When there is a sudden power outage, people become incredibly desperate for alternate energy sources. Suddenly, batteries that were readily available and relatively inexpensive become scarce and overpriced. In a blackout, it doesn’t matter how nice your stereo is or how many watts your flashlight has. If the power isn’t there, they aren’t going to work.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter how modern your car is, if the battery is dead. It doesn’t matter if your car has the best transmission, without battery power it is going nowhere. It doesn’t matter if you have a full tank of gas, without battery power, you are not moving. It could have the best electrical system, all of the bells and whistles, it could be the most expensive of cars, but if the batter is dead, you won’t be going anywhere. Everything else in life can be going well, but if you are powerless, you aren’t going anywhere either.
If we were to compile a list of feelings that most people loathe, right up near the top would be the feeling of powerlessness. That is not to say there aren’t other feelings we’re not fond of, but when we feel helpless, we often cannot think of anything else until we can move through that situation as quickly as possible. This is simply the case for the vast majority of people, but for those in a position of leadership, power is essential.
Power is crucial to leadership. Without it, leaders can’t lead. Unfortunately, power and influence are not always used to help others. If you’re a leader, you have some share in these commodities. You have power over others; they listen to you, and you influence them. What you do with that power and influence matters more than you may realize.
In the Bible, there are four realms of power and authority. First, there is the authority of a man in terms of being a husband. Second, there is the authority of parents over their children. Third, God gives authority to the church. Elders or overseers have certain authority as they exercise their office in the arena of the church. Finally, there is the idea of human government. God uses and gives a measure of divinely ordained authority to human governments.
Clearly, all four of these realms of authority can and, unfortunately very often, are abused and distorted. When they go beyond their proper exercise of authority, they have strayed beyond their God-given intentions. But it has pleased God to establish these four realms of authority.
The author of Psalm 82 describes a scene in which God chastises and challenges Israel’s judges, men who exercised their authority in this final governmental realm. Because of their role as God’s delegates and image-bearers, these men were referred to as “gods.” However, they had begun to exert their power in ungodly ways, abusing and distorting their God-given arena of authority:
How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked…. You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High. But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.
Psalm 82:2-4, 6-7
Rather than defending the unjust and judging with partiality, they were accountable to defend the weak and fatherless and to protect the rights of the poor and oppressed. They were to exercise their power in a godly manner, a manner that would rescue the needy and deliver them from the domination of wicked individuals.
Though they were assigned godlike functions in their roles as judges, the psalmist predicted that they would fall like mere men. While their power may have given them a sense of invincibility, they would one day be called upon to answer to the Judge.
All power and influence is given to us from God as a stewardship; and he will hold leaders accountable for their use of power.. Our challenge is to be faithful and diligent stewards of what we have received. Since all leaders face the same fate, we must exercise our power and influence with grace and love.
It is an unfortunate but true fact that people are typically more impressed by human power and influence than they are by the ever-present, but generally overlooked, evidences of God’s limitless power and influence. A very simple example of this can be found in our near-reverence for human opinion polls and our lack of concern over God’s opinion clearly stated in the pages of the Bible. Yet we are surrounded by evidences of God’s wisdom and creative power. God may seem remote and invisible, but his fingerprints are everywhere to be found by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
We have an alarming tendency, as well, to live as though we will never die, as though we will never be called to account for our words and actions. Death, for many, is merely a philosophical construct, an idea that never becomes a reality but only haunts us in our increasingly rare moments of quiet contemplation. Still, the Bible is clear: “The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). Even in our time of medical advancements, no one has found a way to stave off death forever. Therefore, it would behoove us to have a greater fear of God than of men. The fear of men brings temptation; the fear of God, however, brings wisdom.
The book of Daniel underscores the temporary nature of earthly kingdoms in contrast to the everlasting kingdom that will be ushered in by “one like a son of man” who receives “authority, glory and sovereign power” (Daniel 7:13-14) from the Ancient of Days. The text goes on to say, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (v. 14).
Clearly, we live in the already/not-yet tension of a kingdom which has begun but has not been brought into its fullness. Even the greatest joy we can experience on earth is fleeting. As Alister McGrath observes,
The overwhelming sense of joy that comes with achieving something worthwhile can thus be seen as a hint of something even more wonderful that is yet to come. On earth, such joy is transient, fading away with a speed which can frighten us as much as disappoint us. It seems so transient and brief. If we were to pursue such earthly joy for its own good, we would be doomed to frustration and bitterness. But what if such experiences of joy are not to be seen as things to be captured before they fade away, but as hints of a joy which we have yet to experience, something which awaits us?1
The best we can experience here on earth is, in the words of an old hymn, but “a foretaste of glory divine.” And we wait with eager anticipation and work with all diligence to see God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. History will have its culmination in God’s timing.
Yet even in the meantime, the God of Israel has authority over nature and nations; he changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning (2:21). The affairs of people and of nations may appear to be independent of God’s divine control, but regardless of how people rebel against the plan and purposes of God, “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (4:17, 25, 32). This prophetic book anticipates the day when “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (2:44).
Men’s kingdoms are temporary and fleeting; God’s power and influence are absolute. The kingdoms of men are pictured throughout the book of Daniel – one overtaking the other – from the Babylonians to the Medo-Persians to the Greeks and finally the Romans. All the kingdoms of the earth have their birth, growth, decay and death. Our current western civilization will not escape a similar fate, regardless of who is elected.
Far from being a pessimistic view, though, if we believe that God is who the Bible would have us believe he is, we can maintain a vital optimism. McGrath goes on to say,
All of us need something reliable, unshakeable and secure on which to build our lives. There is little point in building our lives on a set of values or beliefs which will go out of date in five years. God is precisely such an unshakeable and immovable foundation for our lives.2
We know that when God chooses to bring history to a close, he will do so in a benevolent way. History will not end in a minor key. Rather, when history is consummated, everything that has been upside-down will be turned rightside-up. We must only remember that it will not be us who usher this into existence. We do not have the power and influence to accomplish it. Only God has that authority.
And yet this God who is so powerful and so influential is not some sort of cosmic tyrant. As Klaus Issler says, “God’s way of working is not always obvious or stunning. Much of the time, God is so subtle.”3 Far from overpowering us, God most often chooses to walk among those who invite his manifest presence, to speak to those who will listen to his still, small voice.
Though he possesses more power than we could ever imagine, he always uses his authority for the greatest benefit of those who serve him. His service therefore equates to perfect freedom, because his desire is, regardless of what appearances may suggest, always to bless and enrich his people. He demonstrates his loving and merciful intentions toward them in his promise and plan in the coming ages to “show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
The most perfect example we have of one who is all-powerful and yet completely benevolent at the same time is, of course, Jesus. Here is the most powerful man who ever walked the earth, one who had the authority to say to the wind and the waves, “Hush; be still.” He could raise the dead and cast out demons. He could heal all manner of sickness and know the thoughts of a man. And yet how did he use this power? The word that comes to the biblically-informed mind is an odd one: gently. He used persuasion rather than coercion. He looked at people through the lens of compassion. In a word, he was a lover. He possessed authority and power such as the world has never seen, but he exercised incredible restraint.
God frequently allows people to come to the end of their resources in order to get their attention. Tired of clamoring for our attention, fighting through all the noise with which we surround ourselves on a constant basis, it seems as if God hides himself from us, allowing us to come finally to a grinding halt. Richard Foster writes with great clarity and honesty about such periods of dryness. He offers us insight into what God is attempting to produce in us:
Through all of this, paradoxically, God is purifying our faith by threatening to destroy it…. We know more deeply than ever before our capacity for infinite self-deception…. Our trust in all exterior and interior results is being shattered so that we can learn faith in God alone. Through our barrenness of soul God is producing detachment, humility, patience, perseverance. Most surprising of all, our very dryness produces the habit of prayer in us. All distractions are gone…. The soul is parched. And thirsty. And this thirst can lead us to prayer.4
During such times of adversity, we are usually sufficiently humbled to get a better grip on the truth that life is not about us, but about the One who created us. Rarely will we learn this lesson apart from the pain and frustration of having come to the end of our own resources. Daniel 4 shows us a powerful man who lost everything until he learned the lesson that power is a trust, not a prerogative. Seldom has a man who possessed so much fallen so far.
King Nebuchadnezzar’s list of accomplishments is nothing short of awesome. He was the son of Nabopolassar, founder of the Chaldean dynasty, and ruled the Babylonians from 605-562 BC. His was the most powerful and longest reign among the Babylonian kings during the Neo-Babylonian period (625-539 BC). Under his capable rule, he consolidated the empire and brought Babylonia to the summit of its influence and prosperity.
As crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar successfully campaigned against the Assyrians, Egyptians and Syrians. When he captured Palestine in 605 BC, he brought Daniel and other Judean leaders to Babylonia. After ascending to the throne in that same year, he began an extensive rebuilding program in his capital city. His engineering accomplishments included the ziggurat, two defense walls, the gateway to Ishtar, new canals, many shrines and new temples dedicated to Bel-Marduk and other deities. He also restored and constructed buildings and temples in other key Babylonian cities. Some of his architectural accomplishments were so impressive that they are listed among the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Nebuchadnezzar enjoyed years of dazzling military and economic achievements. He was at the zenith of power and influence. From a worldly perspective, he had it all. Even when God attempted to speak to him through a terrifying dream, Nebuchadnezzar shut out the voice of God’s spokesman, Daniel.
When Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he warned the king that God would soon humble him unless and until he acknowledged that the Most High alone is “sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:25). Notice especially Daniel’s urgent counsel to King Nebuchadnezzar: “Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue” (v. 27).
But the king ignored Daniel, and one year later we find him strutting on the roof of his royal palace, filled with pride because of his many accomplishments (Daniel 4:30). That’s the point at which the worldly perspective was eclipsed by the heavenly one. We read that while he was boasting, “a voice came from heaven” (v. 31); God came to this powerful ruler and showed him the Source of all power, both in heaven and on earth. Like so many other influential leaders who preceded and followed him, Nebuchadnezzar fell prey to the illusion that it was he who had accomplished these great things. Tragically, he failed to recognize that God had allowed him to rise to power.
Any leader can learn an essential lesson from this great and powerful ruler. Any leader, no matter how accomplished or successful, is at any given time only a moment away from destruction. King Nebuchadnezzar lost everything and became like an animal. He was functionally insane for seven years. This image of the great Nebuchadnezzar eating grass like a cow should be a vision every leader fixes firmly in his or her mind. God graphically reminded this leader that, compared to Almighty God, he was like a beast in the field.
At the end of the seven years, God restored his sanity and providentially returned him to power that easily could have otherwise been usurped by others. The lesson was costly, but Nebuchadnezzar never forgot the truth that the Most High alone does as he pleases. In fact, the words of Nebuchadnezzar are all the more enlightening considering the journey God took him on:
Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”
God never bestows positional and personal power as an end in itself, but always as a trust to be exercised with stewardship for the benefit of others. Those who misuse this trust by squandering it on extending their own egos through oppressing and manipulating others will ultimately give an account to the One who gave them their power in the first place.
Daniel advised King Nebuchadnezzar to use his positional power in the service of others through acts of kindness. Leaders today must use their God-given influence in the same way.
Without influence, there is no leadership. But how do we influence others? We can learn a great deal about this subject by understanding the manner in which God exercises his own influence. An event recorded in Acts 10:9-22 demonstrates how God influenced Peter to do something that he, on the basis of a deep conviction, was adamantly opposed to doing:
About noon…Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter responded. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped by the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”
Peter was influenced by God through various steams of information. Through all of this, he was caused to re-think some things – namely, what/who is clean and what/who is unclean – from a new perspective. By leading Peter in the right direction, God facilitated Peter’s own discovery that eventually resulted in a major paradigm shift – both in Peter’s life and in the life of the early church.
God employed a powerful strategy to influence Peter. He moved him from deep opposition to committed willingness within a short span of time. A brief look at how God exerted his influence will be beneficial in demonstrating how today’s leaders can bring a positive influence to bear in their own situations.
Attempts to better understand how people influence each other have resulted in helpful classifications of power types. Most frequently cited are French and Raven’s five types of power: reward, coercion, expert, referent and legitimate.5 While illustrations of all five types of influence are found in Scripture, God most heavily draws on a sixth type of power: informational power. God has revealed his will in Scripture. From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible portrays God speaking with people – teaching, explaining, reasoning, debating, asking, answering.
Psalm 119, for example, includes statement upon statement of God’s influence on the psalmist through revealed truth. God uses his word to reveal information to us. This information causes us to shift our thinking and begin the process of renewing our minds. Apart from a new perspective, permanent and lasting change is difficult if not impossible. Our decisions are a result of one of three factors: our emotions, wrong thoughts or right thoughts. If we base our decisions solely on our emotions, we will have instability. Our choices will seem right or wrong depending on our prevailing mood of the moment. If we fill our minds with wrong thoughts, based on bad information, we will make wrong decisions. But if we make our decisions on the basis of sound thinking and wise understanding – being patient enough to gather sufficient supplies of both – then we will make good choices in a stable environment. Psalm 119 tells us that such thoughts come ultimately from God and not from ourselves.
Leaders can promise, threaten, model, draw on expertise and use the power of their office to influence followers. But God, who has a deeper reservoir than any human leader for all of these types of power, spends enormous amounts of time using information to influence his people. Not only does he give us this information in the Bible, but he also calls specific individuals as his agents, those who know his Word and are willing to make that knowledge known to others.
Leaders, like God, can draw upon at least six types of power when they want to influence followers. But God models an important principle. People are most powerfully influenced when they have a clear, logical understanding of “what” and “why.” Without the right information, achieving the desired result is next to impossible.
The early church faced a problem when Gentiles were being asked to submit to Jewish rituals. Seeking a definitive answer, Paul and Barnabas met with the apostles and elders in Acts 15 to give an account of their missionary journey. From their testimony, it was clear that God was doing a marvelous work among the Gentiles; the only question was how these Gentile Christians would relate to their Jewish brothers and sisters. Must they obey the Law of Moses in order to be followers of Jesus?
When they finished [speaking], James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this…. It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.
Acts 15:13-15, 19-22
In other words, once the case had been heard, James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, made a judgment. He said that the church wasn’t about to make salvation difficult for the Gentiles. This decision put into place the resources needed to communicate this message to the rest of the church.
James and the other church leaders used their power to accomplish something positive for the kingdom of God. They got the job done cleanly and quickly – they made their decision and considered the issue resolved. Then they recorded that decision (good documentation doesn’t allow for misinformation) and delegated to others the responsibility for communicating it abroad.
Problems provide leaders with opportunities to exercise their power constructively. Such a statement may cause some leaders to back off a step or two. Why? Because the word “power” is one that is seldom used by those who are politically adroit. According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Power is America’s last dirty word…. People who have it deny it; people who want it do not want to appear to hunger for it; and people who engage in its machinations do so secretly.”6
Research indicates that the “bad rap” power has taken is largely undeserved. Most people prefer to work for a boss who has power because he or she will be more likely to delegate, reward talent and build a team that places subordinates in significant positions. Weak leaders, on the other hand, tend to create frustration and failure because they lack the resources needed to get the job done.
Kanter concludes that “power can mean efficacy and capacity…. Power in organizations is analogous in simple terms to physical power: it is the ability to mobilize resources (human and material) to get things done. The true sign of power…is accomplishment.”
God is the ultimate source of all power and influence. He gives it to various human leaders for a season, and he warns us that he will hold us accountable. Thus, we are called to use power and influence with grace and truth and to exercise power and influence in service to him and for the good of others.
1 Alister McGrath, The Unknown God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 28-29.
2 Ibid., p. 113.
3 Klaus Issler, Wasting Time with God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 78.
4 Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 22-23.
5 John R.P. French and B. Raven, “The Basis of Social Power” in Studies in Social Power, D. Cartwright (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research, 1959).
6 Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Power Failure in Management Circuits” Harvard Business Review (July-August, 1979), pp. 65-66.