Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings explores one of humanity’s fatal flaws: the love of power. The ring of power, the one ring “to rule them all . . . and in the darkness to bind them” only has the power to allure, because people have hearts easily swayed by it and insatiably attracted to its false promise. That is, the false promise of autonomy and control of one’s own destiny.
Some intellectuals, like the atheist philosopher Nietzsche, have concluded that the lust for power and control among humans, is really all there is. This philosophy is dramatically and explicitly depicted in the wildly popular TV series, “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner. As Dostoyevsky well knew, in a world where people live as if God doesn’t exist, then anything is permissible to secure one’s fortunes. In a world like this, any gods that are acknowledged are thoroughly domesticated at best, and totally subservient to the all too familiar idols of money and sex erected on the pedestal of pride. I think this is true whether we’re talking about actual atheism or the practical atheism among Christians that John Wesley warned about (Sermon 130: “On Living Without God”).
Ancient historian Tom Holland, an agnostic, who early in his career thought of Christianity as backwards and a roadblock to progress, now acknowledges that the Judeo-Christian worldview is the foundation to the progress made in the world toward individual rights that so many take for granted. He discovered, contrary of his early inclinations, that it was the advent of Christianity in the midst of a pagan world that was incredibly brutal and callous that really made a difference (see Dominion by Tom Holland). It was when the ring of power had cast one of its darkest spells that the love of power meet the power of love. They were on a collision course predestined before time and the collision broke the spell of the power of darkness definitively.
Countering the love of power was at the heart of Jesus’ mission, and casting out the dark prince of this world and breaking his spell over hearts and minds was one of his chief goals (John 12:31ff). On the night of The Last Supper, Luke tells us that Jesus had to address again his own disciples’ tendency to fantasize aloud about the power they would have when Jesus came into his kingdom. Luke tells us that Jesus repeated a lesson that he had tried to get across in other settings before (Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45).
A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.Luke 22:24-27 NET
Even at this late stage, Jesus’ disciples were still attracted to the ring of power. The dark prince had already seized control of Judas because of this fatal attraction and his other disciples were susceptible to the same fate. So once again Jesus explained, as he would later declare to Pilate, that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). John tells that he not only explained it, he demonstrated it by assuming the posture of the lowliest servants and washing the disciples’ feet to their shock (John 13). This was a prelude to Jesus’ ultimate shock and awe campaign to defeat the devil and cure the love of power with the power of love on the cross.
There are signs of the love of power, the desire to be our own god, to declare autonomy and independence from God, to make our own way rather than submitting to God’s way. One is manipulation of the truth. In other words, the use of lies to attempt to bend reality to conform to our pride and desires. Lies are the result of lawlessness, where people’s desires become a law unto themselves. Another way to describe lawlessness, is inconsistency with covenant, when people selectively apply covenant agreements when it suits their desires, and ignore them or redefine the terms when it doesn’t. And whether this happens in the context of a single relationship or among larger groups or organizations, those who are hellbent on getting what they want when they want it, will use favors and bribes to entice and/or threats and false accusation and leverage of power, to coerce others into going along with them. Covenants, to be beneficial, require the wiling cooperation of those authorized to enforce them to encourage accountability to them. Without that, covenant takes a back seat to convenience and covenantal crisis and chaos is the result. These are signs of the love of power, indeed signs that you are dealing with evil, what Jesus, on the night he was arrested, called the “power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).
A sign of genuine love is truthfulness. Another word for this is “covenant consistency.” Genuine love, inspired by the God who is love, is committed to truth, the reality of the character of God revealed in the purpose and design of God’s good creation and in the revelation of God’s word. Love can never be separated from truth. And love never issues threats to coerce. As Paul said:
Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Cor 13:4-7 NET
Love never issues threats, but it does give warnings. Threats are designed to bring someone into conformity to a lie; warnings are designed to make those we love aware of and save them from the real danger of wandering too far beyond the guardrails of the truth. Threats involve contrived consequences designed to control; warnings help people avoid dangerous natural consequences and snares that often accompany foolish decisions. Love warns but not to coerce. Just as Jesus warned Judas, who had been enticed by the power of darkness to betray him. Since the beginning of Holy Week, I’ve seen reminders of Jesus’ love exemplified by sharing his last supper with Jesus and washing his feet, but I haven’t seen any share how Jesus loved Judas by warning him of the horrifying personal consequences of his actions.
For the Son of Man will go as it is written about him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for him if he had never been born.”Mark 14:21 NET
Jesus came to inaugurate a kingdom founded on the power of love in the midst of a world corrupted by the love of power. Contrary to the delusions of grandeur that plagued the fallen world, including God’s own chosen people, even those in Jesus’ own inner circle, Jesus came to found a kingdom not by force but by love. Jesus told Pilate:
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
When Jesus met Pilate is a love story. The love of power came face to face with the power of love. And the Lord of love told Pilate that he came into this world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). The kingdom founded on the power of love was also firmly grounded in the truth. And it was not a kingdom that would be won and secured by force. Indeed, as he was arrested, Jesus rebuked his own disciple’s attempt to prevent his arrest by sword. He acknowledged that he had the power to summon an army of angels to fight for him, but he would not. His kingdom would not be founded by force, and it would not be a kingdom like those of the world founded in the love of power and for the pleasure of those who lorded their power over the weak.
Jesus demonstrated that his kingdom would be distinguished from worldly kingdoms by the power of love. He, the master of everything, demonstrated this by becoming the servant of all, by washing his disciples’ feet, and most of all by giving his life for the forgiveness of the sins of Israel and the world on the cross, where he was crowned king of Israel and Lord of all. By doing so, he also demonstrated for his own followers how to live in love as citizens of that everlasting kingdom.
His is a kingdom that can’t be taken by force, but neither could it be established by force. His is a kingdom that can only be received freely through faith, by letting go of the ring of power and clinging to the cross of Christ, by the gift of God’s unmerited and unforced grace. That is the power of love.
“I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.”John 13:34-35