The Messiness of Power

A Twilight Musing

My wife and I recently watched “Gods and Generals,” a movie about the American Civil War. It is a very rich and thought-provoking portrayal of some of the commanders on both sides of the conflict, whose comments on war are profound and sobering. Both sides had idealistic justifications of their resorting to war, but the wisest men among them also realized that war is, at best, an evil used to combat an even greater evil, or to achieve a goal whose good outweighs the terrible price of war in human life and resources. At one point, Robert E. Lee is shown saying, “It is a good thing that war is so horrible; else we should grow to love it too much.” Lawrence Chamberlain, a Northern commander who gained fame for his company’s heroic defense of a key hill in the battle of Gettysburg, explained to his brother Thomas that war is an extreme form of coercion, and only the moral necessity of ending slavery could have motivated him to leave the quiet halls of academe to engage in the directed chaos of war. No thinking person is ever easy with organized slaughter, however worthy the cause behind it.

Although fighting a “just war” is the most graphically focused example of “messy” power to maintain a larger ideal, every exercise of power in a fallen world involves moral ambivalence. There are many less charged situations in which we humans are faced with the necessity of determining how to use power or authority so that it is an instrument more for good than for evil. Actually, this difficulty has its roots in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. If it is true that Satan, as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost, was led astray by his lust for more power, it is easy to see the temptation of Eve and Adam as a seduction into the exercise of their wills to gain more power. So far as we can infer, the prelapsarian world required no conscious exercise of power by mankind, except to rule over non-sentient nature according to God’s commission. Jahweh’s overall power insured the order of the universe, and until humans were confronted with the apparent attractiveness of increasing their power by eating the forbidden fruit, there was no thought or desire to go beyond the established order. With the eating of the forbidden fruit, the use of power by human beings became problematical at best, and disastrous in its potential.

That is why there are so many cautions in Scripture about the use and exercise of power, and why the final, restorative consummation of all things through God’s sovereign power is preceded by His sweeping away the flawed and risky world of human power. But in the meantime, we have no choice but to engage, guided by the Word of God, in the application of power and our responses to it. The core of all moral instruction within God’s Covenants, Old and New, is that we govern our relationships with one another by turning our wills toward applying the principle of love, rather than trying to control others. The Law of Moses repeatedly addresses ways that the strong must act with gentleness and compassion toward the weak and the disadvantaged, not misusing power to oppress and exploit the powerless. At the same time, rulers of God’s people are expected to use their power to administer justice and to enforce the observation of God’s laws.

Some of these general principles of just governance are spoken of in the New Testament, as in Rom. 13:1-7, where Paul legitimizes even secular government as instituted by God to maintain good order and to punish evil-doers. However, the New Covenant pays more attention to the obligation of Christian citizens to submit to established governmental powers, and even to pay taxes to them willingly. This spirit of submission is even more radically presented in instructions about personal relationships between believers. The foundation is laid in the Gospels, which show the heart of Jesus, the Son of God, to be with the most vulnerable people of society. However, His ambitious disciples were not quick to pick up on this emphasis, and He had to instruct them that if they wished to be great (that is, in a position of power), they must learn to be servants (see Mark 10:42-45). He exemplified this lesson in washing the feet of His disciples just before he was tried and sent to the cross (John 13:1-17); as He said to them then, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (vv. 13-14).

This admonition is reinforced in the epistles. Paul admonishes the Ephesians to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) and then proceeds to speak of submission in particular relationships: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (5:22), followed by a call to husbands to subordinate their own welfare to the care and enhancement of their wives (vv. 25-33). Children are to honor and obey their parents, but parents are also admonished not to exercise their power in ways that are not consonant with “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4) and therefore merely provoke their children to anger. Church leaders are held responsible for disciplining false teachers and those who would disrupt the Body of Christ, and church members are to respect those who have spiritual authority over them (I Tim. 5:17-21). But these leaders are also admonished to exercise their authority gently and by example, not by “domineering over those in your charge” (I Pet. 5:1-3).

All of us who have experienced much of life can testify that it is often problematic to exercise power, even by divine assignment; and that submission to authority must always be ready to discern when that puts us into conflict with God’s clearly revealed moral laws. But there is no escape in this fallen world from making decisions about the responsible use of and response to power, and no escape from the messiness of doing so. With the best intentions I may anger my children unnecessarily, or fail to encourage my wife, or do something unfair to an employee. And if I’m on the receiving end of the exercise of power, it’s not easy to submit to someone with whom I disagree, or to someone who is not showing concern for my welfare.

All of this highlights the fact that the only way to have peace of mind about either exercising power wisely or submitting to it willingly is to recognize that both the power-wielder and the one who submits to power are answerable together and individually to the Lord of all. It behooves us, then, to conduct ourselves with humility, recognizing that the grace either to submit to authority or to exercise it for good has to come from the One to whom we must all submit. Until we reach that place where God takes back all power to Himself and delivers us from the ambiguity of using tainted power to achieve imperfect good, we persevere in trust that He will empower us with discernment.

Image: "Throne" by R. Panhuber. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)