By Dan Schaeffer
My wife and I had only been married about a year when it happened. We had always enjoyed a wonderful relationship with each other, but like every couple, stress can build tension and there had been some tension building in our home. We were angry with each over something that escapes me now. Sensing a threat to my authority, I fairly exploded in anger with a volume I had never approached before. I am loath to admit it, but I felt a perverse pleasure in releasing my “power.” There was only going to be one head of this house, by golly, and it was going to be me. Then I stomped out of the room.
Later, when we had both calmed down, we sat down and apologized to each other. But then she said something that I will never forget. I remember it as if it were yesterday. “You know, Dan, you scared me. I didn’t know what you were going to do.” I was absolutely crushed. I felt about two inches tall. I asked her forgiveness for that and I never, ever, did that again.
My dear wife, who I had promised before God and others to love, honor, and protect, had been frightened by her protector. Conflict in any relationship is inevitable, but I had clearly abused my authority.
Authority. Power. I wasn’t used to having it, and I abused it. Unfortunately, while I stopped abusing my power with my wife, I have abused it with others, and for the very same reason. I was unprepared for this authority I received and had little or no instruction on its true nature.
In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus was speaking to His disciple’s when He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (NASB)
I had done to Annette exactly what Jesus had said not to do—I lorded my authority over her. The reason is that I hadn’t really thought about this issue of power much, because quite honestly, positions of power kind of sneak up on us sometimes.
All power belongs to God
It seems almost simplistic to say that all power belongs to God. David reminds us in Psalm 62:11 “Once God has spoken; twice I have heard this: that power belongs to God.” Paul says in Romans 11:36 that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” All power originates in God, and belongs to Him. Few of us would argue with this. But fewer of us have thought through the implications of it. If all power is given by God, then any position of power or authority I find myself in comes from Him.
The problem is that we often find ourselves receiving power unexpectedly. We may marry into authority as a husband, or become promoted into a position of authority over someone at work. We receive authority when we have children, or we are elected to a position within the church. One day we may be elected head of the PTA, or Elks, or Rotary, or some other group or club. But rarely does anyone ever tell us when this happens, “OK, here is the proper attitude and manner in which you should approach the power you are about to receive.”
Since we aren’t always consciously aware that God has given us this position of power, it is easy to treat it as merely a human opportunity that we can handle with our own resources and methods. Furthermore, we frequently get into these positions of authority before we’ve had time to think through what it means.
How did dad treat mom? How did mom treat Dad? How did mom and dad raise us kids? How have I seen power used in the office? The way we have seen authority modeled is how we frequently respond. Finding ourself thrust into power unexpectedly, we react instinctively. Yet, if God entrusts us with power, He has a purpose behind it. Furthermore, He has made it extremely clear that we are not to react to power as the world does.
I had never really thought of myself as someone who enjoyed power. But the more I allowed myself to consider it, the clearer it became that I was guilty of enjoying the perks and resisting the service.
Who retains control over the remote control every night? I do! Who insists upon the “seat of honor” at the dinner table every night? Yours truly. Who sits on the best part of the couch that reclines and has the best view of the tube? You guessed it. Who was called “pastor” for 20 years, and then found himself missing it when he changed ministries? Moi. Upon reflection I was forced to admit that I had the wrong view of power.
I am His agent, not a free agent
God does not put us in a position of power and then say, “OK, give it your best shot!” He has told us how He wants us to use our power. For example, as a husband I needed to focus more clearly on Ephesians 5:23. “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church...” I had been told all my life, in church, and outside, that the man was the head of the home. When I read that verse in Ephesians, it simply confirmed what I had always been told.
The problem is that I had missed the qualifier. I am the head of my wife the way Christ is the head of the church. That certainly changes all the rules! Now I must look at the sacrificial nature of Christ’s work for His church to understand my headship. Jesus reminded us that He did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28 NASB). Ephesians 5:1-2, 25 remind me Christ loved me so much that He gave Himself up for me. God never asked me to make up my own job description; He gave it to me.
I am to lead Annette with self sacrifice, selflessness, compassion, tremendous patience and understanding. That is how I am to use the power He has entrusted to me in my marriage, but also with my children, at the office and church. In reality, what I have been given is the power to serve others on His behalf.
That means that I need to give up the remote and my favorite spot on the couch to my wife or children far more often. It means I still need to be responsible for leading, caring for, and providing for my family, but I don’t always get to pick the restaurant we will go to, or the kind of car we will buy. It means when everyone else in the family wants to have company over, and I’m tired, I acquiesce.
A number of years ago our church moved into its first real offices. When we were preparing to buy new computers, we both coveted laptops. When the budget was examined, however, we discovered that we could not afford two laptops. As senior pastor, I could have pulled rank (and I did want a laptop) and chosen the laptop for myself. But my associate, due to the nature of his job, really did need it more than I did. I told the board to give it to him and I got the boring desktop. True servant leadership seeks the best for those you lead, not yourself. Power is entrusted to us for service.
I am not a free agent in regard to the power I have been given, free to decide how to use the power I wield. I am not free to simply “give it my best shot.” When I exercise authority over my children, my wife, my employees, my neighbors, in any way whatsoever, I am doing so as His agent.
In that moment I am an extension of His authority. Of course that leads me to a frightening dilemma. I know from personal experience that my natural impulses will lead to abuse. It is small wonder that many people have had bad experiences in Christian homes where power was wielded arbitrarily. The position of Biblical authority was understood, but not the nature.
Unfortunately, our faith will not instantly produce in us an ability to lead spiritually as Christ would have us. Our lives are constantly in transformation. One moment sin is influencing our decisions, the next we correct and allow Christ to influence them. Such continual fluctuations in our spirituality lead to wildly fluctuating approaches and abuses in power or authority.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” I fail this test continually. This reminds me to guard against depending on my natural impulses when it comes to power.
Two abuses of power
If I don’t seek to take the exercise of my power captive to the obedience of Christ, in each and every instance, I run the risk of abuse. However, an abuse of power does not look the same for every person.
When we have been given or have inherited power of some kind and feel that in some way our power is being challenged, we will have one of two reactions. The first reaction is the more conspicuous and obvious: We will naturally overreact in anger.
Some people have short fuses naturally. They overreact to everything, squashing ants with steamrollers. Their abuse of power is easy to identify. Harsh words, yelling, intimidation, or threats are used to gain the control we desire. Being in control has been mistaken for Christlike sacrificial leadership.
But while overreacting in anger is obvious, the other abuse is to under react. Some of us are by personality calm, quiet, and not at all given to manipulation or coercion. Controlling others is not a goal or aspiration. As a result we can feel we are truly representing Christ because we don’t obviously abuse our power.
Unfortunately, that patient calmness is often more a result of our personality than a fruit of the Spirit. In such a case we are no more Christ’s agents than the person who more obviously abuses power. Instead of reacting with anger when our power is questioned or threatened, we respond with passivity. While that may make us less volatile, it doesn’t make us more Christlike. In my years of pastoral counseling I have spoken to many wives who were frustrated at their husbands lack of leadership.
We may simply be seeking to avoid conflict, hoping to abdicate all the difficult decisions for our spouse, bosses, or someone else to make. We are afraid to accept the responsibility God has entrusted us with because to lead is to take a chance, to risk failure, to trust God to give us wisdom, guidance, and counsel. In any position of power there is a potential of making the wrong decision. It is tempting to retreat into indecision.
Think of it this way. If a police officer uses their authority to extort money from someone, that’s abuse. But if a crime is being committed and the police officer refuses to intervene, they are equally abusing their authority. The greatest abuse of power is in acting independently of the One who entrusted the power to you. Therefore, when we abuse our power, we abuse not only a person, but our Lord’s trust, for it is He who gave us the power in the first place.
We need to come to a true gospel understanding of power. Philippians 2:5-8 reminds us that Christ was willing to forego His position of glory and honor and “empty Himself.” We are reminded to have the same attitude in ourselves. Our obsession is frequently power; His was love.
We need to begin to ask ourselves some probing questions. How have we been using our power? Who are we in authority over? Have we been enjoying the perks of power, or have we been seeking to serve those God has put us in power over? Are we acting as free agents in our positions of power, or as His agents?
God has put us in power over others, to represent Him and to serve and love them in His name. It is a sacrificial leadership, a voluntary shunning of the perks of power and an acceptance of the responsibility of power.
Power is alluring. The perks of power are intoxicating. It’s not too late to develop a new obsession: serving Him in the positions of power He has placed us. That’s an obsession worth chasing.