Holy Week presents us with a number of theological problems. One of them has to do with the nature of God's power.
On the one hand, we remember the "impotent" God of Good Friday. He's the one who dies on a cross and yet saves the world. So, some Christians conclude, power is found in weakness, humility, and death. We are not only not to wield the sword, we should also never be angry, aggressive, strong, or forceful. Gentleness and mercy, in every and all situations, becomes the ethical mantra.
On the other hand, Holy Week culminates in Easter, when we remember the omnipotent God who conquers all, including death itself, and thus saves the world. The conclusion of many today is that power is to be found in faith, hope, and even aggressive love. We can do all things through the power of the resurrected Christ. We are already victors! For some, this means exerting a positive, can-do attitude in daily life; for others, it entails a hope-filled and energetic work of justice. In either case, it's all about defeating the powers by holy strength.
So the theological problem of Holy Week is a very practical problem. Jesus gave us authority to confront evil in all its forms (Matt. 10:1). Our answer to the Holy Week question about power goes a long way in determining how we do God's work in the world.
On the one hand, the Bible reveals an extraordinary God of extraordinary ability. From the opening words of Genesis—"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1)—to the closing of the Book of Revelation—"the Lord God omnipotent reigneth" (Rev. 19:6, KJV)—the Bible showcases a divine being who possesses unparalleled power.
This is the God who, without any materials to work with, fashions a universe. He destroys the pretenses of the haughty in Babel, and creates life in the barren womb of Sarah. The biblical God causes famines, instigates plagues, divides waters, and destroys armies. He demands obedience from his people, and when ignored, he raises up other nations who drag his people into exile—and then, when it is in his good will, God ushers them back to their land.
This God does not strain nor sweat, but performs majestic deeds as easily as human beings talk. As the psalmist puts it, God "spoke and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm" (Ps. 33:9). It is no wonder we find Jeremiah sensing God telling him, "I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?" (Jer. 32:27).
Apparently not, for this God shows up in the New Testament as one who makes possible both virgin conception and miraculous resurrection. The birth of the God-man is accompanied by an army of angels, and the life of the God-man is characterized by healing the blind, curing the lame, casting out demons, and raising the dead.
A Roman centurion, a man who understands power, intuitively grasps this. When Jesus offers to walk to the centurion's home to heal his servant, he refuses: "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it" (Luke 7:6-8, ESV). Jesus marvels at this, and tells those standing nearby that "not even in Israel have I found such faith." Faith in Jesus' power.
We smile knowingly when we read that Jesus' contemporaries looked for a political messiah who would usher in the kingdom with the sword. Yet for the longest time in Jesus' ministry, it was an easy mistake to make. Jesus comes across as one who very much looks like the God of Israel, who the prophet Isaiah said "comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him" (Isa. 40:10, ESV).
And then there is the Rambo Jesus of Revelation, pictured with a sword "to strike down the nations," with a robe monogrammed with "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Rev. 19:15-16).
So it makes sense that when the early church wanted to sum up the faith, it would reverberate in words of authority: "We believe in God the Father almighty . . . in Jesus Christ our Lord . . . in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life."
In the Bible, God's almighty power is also the cause of much lament. The God of power constantly disappoints. Many of these expressions of lament cannot be understood apart from a bedrock belief in God's omnipotence. For example, when injustice prevailed in his day, the prophet Habakkuk understandably whined,
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
for the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted. (Hab. 1:2-4, ESV)
Where is almighty God when unlimited power is most needed?
In our own day, we find this question dressed up in fresh garb: How can a good and all-powerful God allow so much evil? Today we do not presuppose God's omnipotence, but we continue to long for it. What we're wondering is, Is God not so powerful after all?
This picture becomes clearer but even more confusing in the New Testament.
We see "God almighty" lying in a manger in the form of a helpless baby. And in God incarnate's refusal to use raw miracle to satisfy his hunger or to prove himself, in a decided lack of interest in the Devil's offer of "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" (Matt. 4:8). And in his repeated refusal to retaliate in the face of injustice, from his arrest to the crucifixion. And in his teaching about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. It's not a picture of omnipotence as much as it is of impotence.
Or of God's left hand.
The Hands of God
When the biblical writers reach for a metaphor for divine power, they often talk about God's "right hand." The psalmist proclaims that the Lord will save his anointed "with the saving power of his right hand" (Ps. 20:6b), and the author of Exodus says, "Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy" (Ex. 15:6, ESV).
By contrast, Father Leslie Chadd, in the article "God's Left Hand," summed up the nature of left-handed power:
At the centre of it is a baby in a makeshift cot in a mucky stable, before whom the kings, symbols of the world's right-handed wisdom and power, bend the knee. He is the Messiah who turns all our cherished right-handed ideas upside down and says that children are [at] the top of the pile, not at the bottom of it. He is the one who rebukes the strong right-handed Boanerges brothers who would knock out those difficult Samaritans with a divine thunderbolt. He is the King who could call an army of angels to his aid but who refuses the help of Peter's sword-bearing right arm. He is the God who will not slay his enemies with his strong right arm but who says instead, "if there is any killing to be done, it will be done to me, not by me."
This leads some to assume that true disciples of Jesus must reject power, because when the God-man was offered it, he refused. Any dabbling in power, or associating God with right-handed power, is to bow to the god of this world and not the God who transcends it and its entire value structure on the Cross.
Well, yes and no. There were plenty of moments when Jesus did, in fact, use raw power, from the healing of lepers to the calming of storms to raising Lazarus from the dead to the cleansing of the temple with a whip of cords, made with his own hands. And as Paul said, Jesus "was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4, ESV).
What God is doing in the New Testament is not denying his right-handed power, but helping us see and experience his left-handed power—and grasp the manifold mystery of divine power.
Many suppose they can grasp the nature of divine power by magnifying the most powerful energy they know to the nth degree. That is to get stuck in the right-hand metaphor. And that is to severely limit the nature of God's power.
What we see in light of Good Friday is that divine power is also revealed in suffering and death. The moments of apparent divine defeat are, in fact, moments of victory. When God looks most weak, that's when he is most omnipotent.
Habakkuk's question—which is our question as well—is turned on its head. "How can an all-powerful God stand by and do nothing while the planet writhes in travail?" But of course, he isn't doing nothing. The suffering of the planet has become his suffering, and divine suffering is always redemptive. The apparent weakness of God during a tsunami or an aids epidemic is like unto the God whose arms are nailed to the cross while onlookers mock his impotence.
In the end, we still have an omnipotent God, but we don't exactly get the omnipotence we imagined. He's the God whose power is manifested in paradoxical ways. He is the one who says, "Is anything too hard for me?" (Jer. 32:27). Apparently not; even impotence cannot sap his strength.
We often wish we lived in a time of glory and power made manifest, of miracle and might as daily bread, as did Abraham and Moses, and Miriam and Mary, and the disciples in the Upper Room. But in these latter days, God seems to have decided to reveal his power mostly in weakness.
This certainly makes our lives interesting. On the one hand, it saves us from having to dig though history to try to prove that God is in charge of this mess. God has providentially ordered things so that there is little evidence of his power in history—another aspect of his apparent weakness. For some reason, he wants to be known mostly as an apparently impotent or absent God. Not a great marketing strategy. While we can never fathom why God is now "displaying" his power in this obtuse way, two things seem apparent.
First, God wants us to move beyond naïve belief in an all-powerful god who magically rescues us from all our problems and makes us happy. This is the health and wealth god, the 10-steps-to-a-full-life god. This is the triumphalist god of social reformers who imagine that with a little more prayer and social elbow grease, we can establish a pure outpost of the kingdom in our day. This is the god who has nothing better to do than to make us happy or make the world a better place to live. The religion that emerges when we worship this god is, in the end, a religion whose totem is the self. It is a religion about my life, my problems, my happiness, or our political life, our social problems, and our nation's well-being. But God knows we need something bigger than this, so he has pulled away the crutch so we might learn to love him and not his power.
Second, God is trying to expand our understanding of the power we have. Since we are created in his image, we are called to embody his paradoxical power.
So, often we are called to wield the left arm, the power of Good Friday. Such as when a coworker insults us and we do not retaliate. Or when a friend betrays us and we forgive. When a church is burned to the ground by a group that despises the faith.
But sometimes we are called to wield the right arm, the power of Easter Sunday. We see the righteous use of the right arm when a mother, by the force of her will, insists that her daughter not cross the street without holding her hand. Or when a coach chews out a player for inattention. Or when a police officer chases down a thief. Or when soldiers attack a terrorist hideout.
Both are forms of divine power; both are able to get things done. Right-handed power can insist on obedience and justice, but it can't change people. Left-handed power cannot bring justice, but it can move hearts. Right-handed power brings order. Left-handed power transforms lives.
In this small way, we alone and in community reflect the very omnipotence of God, a God who aims to bring justice to the earth and change human hearts, one by one. This God is not limited to right-handed power, but is so powerful that even his apparent weakness is a sign that he is able to do what he intends to accomplish for us. This is the God of both Good Friday and Easter.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This article is an edited excerpt from his new book, A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Mark Galli also writes a weekly SoulWork column.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more