Why Did God Give Us a Desire for Power?

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By Brian Lowther

Today I continue my series exploring six common human desires and why God instilled them into us. You can read the first installment here: The Desire for Survival and Pleasure. As I noted in that post, I’m writing from the assumption that our desires at their roots are good and programmed into us by God for a good reason. Specifically, I think his reason is to help us participate with him in bringing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, which is essentially a battle against darkness and evil.

Power

Beyond survival and pleasure, I desire power. Is that wrong to admit? When we say someone is powerful that can either mean he or she has a lot of physical prowess, or it can mean that they wield authority over others through wealth, or wisdom, or influence. As an adolescent, I wanted physical prowess more than anything. I wanted to be the best athlete in school. One day my coach told me, “No matter how good you get, there will always be someone who is better.” I took this as a terrible discouragement at the time. But as it turns out, he was right. There are few things more short-lived than athletic success.

When I became a young man, wealth became my desire. The idea of having a 10,000 sq. ft. mansion and a stable of exotic cars was so appealing that I began to orient my life around one thing: financial success. I pursued it with tremendous resolve and embarrassing greed. One tragic day, my father-in-law was killed in an accident. As is often the case with the sudden loss of a loved one, his death prompted me towards introspective soul searching. Along the way I landed on Jesus’ advice, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” (Matthew 6:19) These words were an alarm clock to my sleeping soul. I had been chasing precisely the wrong thing. I’ve spent the fifteen years since his death trying to redirect that tremendous resolve (minus the embarrassing greed) toward glorifying God.

However, now into my late thirties, I still can't seem to shake this desire for power. Only I desire it not in the form of physical prowess or wealth, but in the form of wisdom and influence. I want people—either singularly or en masse—to embrace the ideas I hold dear. And I want those ideas to result in their flourishing. Is that such a bad thing to desire? I don’t think so. Though I suppose it is a bit arrogant. But isn’t this desire at the core of many professions like teaching, pastoring, counseling, or self-help book writing?

Why Did God Give Us the Desire for Power?

I think God instilled in many of us a desire for power because we were made in part, to oppose the enemy. When Jesus said, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against my church” (Matthew 16:18), he may have chosen these words because gates are a defensive structure, intended to protect against an onslaught. As though we are supposed to be on the offensive against Satan and not just defending against his attacks. It takes a lot of physical and moral power to storm the gates of a terrible enemy. Additionally, I think God instilled in many of us a desire for wealth, wisdom and influence because we would need those things to subdue (kabas) the earth (Genesis 1:28), which has connotations of military victory in other passages, and to guard (samar) the garden (Genesis 2:15). [1] In a war, wealth can provide rations, boots, and weapons; influence can recruit an army; and wisdom can make a plan of action while minimizing unintended consequences.

Now, it’s no surprise that God’s idea of power, and our idea of power are quite different. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians. 1:25)

  1. Sacrifice as Power: The most profound display of power in history came when Christ allowed himself to be crucified. Somehow by dying he destroyed the power of death. (Hebrews 2:14)
  2. Generosity as Wealth: Similarly, the most admirable use of wealth is when it is given freely to the needy. Jonas Salk became a national hero, his generosity and compassion legendary because he chose not to patent his polio vaccine, forgoing a personal fortune.
  3. Humility as Influence: In an era of swaggering self-promotion, entitlement, and unbearable arrogance, Mother Teresa had no ambition to become a celebrity. Instead, her goal was to wholeheartedly give free service to people who were a burden to society and shunned by everyone. Along the way she won a Nobel Prize and always makes the list of the most influential people of the last century.
  4. Foolishness as Wisdom: This principle is why—to paraphrase C.S. Lewis—an uneducated believer was able to write a book that astonished the whole world. [2] That believer was John Bunyan and the book was Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan was born poor, never went beyond the second grade, and did most of his writing while in jail, yet Pilgrim’s Progress became the most widely read piece of 17th-century English literature.

The point is, God’s version of power, wealth, influence and wisdom are counter-intuitive, paradoxical even. In foolishness, sacrifice, generosity and humility we are powerful. These things somehow overpower and defeat the strongman (Satan), take his armor and divide up his plunder. (Luke 11:22)

Self-respect

One last thing I find most interesting about the athletic achievements and the extravagant lifestyle I once desired is, I didn’t so much want those things for the pleasure of having them, but for how people would perceive me for having them. The same holds true for the wisdom and influence I seek today. “If I am powerful/wealthy/wise/influential,” my internal monologue goes, “people will respect me. If they respect me, I can respect myself.” That’s at the root of these desires. The deeper motivation is self-respect. I’ll explore this desire for self-respect a bit more in a subsequent entry.

Endnotes

[1] Greg Boyd, “Satan and the Corruption of Nature: Seven Arguments
[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Photo Credit: Laura Ferreira/Flickr

Brian Lowther is the Director of the Roberta Winter Institute