The Temptation to Be Powerful – Henri Nouwen

The Temptation to Be Powerful – Henri Nouwen

One of the best books I’ve ever read on ministry and leadership is In The Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen.  I was introduced to it sometime in the early 1990’s, and it has been work to which I have returned regularly.  As Nouwen’s words have often been timely and good reminders for me, I thought I would share some of this thoughts on power here:

You all know what the third temptation of Jesus was.  It was the temptation of power. “I will give you all the kingdoms of the world in their splendor,” the demon said to Jesus.  When I ask myself the main reason for  so many people having let the Church during the past decades in France, Germany, Holland, and also in Canada and America, the word “power” easily comes to mind.  One  of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power—political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power—even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are [Philippians 2:5-11]. The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest of all.  We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power—provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings—is a good thing.  With this rationalization, crusades took place; inquisitions were organized; Indians were enslaved; positions of great influence were desired; episcopal palaces, splendid cathedrals, and opulent seminaries were built; and much moral manipulation of conscience was engaged in.  Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the Church such as the Great Schism of the eleventh century, the Reformation of the sixteenth century, or the immense secularization of the twentieth century, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus.

“It seems easier to be God
than to love God,
easier to control people
than to love people,
easier to own life
than to love life.”

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to won life than to love life.  Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Matthew 20:21).  Ever since the snake said, “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil” (Genesis 3:5), we have been tempted to replace love with power.  Jesus lived that temptation in the most agonizing way from the desert to the cross.  The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control  over the cross, being a leader over being led.  Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.

One thing is clear to me:  the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat.  Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships ad have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.

—Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, 57-60


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About the author

I’m a husband, father, and one of those friends who has a terrible habit of not returning phone calls.  I’m really just trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, and I enjoy meeting great people along the way and maybe having a chance to spend time talking about things deep and trivial.

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