why true leaders are powerless: a reflection on the cross.

It was my first magazine interview.  And by magazine I mean ‘denominational publication’ and by interview I mean a Q & A sheet.  In fact, they really just wanted to fill the last page with something, so I was picked for “Meet The New Guy”.  One of the questions asked was for a favorite quote.  I really wanted to sound smart and well-read, especially since I was new to the position…

So one Google quote search later, I picked a Henri Nouwen gem you might have heard.  It is from In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.  In it he says, “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.”  I read that and thought, ‘I’m definitely going to look good quoting this guy.’

Then life happened.

Five years later, two different jobs later, ‘coming out of retirement‘ later, I met Henri Nouwen again.  It was amazing how insightful he had become in that time.

the temptation of power…

I was just asked recently by one of my seminary professors, “How have you seen leadership give in to the temptation of power?”  He wanted us to answer it after reading Nouwen’s leadership text.  Some of my classmates chose to identify prominent pastors and other failures of Christian leadership.

This stung a little as all I had to do was look at my own story.  While I know this is a Christian professor teaching Christian content, I do want to call attention to the fact that all leadership is tempted toward power because all leadership is human.

I can easily point to historical figures like Pontius Pilate, Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon who yielded to power.  To point out the failures of bishops and pastors isn’t wrong but it doesn’t get at the root of the matter.  I’m tempted to power and control not based on my position but based on my humanity.

It just so happens that when a leader has an audience and they give in to the temptation of power it’s broadcast for all to see.  The temptation to manipulate power can take any shape and form and I would dare say that we look no further than our own hearts to find it.

According to Henri Nouwen, the temptation for a Christian is to consider power as an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel.  In fact, he would even say it’s the greatest temptation of all.  What Nouwen is driving at is that we are all guilty when we choose power as a means of control.  Based on this definition, many of our most successful leaders have given into the temptation of power and been praised for it.

I’m one of those leaders.

Five years after first proclaiming that “it’s easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life”, I still find myself wanting to be God, control people and own life.

powerless is good…

This same seminary professor immediately followed up with another question, “How is the cross a symbol of power and powerlessness?”

I knew what he was driving at even though I’m sometimes tempted to think of the cross as neither a power-full or power-less symbol but rather a commodity to my faith.  Or worse, a commodity to my religion.

The truth is, I believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I believe the cross is the centerpiece of history.

I do believe the cross is a power-full symbol of power in that it represents the sovereignty and providence of God.  It is because of the cross that I am free from sin and brought into right standing before and with God.

Nouwen again writes, “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.”

It’s when I look at the cross as a symbol of powerlessness that I find shelter from the temptation to manipulate others with power.

In fact, I see the cross is more than a symbol of powerlessness, it is an instrument of powerlessness.  It was an instrument of torture and death.  There are only a few sadistic machinations from human history that match the depravity of death by cross.  The cross means to kill us.

One doesn’t climb onto a cross and hang for a little while, hurting until they are brought down.  Once you have been hung on a cross, you don’t come down until you are dead.  If I or anyone could come down from the cross before death then I would have defeated its power.

It’s only when I am powerless to come down from the cross that I have discovered its nature and purpose.  Essentially, Christ gave up his power to come down.  He chose it.  A common criminal couldn’t make that choice…you and I couldn’t make that choice but the Son of God could.

For a brief moment, He gave up His access to the powers of the universe so that at our hands He could die.

why true leadership is powerless…

We are commanded to take up that instrument and let the due diligence of its weight work on us.  If I could add an additional point to Nouwen’s, it would be this, “It’s easier to like the cross, than to die on it.”

Knowing, being and doing aren’t always hand in hand.  To lead, as Nouwen points out, is to be led.  It is to offer ourselves up.  It is to trade our dreams of power for something beyond ourselves.

Five years later, Nouwen still says it best: “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 own life than to love life.”

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