The Seductive Allure of Power


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Matthew 4:8-9.

The devil does not waste time tempting the wicked. He can trust them to find their own way to hell. The devil tempts good people, people with high ideals, people longing for a better world. And he accomplishes that purpose by offering them the tool they need to achieve their noble purposes, namely, coercive power.

It is tempting to buy into the notion that the power of the nations and their splendor is neutral. It can be used for good or ill, in the service of justice or oppression, for altruistic or selfish ends. But that is not what the gospel tells us. According to the gospels, the power and splendor of the world’s kingdoms belong to the devil. You cannot make use of them without paying the devil his due.

The demonic nature of coercive power is often obscured by all that power promises to deliver for the cause of good. I want my children to be successful in life and so I use parental power to punish and reward, to restrict and permit in order to steer them into the paths I believe are best for them. I want my congregation to be focused on outreach and service to my community. So I influence the nomination committee to select for leadership positions people I know share my vision. And why not? If I know what is good and what is right and I have the power to make it happen, why not use it? My children will thank me someday for what they now resent. God will surely overlook a little manipulation of pastoral relations and a few procedural irregularities in congregational process if the result is a powerful witness of justice, peace and service to my community. Coercive power gets results-or so the devil would have us believe.

Of course, things seldom work out as well as one hopes. I wish I could tell you how many unhappy people I have met over the years damaged by and estranged from parents who exercised excessive control under the rubric “I’m doing this because I love you.” A pastor who knows the ropes of church politics can run almost any proposal through a church council and get it approved by the congregation. But to make it work, pastors need the trust and confidence of their people, something they lose once it becomes clear that they have abused their influence to get their way. The splendor and power of the nations is not all that it seems. It is not as effective as it appears. Worse still, it comes with a heavy hidden price and the devil is a merciless creditor. The words of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar ring true:

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best-
God! but the interest!

The costly failure of coercive power is evident. The guns marketed by the gun industry promising protection and safety for our homes are killing our children. The militarization of the police in the name of “law and order” has served only to inflame the fault lines of racial injustice in the United States. Elections imposing the will of the majority on the minority have neither resolved the issues dividing us as a nation nor united us as a people. In the name of saving and/or liberating Ukraine by flooding it with arms and fighters, the nations of the world are destroying it-along with the peoples dying of starvation in the horn of Africa due to the resulting disruption of grain transports. The greatest military power on the planet failed spectacularly in Iraq and Afganistan. The power of the nations is illusory. It cannot deliver the peace, security or prosperity it promises. The devil knows this well. That is why he is willing to part with his so-called power so freely. The devil knows very well how attractive is all the good such power promises to deliver and how blind we are to its cost. So also does Jesus. That is why Jesus tells the devil to keep his power and take a hike.

According to Saint Paul, God’s power appears to the nations of the world as “weakness.” The cross is folly to the nations. It has no place in their struggle for dominance and control. I Corinthians 1:20-25. Our way of exercising power is not God’s way. God loves the world too much to impose God’s will upon it. God will rule the world through love-or not at all. That means God sets aside God’s power of coercion-even if it means that the best God has to give us will be rejected, ridiculed and nailed to a cross. God will not avenge the murder of God’s only Son. Instead, God just keeps raising him up and offering to us again for as long as it takes to win our hearts. God’s power is God’s patience, God’s refusal to be suckered into the devil’s game of intimidation, violence and retribution.

During this Lenten season I think we would do well to meditate on the kind of power exercised in our families, in our work, in our schools and in our churches. What are the practices of coercion that need to be rejected along with all the other works and ways of the devil?

Here is the full poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar cited above expressing the consequence of incurring indebtedness to evil.

The Debt

This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end-
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release-
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best-
God! but the interest!

Source: Johnson, James Weldon, The Book of American Negro Poetry (c. 1922 by Harcourt Brace & Company). Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was one of America’s first influential African American poets. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio where he lived with his widowed mother. His poetic skill became evident already in high school. The only black student in his class, he was elected class president and class poet. Though he was never able to obtain a college education, he read voraciously. His early poetry gained the admiration and respect of influential poets such as James Whitcomb Riley. With the support of Orville Wright, then in the publishing business, Dunbar was able to publish his first book of poetry. His popularity continued to grow and in 1896 he was invited for a six month reading tour in England to present his poetry. He returned in 1897, married fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore and took a clerkship position in the U.S. Library of Congress, a job that left him time to continue his writing career. Tragically, Dunbar’s physical and psychological health began to deteriorate in 1902, leading to his eventual divorce. He became fatally ill in 1905 and died in February of the following year.

You can find out more about Paul Laurence Dunbar and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

3 thoughts on “The Seductive Allure of Power

      1. It’s not the first time I ever gave thought to the matters in your post, but I confess, not with great depth. It’s hard to think and talk about things practically no one talks about and mostly refuses to consider.

        I may come again with more feedback later, but at the moment, I am reading a post on another blog which, in a roundabout way, has me thinking of yours again. I want to link that blogger here too. She also is a particularly thoughtful and helpful theologian for me.

        God bless…



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