if it were.

    We will always need to imagine better what God can do with love.

  • RJS

    Bev,
    Thanks, I like this post. Clearly God has power, but we are not called to power rather to love (and God is Love). The way of the world is human power.

  • S Wu

    Great discussion. Thanks everyone!

    For those interested, here is an article that reflects on power and powerlessness.

    http://www.ea.org.au/Ethos/Engage-Mail/Reflections-on-Power-and-Powerlessness.aspx

    It covers the following topics.

    Power is not necessarily evil, but cautions are needed
    Jesus and the cross
    Paul’s cruciform leadership
    Power and powerlessness for us today

  • Bill

    Fascinating. I guess I am interested, after reading the other comments and Dr. Mitchell’s short essay here, why Dr. Mitchell wrote this.

    The topic is layed out like an antithesis. I am not sure I understand it and it reminds me of other seemingly antithetical subjects like justice and mercy as if one is better or more preferable to the other.

    Some context will help me, if someone can give it (namely the author). After reading the post, I thought, “What happened here?” But this could be my own fanciful thinking at work. For me, understanding why somebody wrote something helps me understand what was written. The story behind the story is usually closer to the truth.

    On face value, I am not buying this completely.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Siu Fung Wu (18),

    Thanks for the reference. I will sit with it later, but these words of yours did catch  my eye on a quick pass: 

    “Both the rich and the poor are equally prone to sin. We cannot guarantee that we will always exercise our power with integrity. Second, and perhaps less obvious, we need to be aware that we who are in positions of power cannot truly understand what it means to be powerless.”

    This is so true and so often overlooked when we offer “help” to others. Just like we do with God, we often want to remake the “poor” in our own image. First we have to realize who is rich and who is poor in which ways, in what contexts. And when we say things like “I got more out of helping that person than I gave them” we usually reveal that we missed a number of important things and, in fact, did not learn much.

    Bill (19),
    Thanks for sharing your doubts, but don’t get hung up on the word “opposite”; if you like, think “opposed to”. For a title, that actually works both ways most of the time in the real world. It is the very dangerous potential anthesis between power and love that the gospel teaches us to guard against. 

    I tried to capture this in the first long list of opposite attitudes, behaviours, results, etc. It’s interesting than no one has yet contested anything on that list. Some may still be missing the forest by concentrating on the title “tree”.

    Andrew (1),
    I put the grammatical error in (16) just for you.  :)

  • Bill

    Dr. Mitchell (20),

    Thank you for your response. But I am still left wondering why you wrote what you wrote. I reviewed your lists and that ‘s why I asked you why.

    I like your distinction of “opposed to”. That distinction, however, does quite go far enough for me but it might if you say why you wrote your post in the first place. It doesn’t need to be a long response. Just something and thanks again. Don’t duck behind theory or theology. What’s really going on? I am not baiting you or looking for a fight just some rationale and I think I explained why that helps.

    BTW, if you take Genesis 1 as it is, God’s creation of the universe and world is not framed by love. That’s not to say that wasn’t behind it. There is an amazing display of power and creativity which is completely awe inspiring. Power in human hands is/can be corruptible/destructive but in God’s hands it’s creative, pure, life-giving, life-rescuing, destructive in order to repair (the Flood comes to mind).

    Still please answer the why question.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Bill (21),

    I guess I could go on for pages, but I won’t. Reasons are funny things aren’t they? Also sometimes very complex. In picking one, I am trusting you to not take it as the only one, or even the most important one, so here goes.

    It’s a sequence thing. Does love derive from power or does power derive from love? I think it’s clear where I stand and I also think that is one of the important revelations we are meant to get from Scripture. If we truly believe that it’s love first, then we approach many things differently. Including, just for example, Genesis 1:3 and Romans 14:11.

    Everyone,
    If you want to get a bit more background and another angle from which this can be approached, check out my (short) article that just went up on Jeff Clarke’s blog. I’m hoping this is the beginning of a series on “Toward a Creation Theology of Love” with Jeff as my kind host. http://jeffkclarke.com/

    Blessings,

    Bev

  • Bill

    Dr. Mitchell (22),

    Thank you again. That’s fine and I understand. Reasons are funny things. What I ahve found is that if I can understand motivations, I can usually understand what. That doesn’t mean I agree with the what. It’s importnat I understand and why is usually the window.

    Anyways, let’s say Genesis 1 was the only thing you had to read about God. No Romans, no rest of the Tanakh, nothing. No gospel, zero, zilch, nada. No Luther, no Zwingli, no Calvin, no CS Lewis. Would love be what you would get from the beginning of the creation account? Or would it be power, creativity with power, beauty? Remember, you have nothing to go on. You don’t know God is love. What would you walk away with about this God?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Bill (23),

    I’ll stick with Paul’s advice to Timothy and decline to participate in your thought experiment due to the insufficient evidence provided in the proposed text. We should never forget that “All Scripture is God- breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17. NIV 2011

    In short, we err when we fail to bring all pertinent parts of Scripture to bear on any question.

    As for motivations, they usually work both ways. I’ve given you one motivation of mine. If you choose to give one of yours that helps explain your line of questioning, I’d be interested in knowing it. Then we will bring this little contest to an end.

  • Bill

    Dr. Mitchell,

    I apologize for any misunderstanding about my questioning. I accepted your response to the motivational question. I took no issue with it and moved to a more direct question regarding what I thought was a hypothetical. Essentially, my question was, “If all you had was Genesis 1…?

    This is and was not supposed to be a contest and I am not spoiling for a fight. I wasn’t baiting you. Not at all. Regarding my motivations, it’s quite simple. They are like a student to a teacher. You pose a case and a student is supposed to ask questions. I put myself in the role of wanting to learn and I get challenged on my questioning. It’s too bad this bothered you as much as it appears it does.

    If the study of theology and the character and nature of God is “Who is God and what is He like” I think these questions, the ones you ask and the ones I ask in return seem legit. There was no offense intended in my questioning. How power and love relate is a good topic and I found it attractive. But it seems you want it another way.

    If you don’t want to be questioned about a premise or idea, don’t put it out there for people to examine and ask questions and yes, that might involve some questions around motivation. If someone wants to know why you wrote something, it seems like a good question. Authors of books do prefaces and intros to explain why they are writing. When people give speeches or teach classes, there are motivations behind those things and there is nothing wrong with that. My question and follow-up seemed (to me, at least) innocuous. Apparently not.

    I’ll chalk this up to my own inability to communicate well in writing. I’ll move on.


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