Are you interested in having power? You don't have to have delusions of grandeur or dreams of being elected President to answer that question with a "Yes." Most of us want the ability to exert an influence over life, to make things happen rather than simply have things happen to us. Isn't that right? At the noblest level, we'd like to make a mark for good on our world. At the practical level, we want to be able to shield ourselves and our loved ones from harm or to gain the benefits of having power. The significant question is: "What route are we willing to take in order to get power?" Will it be hiss or his?
Satan once invited Jesus himself to walk hiss way. The Scriptures say that "The devil led [Jesus] up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And [the devil] said to [Jesus]: 'I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours'" (Luke 4:5-7).
It's crucial to note that the Devil was telling the truth for a change. This was not one of his lies. Satan actually has the ability to confer upon Jesus—or you and me for that matter—a certain kind of influence over the world. To get what he offers merely requires taking a few simple steps. I invite you to think about them with me, one at a time, so you recognize the hiss of the Tempter when it meets you in the wild of daily life.
Steps to worldly power
The first step in the popular route to power is captured beautifully in the first words Satan speaks to Jesus. "I will give you … splendor," says Satan (Luke 4:6). Embedded in these words is the familiar notion that power is gained by affirming one's splendor, or, as another translation has it, one's "glory." If you really want to have influence, the thinking goes, then you've got to fight your way into the limelight, if not the media spotlight. You must distinguish yourself from the crowd, establish yourself as someone others should admire. You've got to exalt yourself in some way, so some of us do.
I'm reminded of the woman who came home one day with an extremely expensive dress. Upon learning how much the garment cost, the woman's husband went ballistic. "Honey, what were you thinking?!" he asked, "You know we can't afford that!" The wife replied, "I know. I didn't plan to buy the thing; it's just that the Devil made me do it." "The Devil?" her husband protested. "That's right," the woman said. "I was trying on clothes in that store and the devil said to me, 'My dear, I've never seen you look more gorgeous than you do in that dress.'" "Well then," said her husband, "Why didn't you say, 'Get thee behind me, Satan'?" The wife replied, "I did, but then Devil said, 'Wow, Marilyn, it looks great from behind too!'"
We work pretty hard to project a splendid image. We take pains to look decisive and strong. We seek to equal or better someone else's story of striving or suffering. We engage in name-dropping, opinion-jousting, and busyness-matching. Deep inside we may feel a bit uncomfortable about this, but life and popular culture seem to tell us that those who fail to exalt their looks, their education, their experiences, or some other mark of distinction won't exert much influence at all. "Exalt yourself" is the first step to personal power.
The second step follows quickly on its heels. The Devil said to Jesus, "I will give you … authority" (Luke 4:6). "Every knee shall bow to you. You'll be master over all you survey." To us, the voice of Temptation says the same thing in slightly different words. To have power, it hisses, you need to "Exert authority or control over your world."
Are you vulnerable to that ploy? I know I am. I think of the time I spend trying to gain computer-control over the details of church life or managerial sway over the actions of people in my personal world. Just think of the energy most of us expend trying to manipulate the environment of our homes or workplaces, hedging against the unexpected, or finnicking over ridiculously tiny details. I know that we tell ourselves that we're just trying to be responsible, but deep down we know that it's more than that. We've bought the Tempter's lie that control and power are the same thing. They're not.
Let me reiterate, the most popular route to power involves three simple steps: Exalt yourself, exert control over your world, and "Exist to serve something or someone other than God." "If you worship me, it will all be yours," hissed the devil (Luke 4:7). You can see why that invitation is tempting, can't you? There is something seductive about serving something or someone other than God, something or someone that is not really ultimate. After all, penultimate things don't make absolute demands of us. Our career or family, our country, and our recreational pursuits may ask a lot of us, but we can always keep secrets from them, reserve some part of our truest selves from them, and pursue our interests apart from them. After all, they don't demand our souls. The power remains with us, or so it seems. As the icon of evil, Adolph Hitler once remarked, "What luck for rulers that men do not think."
In my first post after seminary, I filled a position left vacant by a pastor named Jeb Stuart Magruder. Years before becoming a clergyman, Jeb served a different Master. As Deputy Director of the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon, Jeb knew all about the benefits of exalting yourself, of gaining control of your world, and even of serving a penultimate cause like politics. He could tell you what it was like to ride around in limos and private jets with heads of state. He could wax eloquent about how it felt to have CEOs of major corporations waiting in line to play golf with him. He could speak of the joys of having hot and cold running secretaries and of being privy to the most sensitive secrets. Jeb could tell us all about power, but when I knew him, what he wanted to talk about is what he learned not lounging in the Oval Office but sitting in a prison cell as one of the convicted ringleaders of the Watergate break-in. Jeb often put it in the words of the Leader for whom he went on to work for the rest of his life. He'd say, "What shall it profit someone to gain the whole world, but lose their soul?" (Mark 8:36). It is a question that everyone who runs for or reaches for high office is wise to remember.
God's route to the greatest kind of power
On a mountain top long ago, Evil put on his best straight-face, looked his target in the eye, and fired out the most colossal lie ever told. Satan said, "There is only one real route to power. Grab the glory. Claim the authority. Worship me." Jesus of Nazareth begged to differ; he said, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only'" (Luke 4:8). With that simple quotation from Deuteronomy 6, Jesus did more than rebuke the Tempter; he provided clear directions for every human being since to find their way down a far less travelled but far more dependable route to genuine power.
The key to travelling that road lies in understanding what it means to worship God. If you're anything like me, you may tend to think of worship as a matter of simply saying or singing some words and sitting through a service, but at its heart, it is much more significant than that. To really worship God involves three movements of the human spirit that are in the opposite direction to the steps that Evil calls us to walk.
The Tempter says that in order to gain power, you must exalt yourself. Worship, on the other hand, says that the only way to access real power is to humble yourself. It is said, in this regard, that the revival of French culture following the decadence of Louis XIV's reign began the night of the dead king's funeral. The monarch, who had declared "I am the State," and who had named himself "The Great," had given orders that the cathedral should be dimly lit for his funeral. To dramatize his greatness, the only bright candle was set over the deceased king's golden coffin. Thousands waited in hushed silence as Bishop Massilon rose to speak. Slowly, reaching down, the bishop snuffed out the candle and said in words that rang through the cathedral and out into France like a call to new life, "Only God is great!"
Every week we gather here in worship to be reminded of that. We begin our service by singing not about how great we are but how great is God's glory. We continue with a prayer of confession that bears witness not to our great purity but to the great holiness of God. We go on to sing a hymn of thanksgiving not for our great capacity to save ourselves but for God's great willingness to do that for us. The amazing grace is that in the midst of these acts of humility, God unleashes upon us a power for inspiration and healing that we could never muster ourselves. "Humble yourself before the Lord," says James the apostle, "and he will lift you up" (James 4:10). Humble yourself in your marriage, in your workplace, and amongst your circle of friends and family and watch the Lord's power raise up everyone.
Evil says, secondly, that to gain power you must exert control over your world, but that's not what Jesus tells us. If you would see real power at work through you, then deny self and surrender control instead. A newly elected congressman once stood on a balcony overlooking the Potomac River and listened to a seasoned senator explain the peculiar culture of Washington; a moldy old log happened to float past. The old-timer said, "Young man, this city is a lot like that log out there." "How's that?" the novice asked. "Well," the reply came, "there are probably more than a hundred thousand bugs on that old log as it floats down the river. I imagine every one of them thinks that they're steering it!"
Paul Rees once wrote, "I can count on God to let power loose in my life only when I am ready to let something loose myself." That's why, after having focused on the greatness of God, we continue our worship each week by intentionally offering God our resources and then turning to his Word for guidance. It is our way of reminding ourselves to let go, our way of surrendering to a larger wisdom and grace. After all, real power with others doesn't originate inside of us. It flows from God through us to the extent that we allow it to run through relaxed hands. Who or what in your life are you trying a bit too hard to steer? Who or what are you holding on to a bit too tightly?
I believe that the more that we humble ourselves, the more we surrender control of the work and people in our world to God, the less we are going to make the aim of our lives the service of penultimate things. We are going to want to serve God with all that we are and have. You can't open yourself to the Word and work of an ultimate God without it drawing out of you an even deeper response. By inches and degrees you are going to give yourself over to his absolute rule. You are going to begin to see every relationship you have, every decision you make, every event in your life, and every resource you hold as a vessel for God's nature to fill. You're not even going to feel overwhelmed by Evil. When Satan is knocking at your door, you'll simply say, "Jesus, could you please get that for me?"
Do you want genuine influence, the real kind of power to promote flourishing in your life and that of others? Then humble yourself. Surrender control. Worship the Lord your God and serve only him, and watch God's power flow to you and through you as never before.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.