One of the three diabolical tests of Jesus in the Judean wilderness is the “temptation to be powerful” as Henri Nouwen puts it in his 1989 reflection on Christian leadership, “In the Name of Jesus.”
Satan’s offer to grant Jesus subordinate authority over the kingdoms of the world in all their splendor has a shiny appeal to it. There are certain immediate benefits such a deal would afford: Control of people and province; Management of the messaging, Resources for establishing rule.
Unfortunately, succumbing to the temptation to be powerful comes with a heavy price that Jesus knows all too well. The power offered requires a shift in allegiance.
To pick the tantalizing fruit of might from the Accuser’s outstretched hand requires groveling at his feet. It is an “unholy” power play that demands an exchange of the object of worship–God’s glory for the glory of a world which deifies material dominance over friend and foe.
In our geo-political arena we see the manifestation of such a power play in the reckless disregard of a nation’s sovereignty by a rogue player whose actions betray his choice. History does not disappoint in offering its examples of failed wilderness trials, but may we not be so smug to believe that these examples are limited to the world stage.
The temptation to be powerful is not only reserved for the destructive power of the Pol Pots, the Stalins, the Hitlers, the perpetrators of aggression, war, and genocide, or to a more benign version of rulers of vast kingdoms, overlords of vassal states, and empires.
It is not limited to government but expands to all sectors of society: business, entertainment, education, medicine, to any space in which power to control exerts itself. And, yes, it extends to the Church and its people. Inquisitions, crusades, cover-ups of abuse, sacrilegious partnerships with the state, oppression of minorities, and exploitation of disenfranchised populations are some of the tragic ways in which the Church has chosen the allure of the “unholy” power play.
Nouwen says, “The long painful history of the church is the history of a people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints” (In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, 78-79).
While Lent reflects this temptation back to us in the bountiful garden of Genesis and the barren wilderness of the Gospels, it also mirrors it back to us as we examine the desires of our own hearts. We stand vulnerable, tested to “choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.”
Frederick Douglas once said in a correspondence to fellow abolitionist and social reformer, Gerrit Smith, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” Egyptian-American Pastor, Michael Youssef says, “Only in the Cross of Christ will we receive power when we are powerless. We will find strength when we are weak. We will experience hope when our situation is hopeless. Only in the Cross is there peace for our troubled hearts,” and might we add, “for our troubled world.”
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