The Powerless God
“God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The notion of an all-powerful, all-encompassing, omniscient and transcendental God is so ingrained within Christian consciousness, and even in Western consciousness at large, that it can seem not only heretical but also somewhat odd to dare question it. While these terms might not be derived from the Bible in a verbatim sense, it certainly seems clear throughout scripture that God is infinitely above all things; whether this derives from Him having authority as the creator, or where it is spoken that His “throne is established from of old,” and is “everlasting.” (Psalm 93:2) Even in the plethora of instances that God is referred to as “Lord” indicates that, from the very beginning, His complete sovereignty and supremacy is taken as a foregone conclusion.
It seems more than a little strange, then, that a quote like that from Bonhoeffer above, might make any sense in a Christian context. Surely a powerless God makes no sense, for isn’t even the term itself an oxymoron? And what use is a “powerless” God in the first place?
This is, however, precisely the kind of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and is the true God whose power matters in the first place. The lofty imagery that had been used to describe the creator up to this point – Lord, King, Throne, Everlasting, Mighty – seemed to have been completely inverted on its head in the coming of Jesus. How little wonder that many of Jesus’ disciples doubted Him or else ended up confused by His teachings. Why does the Christ, whose title itself is a huge term on the cosmic scale, come as the humble son of a carpenter and a handmaiden? Why does God’s anointed warrior king teach us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek? Why does this prince ride a donkey instead of a war horse? Moreover, even after all of this, how in the world does the everlasting God who sits enthroned above all eternity become the form of a finite human being existing in the confines of space, time, and material as any one of us has to?
If this weren’t ridiculous enough in the first place, look who this “God” chooses to associate Himself with – prostitutes, lepers, peasants, fishermen, shepherds, tax collectors, the infirm, and the destitute. In a tradition where it was believed that wealth and prosperity was a sign of God’s favour, the God represented by Jesus chooses to align Himself firmly with the poor, even to the point of becoming one of them. And after a ministry demonstrating this, this Messiah ends up detained, beaten, bloodied, whipped, and crucified under the auspices of Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome). All but one of His disciples fled, and on objective terms, they can hardly be blamed. This “God” is an insult, a fraud, and a failure. The hope and light not only for Israel, but also for the whole world, ends up tortured and executed as a mere mortal.
As most of us know, of course, the narrative doesn’t end there, and indeed what would otherwise have been a tremendous defeat is turned into ultimate victory: after Christ’s death, He is resurrected, and through becoming so heralds the Kingdom of God and brings redemption for all of creation itself.
However, what is easy to miss is that God’s glory necessarily comes through His humiliation upon the cross, just as His victory is shown through defeat. Jesus’ life, right up to the point of death, subverted our traditional understandings of God at every level. He could have commanded the legions of Heaven to rescue Him from the profound and agonising death He suffered, easily avenging His enemies and liberating humanity from suffering by taking up arms. However, Jesus Himself says that violence is not a mark of His Kingdom (John 18:36), and so chooses to become bound to suffering and death. This is because, above all else, the God Jesus reveals to us is a God of unfathomable love (Matthew 5:43-48). Since Jesus acts out of this supreme love from beginning to end, the means by which He will bring salvation to humanity must likewise be loving: not through any form of destruction except that which He voluntarily undertakes of Himself. God’s love is so completely other, so all-encompassing, that He must necessarily make Himself powerless, and become overpowered by those who make themselves His enemies.
To date, the concept of God as “Almighty” has provoked images of a divine tyrant, one who descends on humanity with unquenchable wrath, and who demands blood from those who refuse to worship Him. This fallacy has led to some of the most abhorrent atrocities of the “church,” and even today such thinking leads us into the danger of believing in God as the great justifier of nationalism, imperialism, and warfare. The image of God as being all-powerful must be reclaimed, for His power was made perfect through weakness, not through strength (2 Corinthians 12:9).
One doesn’t have to believe that God is powerless in the sense that He is impotent and incapable of doing anything; but through the person of Christ, we are shown a God whose love compels Him to come into solidarity with us, His creation, and to bear with us in all of our constraints so that we might be liberated even as He has been. The suffering God is the powerless God, and as Bonhoeffer points out, this is the only way He can truly help us. Those who are suffering, destitute, and in pain within this world have little to hope for if their hope lies in a God who takes the same face as their oppressors. Blessed are they, however, for God has chosen to take their face instead. (Matthew 25:31-46)
This is not to say that God in Christ is not our supreme Lord. His Lordship, however, is shown through His example. The warrior king is also the suffering servant; the Alpha-Omega is also the slaughtered lamb; the enthroned Almighty comes to us as the homeless man executed as a failed insurrectionist, and His true power over all things is revealed in the powerlessness He undertakes for the sake of all things.
“Long live the Slaughtered Lamb.”