Power. So much about the time in which we live seems to have to do with misunderstandings and abuses of power. We see painful examples of this in the world, but even more concerningly, in the body of Christ. The solution is not an abandonment of power, but a fresh encounter and renewed relationship with God, the Holy Spirit, who gives us power for mission that matches His character and intentions.
As the Rev. Dr. Seth Richardson, our Telos Lab executive director said recently
: “To follow Jesus is to welcome the Holy Spirit’s disruptive and unsettling presence, expecting reorientation as normative. When we walk with Jesus, open to the Spirit, the invisible becomes visible, both human complicity with death and the kingdom of God’s life are unveiled.”
The Rev. Dr. JR Rozko
Executive Director of the Telos Collective
Paradoxical Leadership: Healthy Power Begins With Emptiness
Author and Pastor of St Lucia Uniting Church, Brisbane, Australia
November 4th, 2021
Given the abuses of power we see in the Church, we’re all a little over leadership these days. However, leadership is a Christian phenomenon: throughout scripture God himself appoints leaders to communicate on his behalf. The question is: What is Christlike leadership?
Jesus embodies a paradox: the powerful leader who empties of power, the influential visionary who does not coerce. However, we too often lead in his name but not in his way. We divorce his outcomes from his manner, imagining the ends justify the means. Our ambition to accomplish his mission undermines our claims. And so too often, instead of embodying Jesus’ paradoxical leadership, we lead with tragic irony—desperately trying to share Jesus in a way that looks very unlike Jesus. And the world notices, repulsed by our lack of integrity.
What did Jesus know that we’re missing? I believe it has a lot to do with how we begin. How we start the day can make the difference between our ironic leadership and Jesus’ paradoxical leadership.
Each morning I wake to the weight of the power I’ve been given—the decisions I have to make, the sermons I’m scheduled to preach, the people I’m called to lead. And with the same intensity, I feel an aching awareness of how little I can carry—the future I can’t foresee, the Bible passages I can’t understand, the conflicts I can’t overcome. It’s excruciating to come to the end of myself. And to do so many times a day. But I’m learning the sacredness of this moment. I’m learning to pause, to pay attention to my temptation to grasp for power and control. I’m becoming aware of my instinct to do whatever makes me feel adequate and successful. If I steward it well, this moment of angst can become deeply sacred.
Power That Fades
In Corinthians 3, Paul reminds us of the glory days of Moses. We envy Moses’ power, wish we had those stone tablets with tangible, objective words straight from God, and that radiant glow to show we’d been in his very presence. We wish we could avoid the risk of mystery (what did God actually say? and was it actually God?), the risk of subjectivity (how do I know it’s not just my own feelings and thoughts I’m hearing?) Stone tablets and a glorious glow might help us feel the power of answers and outcomes and an unquestionable direction from God. We’d love to begin every role, every day, every meeting with the power of that fresh-from-the-mountain-top Moses.
As a pastor, I want to offer my congregation answers that satisfy them, that make me look and feel professional and competent. And in that gaping void between what this ministry requires of me and what power I actually have, I’ll reach for anything that feels solid, making an idol out of good but limited things to alleviate the pain of my powerlessness. I’ll reach for whatever offers the quickest fix—my own gifts or intellect, a doctrinal position, experts, mission statements, shiny new programs. In the face of big questions and pressing problems, leadership that says, “Let’s pray and follow the Spirit” can leave us feeling deflated.
Paul knows all this. As much as we revere, and even envy Moses’ ministry, Paul surprises us by describing it with the words “death,” “condemnation” and “fading.” Although Moses begins strong, the power fades. From Moses’ hero story, Paul then takes a surprising turn to cast us as main characters! And from the ancient technology of the stone tablet, Paul now draws to mind his contemporary practice of writing on animal skins and storing them for safe-keeping in clay jars. God is no longer chiseling laws into stones that can be broken and lost, no longer communicating to one human who glows for a short while. Now God communes directly with anyone who’ll welcome him, imprinting on hearts of flesh, hearts held in clay vessels. And the glory of that communion is no longer temporary but shines with ever-increasing glory, more marvelous because of the strange incongruity between those glorious contents and their ordinary containers.
Paul offers God’s invitation: “Are you willing to begin with your weakness so my power can be seen?”
Beginning With Weakness
My efforts to ramp up each morning—to be enough, know enough, control enough—never give me the power I want. Those attempts to begin strong always end in burnout, abuse, defeat. So I do the only thing I know to do: I choose the opposite of self-preservation. I move into my frailty. I begin each day with confession: I confess I want stone tablets. I want finished products, quick answers, control. I empty out all my feeble attempts at being enough.
God invites us to feel the ordinariness, the fragility of this humble clay and to trust that ordinary, frail humanity is where he most longs to live. He invites us to let our bodies, our stories, our personalities, in all their complexity and brokenness, be the place he writes himself.
As I’ve practiced this daily emptying, I’ve inadvertently made myself available to something. With each morning spent emptying, some new power began to present itself. As I released my power (even imperfectly), I became aware of an energy, a creativity, a life force which was in me but which I knew was not from me. It was more joyful and dynamic, more resourceful and courageous than I had ever been. And the more I emptied of my own power, the more this other power grew so I could no longer keep it at the edge of my consciousness. It made itself known in my dreams and senses, through nature and music. It began to resonate in conversation, to sing in scripture, to ripple through the gathered community. I hadn’t suddenly become more special to God—simply more available. Not because I was particularly good at anything, but because I’d stopped trying so hard to be good at anything.
2 Corinthians doesn’t speak of a fickle Spirit who comes and goes with our feelings or who only speaks to a super-spiritual select few. The passage promises a permanent, ever-increasing glory, a seal of God’s own presence. This Spirit is within us but simply unwilling to force himself upon us. Unlike us, he waits for power to be given. Our job is to actively, purposefully, regularly give over our power. And to pay attention to what flourishes in that emptiness.
What Grows When We Empty
Now, after emptying, we’ll need a new posture. After releasing one kind of power, we receive an invitation to take up a different kind. After all, we do have power—gifts, agency, energies, resources—which we are called to steward. (And underuse of power is also power abuse.) The limited nature of our agency may have tempted us in the past to take up a ravenous, abusive power. But now, after emptying out our efforts to be more than we are, we learn to be okay with our human limitations. We’ve released the shame of needing something beyond ourselves. And now, we can own our agency with joy. Now we freely use our power, limited though it may be. We say yes to the Spirit’s invitation to the dance—we have listened and now we speak, we have received and now we give, we have been still and now we move to action. We embrace the kind of authority that comes from submission, learning to avoid both overuse and underuse of our power. We begin to discover the boldness Paul describes, knowing what it means to be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down but not crushed, despairing, forsaken or destroyed. At once fragile and invincible. At once dying and made alive.
To be powerful like Jesus will not feel powerful. It will feel like releasing, like emptying, like death. But that’s okay. As Paul says, “We’re always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” This is the paradox. In Jesus’ way, what begins with emptying of power becomes truly powerful. What feels like death looks like life.
Leadership that begins with our own power becomes a wretched irony, a leadership which lives the opposite of its own claims. Its first impression of strength soon reveals a hollow core. Its inauthenticity negates our witness. But leadership that begins with emptying of our power makes space for the power of the Spirit. The world is intrigued when an ordinary person is strangely glorious, when a weak person leads with uncanny power. It’s a puzzle that contains a deep truth: paradox holds space for power to co-exist with weakness, for God to co-exist with humans. Paradox bears witness to a world yet unknown.
Click here for a guided emptying prayer practice put together by Mandy Smith based on 2 Corinthians 4.
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Spirit and Power: A Paradox in Practice
The Rev. Dr. Dan Morrison
Assistant Rector at All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO and Navy Chaplain in the Special Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy
December 8th, 2021
“But we have the power.”
I received this response from a man in the audience after I explained that the early Church did not possess the power to vote Caesar out of his political office. I pointed out that Christ-followers had no choice but to live as Spirit-empowered people of God amid a culture antithetical to the gospel.
The man’s response was accurate. Sadly, unlike the early Church, some people in the present-day North American Church recognize they have power but fail to exercise it amid an ungodly culture in ways that align with biblical standards. When the disciples asked Jesus about socio-political power and the restoration of their earthly kingdom, he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). While some may challenge the possession and exercise of power, as Christian leaders we must recognize that with the Spirit of God comes power and guidance for its right and righteous exercise. Such exercises of power challenge inappropriate and unrighteous demonstrations of authority and bear witness to God’s intent regarding humans exercising the authority he gave them.
Power Is Not Bad.
Amid our current climate, the possession of power has a poor reputation. Some discussions associated with power have misconstrued it and painted it negatively. Others affirm its possession, when rightly held, while challenging its misappropriation.
The beginning of Scripture reveals that God gave power to humanity. Genesis 1:28 says, “God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘…have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'” In the New Testament, Jesus gave his disciples authority (Luke 10:19). Both the Old and New Testaments affirm that humans have always possessed power; it is a gift from God. The problem, therefore, is not power. Instead, it is the misuse of power.
Misuse, Abuse, and Neglect—the Summation of Sin
The misuse of power summarizes almost every sin. Even those sins that one may consider internal (e.g., hate, lust, and jealousy) express the desire to misuse power.
This was not the original inclination of humanity. Initially, humans possessed power harmoniously and equitably. This shared dominion among humans paints a picture of God’s intent. It was not until after the Fall—an event where humans first sinned through their abuse of the authority God gave them—that there arose a power disparity between humans. Humanity continues its attempts to exercise dominion over creation, including one another.
The first image of power disparity appears in Genesis 3:16 when God tells the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” This single event resulted in the perpetuation of power abuse and neglect throughout human history. Sadly, many Christians today attempt to live under the results of the Fall when it comes to power disparity, especially between men and women, while they resist other effects like sickness and death. The Christian life demands consistency in following biblical principles.
The perpetual misuse of power in society demands that we ask ourselves, “Does my use of power benefit others, or does it only benefit me and those within my group?” We must advocate for those who lack power. If you are economically advantaged, do you speak up or advocate for the poor? If you are from the cultural majority, do you advocate for the many ethnic minorities in the world around you? As an ethnic minority, I greatly appreciate when a white brother or sister comes alongside and joins their voice with mine in speaking up for racial justice. I have also had sisters in Christ note that they appreciate when brothers speak up with them regarding equitable treatment. For those who think they have no chance to benefit others, opportunities abound. From a place of privilege, leaders must make sure they do not neglect to advocate for others.
The Book of Common Prayer addresses and challenges power misuse. The Confession of Sin, as found in the Daily Office, acknowledges both forms of power misuse in which people engage. During Morning and Evening Prayer, people pray, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Both neglect and abuse count as offenses against God’s holy laws and require repentance.
As leaders, we can embody both abuse and neglect. These two types of sin go hand in hand, as exemplified by David’s story in 2 Samuel 11. The text opens by highlighting David’s neglect of his royal responsibility to go out to battle with his men (11:2). David not only failed to fulfill his responsibility as king, but he also took the wife of one of his soldiers, slept with her, and used his military authority to kill her husband, Uriah, after David had no way to cover up her pregnancy.
Later in the story of David, his son, Amnon, abused his power by physically dominating and raping his sister, Tamar. Sadly, David once again misused his power as a king and a father when he failed to rightly exercise his authority and address the issues of Tamar’s rape and Amnon’s abusive behavior. The Scriptures reveal that David was “very angry” after he heard about what occurred. At the same time, this reveals that an emotive or cognitive response, without action, does not serve as a biblically satisfactory reaction to evil. We must exercise our power and respond appropriately.
Like David, many of us will be aware that things are not right and will remain silent. While most contemporary Bibles provide no reason for David’s silence, the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) asserts that David’s silence was because of his love for his son and Amnon’s position as firstborn (2 Kingdoms 13:21). Others have asserted that it was to avoid confrontation, given his sin concerning Bathsheba and Uriah.
Unfortunately, David is not the only biblical example of neglect when it comes to exercising power and authority. Jacob did the same thing—nothing—when his daughter, Dinah, was taken by Shechem. Jacob went a step farther and criticized his sons who took action in light of his inaction. While Simeon and Levi expressed concern for Dinah, Jacob expressed concern over his self-preservation. Like many today, Jacob seemed unwilling to exercise any power on behalf of another because he cared too much what others thought of him.
When looking at David’s story, leaders must ask themselves, “Does my use of power promote life and equitable demonstrations of justice?” David’s silence due to his love for his son raises many questions regarding his love for his daughter. Did he love her, or did he simply love her less? The use of hashtags like #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and #ACNAToo point to what seems to be a history of silence from leaders regarding sexual assault, as well as silencing the stories of sexual assault victims. Even in attempts to help, many leaders attempt to silence power abuse and neglect, much like Tamar’s brother, Absalom, encouraged her to keep quiet about the assault she experienced. But silence will not make the problems of racism and sexism go away. Like physical cancer, these societal cancers do not go away; they only grow and worsen with time.
The Holy Spirit and Power
Worldly power often results in injustice and death. Cain exercised his physical power over his brother Abel and killed him (Gen. 4:1–16). Ahab and Jezebel exercised their political power over Naboth and had him killed. Then, they took his vineyard—the inheritance and economic power his family possessed in their society (1 Kings 21:1–16). The inconsistent exercise of power in the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53—8:11) leaves many questions regarding how this woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” and the scribes and Pharisees did not bring the man with her before Jesus.
On the contrary, the power of the Spirit brings life and justice. Despite these blatant abuses of power, Scripture models how to exercise the Spirit’s power in righteous ways. Through the Spirit’s power, Peter brought life to Tabitha when she experienced death (Acts 9:36–43). The first deacons were required to be full of the Holy Spirit. They had the task of establishing equity and rightly managing resources distributed among Jewish widows from different ethnic groups (Acts 6:1–7). With the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus, he proclaimed justice (Matt 12:18). The Spirit’s activity among the Church today demands that we as leaders also proclaim justice.
The Holy Spirit will not permit the prostitution of his power. The Scriptures repeatedly reveal that when the Holy Spirit is involved, the exercise of power is not simply over others but is for others. In Luke’s gospel (11:1–13), after Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he used an illustration about a man who came at midnight asking for three loaves of bread. The man received what he needed, but it is important to note that what he requested is on behalf of someone else—not himself. As he concluded this teaching, Jesus connected it with the giving of the Spirit to those who ask. In other words, the one who receives the Spirit does not benefit from the Spirit’s power; those who receive the ministry of the Spirit through this individual do. Peter received no benefit when raising Tabitha, but Tabitha’s life was restored. When the seven were chosen, they did not receive any benefit, but the ministry of the word increased through the apostles, and the Church grew. Power for service is the power of the Spirit.
Exercising the power of the Spirit comes at a cost to leaders who wield it. The Spirit’s power challenges the power systems of this world and proclaims through word and deed Christ and his Kingdom. Worldly systems do not like being challenged. Jesus, bearer of the Spirit par excellence, was killed by his worldly government because his exercise of power threatened the kingdoms of this world. Living by the power of the Spirit cost Barnabas economic wealth as he sold his property and gave the proceeds of the sale to the apostles (Acts 4:36–37). Stephen, one of the first deacons, lost his life while empowered by the Spirit. When you live by the Spirit and his power, you will experience opposition, even from those who proclaim they are people of God.
As the examples above reveal, leaders who rightly exercise power must ask themselves, “Does my exercise of power have the potential to cost me something?” Far too often, leaders are willing to rightly exercise power when it costs them nothing. What about when it costs you something? Are you still willing to exercise your power in a righteous manner? For some leaders, doing the right thing will come at a cost of power according to worldly standards. So, what are you willing to give up for exercising power in a biblical fashion?
Spirit and Power in a Severed Society
Church leaders face a watershed moment. We must choose whether we will righteously exercise the Spirit’s power to benefit others or exercise worldly power for our own benefit. We must wield power carefully. Simon the Magician desired to use his economic strength to gain the Spirit’s power (Acts 8:19–20). Peter was clear that such could result in divine punishment. If Simon’s motives could have such dire consequences, the misuse of power seems to be just as, if not more, dangerous for leaders today. Therefore, we must make sure we are exercising power for the honor and glory of God.
With great power comes great responsibility. Use it in a godly fashion.
Helpful Resources for Understanding Power
- Praying with Our Feet: Pursuing Justice and Healing on the Streets by Lindsey Krinks
- Sin by Silence: Prison is Safer than the Love of Your Life directed and produced by Olivia Klaus
- Justice Songs, and album by The Porter’s Gate
- “Power and the Christian” a study by Diana Garland and Vicki Kabat
The opinions and views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily represent those of any ecclesial body with which I am associated.
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The Rev. Erin Bair
Rector, St. Michael’s Anglican Church, Gainesville, Virginia, and Director, OpenAir: A Spiritual Formation Collaborative
December 10th, 2021
If I had to pick a favorite book by Henri Nouwen, it might just be The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. Writing in 1981, Nouwen contrasted the Christian life with the goal of “upward mobility” so prominent not only in American culture, but in much of the American church as well. While current economic realities may have turned “upward mobility” into a quaint idea and a bygone phrase for many us, the idea that the way of Christ stands inarguably at odds with the idols of success, wealth, and influence that drive so much of our lives is as true as ever. (And lest we think that as pastors and church leaders we’re immune to the temptations of those idols, consider the last time you felt either gratification or dissatisfaction over the number of people who sit in your pews, followers you have on social media, or speaking invitations you’ve received.)
“The story of our salvation stands radically over and against the philosophy of upward mobility. The great paradox which Scripture reveals to us is that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility…. In the center of our faith as Christians stands the mystery that God chose to reveal the divine mystery by unreserved submission to the downward pull.”
Every prophetic bone in my body resonates with these words. Nouwen is preaching the gospel that I think I and so much of the Church need to hear.
The Temptation of Power
Nouwen names power as one of the three temptations of upward mobility. Yet when I read him eschewing the temptation to power, I grow uneasy. Not because I think Nouwen is wrong, but because I know how the narrative of Jesus’ downward way, his selfless servanthood, has so often been used by those who hold power to keep in check those who don’t. Christian slave-owners in pre-Civil War America were notorious for manipulating passages of scripture that talk about servanthood, submission, and slavery to discourage enslaved people from resisting their oppression. Even today, when women of color hold the majority of domestic service jobs, language that exalts servanthood without awareness of the realities and impacts of social and economic inequalities can, however unintentionally, shore up systems that lead to exploitation and oppression. Extolling the virtues of the downward way becomes problematic if we’re speaking primarily those farther down the ladder from us. This is a dynamic of which we as pastors and leaders—whose positions of authority inherently carry some degree of power over those in our congregations and organizations—must be particularly aware.
So how do we think and teach and preach about a distinctly Christian approach to power without further entrenching the power differentials that continue to give rise to so much suffering? How do we truly and faithfully embrace the downward way of Christ without further disempowering the already disempowered?
I think we begin to find the answer when we consider power to be something Jesus calls us to give away as we enter into deep encounter with those to whom it has been denied.
Power Given and Received
When I think about what truly Christ-like power looks like, I think of the story of Jesus healing the bleeding woman, especially as Luke tells it.
This story fascinates me. The woman, as afraid to draw attention to herself as she is desperate for help, pushes through the crowd toward Jesus in the wild hope that just touching his robe will heal her. Jesus, in the midst of a crowd that’s pressing in on him from every side, stops cold when her hand touches the fabric of his clothes. “Someone touched me,” he says; “I know that power has gone out from me” (Luke 8:46).
To my knowledge, it’s the only place in the gospels where we’re told explicitly that healing costs Jesus something, that it takes something out of him. And what it takes out of him is power. (How that happens without diminishing the full power of Jesus’ divinity is part of the mystery of the Incarnation—but I think we can take Jesus at his word when he says that his power is spent in this interaction.)
So often we think about the healings Jesus performs as being displays of his power. But what Jesus tells us here is that, at least from his perspective, the act of healing isn’t one of displaying power, but of giving it away. This is the selfless, downward path that Nouwen talks about; this is Christ’s self-emptying love.
But though Jesus has felt power go out from him—though he’s given power away—the story isn’t over. His encounter with this woman is incomplete, and only Luke’s account tells us exactly what it is that Jesus is still looking for: “Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet.”
Seeing that she could not go unnoticed. The woman has been healed, and she probably would have been very content to melt away into the crowd and begin her life freed from her debilitating condition. She would have been content—but Jesus is not. Not until he sees her; not until she has been seen. And when they have seen each other, when she has given voice to her story and he has received it, Jesus speaks these words: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
He calls her “daughter.” For Jesus, healing is always about more than the alleviation of a physical ailment; it is about connection and relationship, about knowing and being known, about seeing and being seen.
And I wonder if this—this seeing and being seen—is at least one of the keys to proclaiming the downward way of Christ in a manner that doesn’t contribute to the disempowerment of the already powerless. When we bother to stop, look, and see another person, we are giving our power away in a deeply Christlike manner. To truly see someone else is one of the most dignifying, empowering, and thus healing things that we can do.
Seeing and Being Seen
I experienced the healing power and empowerment of being seen on a cold February day in Des Moines, Iowa. I had graduated from seminary the previous spring and was in the middle of my year-long Clinical Pastoral Education residency. (CPE is an intensive experience of providing pastoral care in a clinical setting—usually a hospital—undertaken by people preparing for ministry.)
As a CPE resident, I was routinely working 60- to 70-hour weeks, spending nights and weekends at the hospital when I was on call, and passing most of my days with people experiencing the worst of theirs. On top of that, I was living in a new city where I knew almost no one and where we were having a winter so cold and snowy that even my elderly patients admitted it was more like the winters of their childhoods than anything they’d experienced in decades.
I was, to put it simply, pretty miserable.
On that February day, I was meeting with my supervisor in his office for our weekly check-in. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I remember that I was, not uncharacteristically, in tears. My supervisor leaned back in his chair, folded his hands across his stomach, looked at me with kind eyes, and in his Arkansas accent said gently, “You know, I’ve been wondering something. I’ve been wondering if you might be dealing with some depression.”
Half of me wanted to bound up out of my chair, puff out my chest, put my hands on my hips, and proclaim defiantly, “No! Not ME!”
But the other half of me wanted to let out the deepest exhale of my life and whisper, “Yes. Yes, that explains it. That explains why I stand in the shower weeping for no discernible reason. Why I cannot find the energy to do even the things I enjoy doing. Why something inside of me just feels dead. That finally explains it.”
I struggle to put into words the depth of relief I felt in that moment. It didn’t end my depression, but it was like the first ray of light breaking over the horizon after a long, cold night. It was a reminder that things hadn’t always felt like this and a promise that they might not feel like this forever. It was the beginning of healing. It was hope.
My supervisor—who held the position of power in the relationship—could have responded so differently. He could have told me to suck it up and do my job. He could have said, “I think you should talk to a counselor so you can figure out what your problem is.” He could have just not noticed at all.
But he didn’t. He saw me—really saw me. He named what he saw with compassion, gentleness, and respect. He used his power to empower me to pursue my own healing. He followed the downward path, and in doing so he helped lift me up to life.
* * *
Power given, power received; seeing, being seen; the downward path that raises others up. This is the way of Jesus. For us who would be his disciples, I pray it would be ours as well.
Download A Guided Scripture Meditation on Power Given and Received Resource here.
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Bonhoeffer on Holy Weakness and the Victory of the Suffering God
Dr. Chris EW Green
Professor of Public Theology at Southeastern University and Director for St Anthony Institute of Theology, Philosophy, and Liturgics
December 13th, 2021
What the devil really fears is the powerlessness of God.
Johann Baptist Metz
One Sunday evening in the late Spring or early Summer of 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered a sermon to St John’s German Evangelical Reformed Church in London, one of two small Lutheran congregations he pastored at the time. He spoke in English because many of his younger parishioners were not fluent in German, and he took as his text one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Bonhoeffer’s sermon began with what could easily have been taken as an unnecessarily philosophical question: “What is the meaning of weakness in this world?” But if anyone considered the question too academic, Bonhoeffer quickly broke the illusion. Insisting that “our whole attitude toward life, toward humanity and God depends on the answer to this problem,” he directed his hearers’ attention to the ugly specifics of poverty, disease, disability, racism, bigotry, self-delusion, realities he had come to know well, not least because of his time in the United States and his experiences at the Bethel care clinics in Westphalia:
Have you ever seen a greater mystery in this world than poor people, ill people, insane people—people who cannot help themselves but who have to rely on other people for help, for love, for care? Have you ever thought what outlook on life a cripple, a hopelessly ill person, a socially exploited person, a colored person in a white country, an untouchable—may have? And if so, did you not feel that here life means something totally different from what it means to you, and that on the other hand you are inseparably bound together with such unfortunate people, just because you are human like them, just because you are not weak but strong, and just because in all your strength you will feel their weakness? Have we not felt that we shall never be happy in our life as long as this world of weakness from which we are perhaps spared—but who knows for how long—is foreign and strange and far removed from us, as long as we keep away from it consciously or subconsciously?
Having called attention to the mystery of these jarring miseries, Bonhoeffer turned at last to an even deeper and more unnerving mystery: the misery of God.
We suffer: God suffers much more. Our God is a suffering God. Suffering conforms humanity to God. The suffering person is in the likeness of God. “My strength is made perfect in weakness” says God. Wherever one of us, in physical or social or moral or religious weakness, is aware of our existence and likeness to God, there we are sharing God’s life, there we feel God being with us, there we are open for God’s strength, that is God’s grace, God’s love, God’s comfort, which passeth all understanding and all human values. God is glorified in the weak as God in Christ was glorified on the cross. God is mighty where humanity is nothing.
Taken out of context, it’s tempting to dismiss Bonhoeffer’s claims as exaggerated, overwrought. And his preacherly style makes these passages easy to exploit. The truth is, however, that the concerns shown in this sermon, given just before he returned to teach in the seminary at Finkenwalde, remained with him to the end. Although still a young man, he had already witnessed again and again Christians succumbing to “the worship of power,” exchanging the truth of God’s weakness for the lie of human supremacy and domination. Throughout the final years of his life, he spoke out against the fanaticism that always follows the fetishization of strength. And in the end, he died in ways true to his convictions.
This is the truth we can’t afford to miss: Bonhoeffer is not praising failure or vulnerability as such or in general. He is not fetishizing weakness. He is not speaking in abstractions. He is speaking specifically about Jesus’s weakness. If weakness is holy, it is only because Jesus, the holy one, has become weak to rescue us from what we’ve imagined as strength. We stand with the weak not because they are weak but because they are Christ’s and Christ’s is God’s. Weakness is not essentially an ideological category, and Christian solidarity with the weak is not a political strategy. As St Paul taught us, we cannot hope to share in the consolation of the new if we do not share in the desolations of the old. So, we do not merely stand with the weak. We become weak ourselves, vulnerable with God’s own vulnerability. How? Praying until our lived lives are ignited limb to limb by the passion of God.
On Remembrance Sunday 1939, Bonhoeffer gave the homily to a small, beleaguered band of believers gathered for worship on a snowy farm in Sigurdshof. He took as his text 1 Corinthians 15:55: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting: O grave, where is thy victory?” He readily admits that Christ’s victory stands in question. But he insists that that question—“Why do we see so little of God’s victory in our lives?”—is in fact the question God puts to us! In the end, he concludes, we have to give ourselves either to the power of sin and death or to the power of the one who in his death triumphed over sin and death:
We do not like to speak of victories in our lives. It is too large a word for us. We have suffered too many defeats in our lives. Too many hours of weakness and too many crude sins have reduced victory to nothing. But, isn’t it true, the spirit within us longs for this word, yearns for the final victory over sin, over the anxious fear of death in our lives. And now God’s word does not speak to us about our victory. It does not promise us that from now on we will be victorious over sin and death. It does say with all power, however, that someone has won this victory, and that this one will also win the victory over us when we have him as our Lord. It is not we who are victorious but Jesus. Today, we proclaim and believe this, against everything that we see around us, against the graves of our loved ones, against the dying nature outdoors, against the death that the war casts over us once again. We see the reign of death, but we preach and believe in the victory of Jesus Christ over death. Death is swallowed up in victory. Jesus is victor…
It’s crucial to see—to behold—these truths at once and as one: God is glorified in the weak and Jesus, the gloriously weak one, is victor. Indeed, it is because Jesus is victor that our God suffers.
In his Ethics, Bonhoeffer argues that two seemingly contradictory sayings must be heard as one word of God: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40) cannot be understood rightly apart from “Whoever is not for me is against me” (Mt. 12:30). “Both sayings necessarily belong together, one as the exclusive claim, and the other as the all-encompassing claim of Jesus Christ.” To separate them would mean being pulled either into fanatical sectarianism or into faithless secularization. In the same way, we have to hold together the glory of weakness and the glory of strength, the glory of defeat and the glory of victory, the glory of death and the glory of life. Yes, it is true that “a warrior is not delivered by his great strength” (Ps. 33:16). But it is also true that “the Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory” (Zech. 3:17).
Bonhoeffer does not merely rail against power. The successful, he says, stand under the threat of God. But he is quick to add that the unsuccessful are not justified by their lack of success. “Jesus is certainly no advocate for the successful in history, but neither does he lead the revolt of the failures against the successful.” So, this is a bottom line: it is not enough to despise the worship of power or to boast in our weaknesses. It is not enough to confess God as weak or even to take the side of the weak against the strong. We cannot say that God has suffered the worst for the sake of the worst and think we’ve spoken the full gospel.
“God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world.” For this reason, “Christianity stands or falls by its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power, and by its apologia for the weak.” But we should not miss the point: in the powerlessness of Christ God’s power has exerted itself, trampling down death and dethroning the evil one. Remember the words of Scripture: “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25) and “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Wonderfully, God’s violence does not violate; it makes alive—eternally. And God’s weakness does not weaken; it empowers—infinitely. The Lord’s strength is the strength of joy, the strength of love, the strength of song: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with song” (Zech. 3:17). But the Lord’s strength is truly strong. Mary is not wrong to laud him as “the mighty one” (Lk 1:49), however eccentric that may be. It’s true that the devil fears only the powerlessness of God, but he does indeed fear it—and not without reason.
In February 1933, not long before he left for Lond, Bonhoeffer preached his first sermon after Hitler had taken power in Berlin. He focused on Gideon, contrasting the story of Israel’s judge with the myth of Siegfried, the Germanic hero:
This is a passionate story about God’s derision for all those who are fearful and have little faith, all those who are much too careful, the worriers, all those who want to be somebody in the eyes of God but are not. It is a story of God’s mocking human might, a story of doubt and of faith in this God who makes fun of human beings, who wins them over with this mockery and with love. So it is no rousing heroic legend—there is nothing of Siegfried in Gideon. Instead it is a rough, tough, not very uplifting story, in which we are all being roundly ridiculed along with him.
And he concluded by inviting his hearers to imagine themselves bowed together at the foot of the cross: “Beside us kneels Gideon, who was brought through fear and doubt to faith, before the altar of the one and only God, and with us Gideon prays, Lord on the cross, be our only Lord. Amen.” And he urged his audience to hear the word of the one who died on that cross, Gideon’s Lord: “Take off your armor; I am your armor. Put away your pride; I am your pride… Let my grace be sufficient for you. Don’t try to be strong, mighty, famous, respected, but let God alone be your strength, your fame and honor. Or don’t you believe in God?” Do I? Only if, like Gideon, I’m glad to be derided, teased by the God who loves nothing more than a good laugh—especially when the joke is on him.
What, then, do leaders stand to learn from Bonhoeffer’s life and teachings? This, above all: our focus must always remain on Jesus. Not the Christ of our imaginings—the Christ of the cross, Mary’s son, Judas’ friend, Pilate’s victim. If our attention remains on him, if all that we say and do arises from and comes back to what happened with him, we’ll never forget that “God’s cause is not always the cause of success,” and that we can “really be ‘unsuccessful’ even following the right path.” Jesus leads into no future but God. So what matters is neither success nor failure as such, but the newness of life made possible by our readiness to share in his sufferings.
In the summer of 1932, Bonhoeffer gave a sermon in Berlin on Colossians 3.1-4, which he described as witness to the incomprehensible and mysterious truth. “We have not been left alone at all in our lostness,” he said, because Jesus has “broken into our territory of death, has tasted all our living and dying to its deepest depths, and has still broken through this death, broken through to the eternal Father…” But he immediately acknowledges he does not know what in fact he has just said:
Dear friends, we don’t want to give the impression that we understood all that. That is the one event that takes place beyond the boundaries of all that is human and for that reason also beyond the boundaries of our understanding. That Jesus, the great wise man of Galilee, should be the Christ who breaks through the whole line of death, of human dying and living, and leads us in triumph to the Father—no human being yet has understood that. There would be a thousand objections and doubts. There would be insurmountable difficulties. But Christ came into the world not so that we should understand him but so that we should cling to him, so that we simply let him pull us into the unbelievable event of the resurrection, so that we simply have it said to us, said to us in all its incomprehensibility: You have died—and yet you have been raised! You are in the darkness—and yet you are in the light. You are afraid—and yet you can be glad. Right next to each other the completely contradictory; right next to each other, just the way the two worlds, our world and the world of God, are right next to each other.
The following summer, July 23, 1933, Bonhoeffer gave his last sermon in Berlin under incredibly difficult circumstances. Defying German law, Hitler had called for church elections that very day, allowing for German Christians to elect leaders supportive of the Nazi cause. That morning, Bonhoeffer took as his text Jesus’ words to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Without speaking Hitler’s name or addressing the elections directly, he reminded his hearers what God expected from them:
It is not we who are to build, but God. No human being builds the church, but Christ alone. Anyone who proposes to build the church is certainly already on the way to destroying it, because it will turn out to be a temple of idolatry, though the builder does not intend that or know it. We are to confess, while God builds. We are to preach, while God builds. We are to pray to God, while God builds. We do not know God’s plan. We cannot see whether God is building up or taking down. It could be that the times that human beings judge to be times for knocking down structures would be, for God, times to do a lot of building, or that the great moments of the church from a human viewpoint are, for God, times for pulling it down. It is a great comfort that Christ gives to the church: You confess, preach, bear witness to me, but I alone will do the building, wherever I am pleased to do so. Don’t interfere with my orders.
In the end, this is what makes leadership Christian—not interfering with what Christ is doing even in the worst of circumstances and helping others cling to the one who is holding them, no matter what.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness,” in Isabel Best, ed., The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 181-184 (182).
 Bonhoeffer, “My Strength is Made Perfect in Weakness,” 184.
 Bonhoeffer, “Death is Swallowed Up in Victory,” 218-219.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (DBW 6; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 342-344.
 Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 90.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (DBW 8; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 479.
 Bonhoeffer, “Gideon: God is My Lord,” 95.
 Bonhoeffer, “Gideon: God is My Lord,” 93.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940 (DBW 15; Minneapolis: Fortress Press; 2012).
 Bonhoeffer, “The Things That Are Above,” 80.
 Bonhoeffer, “Who Do You Say I Am?” 106.
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