When you hear the word, power, what comes to mind? Where does your memory take you? Andy Crouch says power is like electricity: you can’t see it, but you can see it's effects.
After college, I led backpacking trips in the Colorado wilderness. On the trail, I would often stop our groups and point out patches of dead trees to the kids. It took some time to distinguish which trees in the forest were alive, and which ones were dead, because the dead trees were mixed in with the healthy ones. The reason why some were dead was the pine beetle— a destructive parasite found in the Colorado backcountry that eats trees to death, from the inside out. Power is like that: it is hidden. We see it by its effects.
Every relationship has a power dynamic. As people, we operate in so many different types of relationships on a daily basis, all with different dynamics: friend/friend, husband/wife, father/son, sister/brother, boss/employee, pastor/congregant, teacher/student, coach/athlete, and so on. In a marriage, for example, each spouse has 100% power. In a parent/child relationship, the parent has 150% of power and the child has 100%. Often, we only notice power when this balance gets out of whack. A husband takes power from his wife. A parent gives too much power to their child.
A psychotherapy setting is slightly different: a therapist has 150% power, and the patient has 100%. What do I mean? When you walk into my room, you have 100% power. And yet I have 150%, because as a therapist, it is my job to create a space framework that is warm, safe, and good.
I have been noticing that many carry a negative association with power. Often, what comes to mind is a person. Maybe it is a handsome business man, sipping cocktails and making deals like Don Draper in Mad Men. Or perhaps you think of someone with authority, such as a professor, a boss, or a friend with a dominant personality. They come to mind because your body remembers a feeling connected to a memory: a coach yelling at you, a parent hurting you, a friend saying something that cut you to the heart. These moments are precisely why we have a negative view of power; our body remembers being hurt.
The Blessing of Power
Yet power, when harnessed within the appropriate boundaries and structures, is a great resource. As human beings, we all have power. God gave it to us, and it is good. And we all have the opportunity to use our power as a vehicle of blessing. We can nurture, speak words of life, and touch others with gentleness and care.
So how exactly do we use our power in our relationships, to bless and not to harm? Henri Nouwen uses the picture of a vulnerable bird placed within a human hand. If we clench the bird too tightly, the bird will suffocate. If we open our hand too much, the bird will fall out. Like the baby’s crib, the bird needs just the right amount of boundary and safety to thrive. Relationships are like this, too. If we love people the way WE want to love them, (and not the way in which they receive love), that person may feel smothered by us.
Jesus, though equal in power with God, “did not count his equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself” -Philippians 2. Jesus knew exactly who he was. He knew he was God’s son and his child. And he knew he had all the power in the world. Yet he was able to step outside of himself, to look at his power, and to choose to harness it in a way that brought life to all who interacted with him. He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself…Perhaps owning our power has a lot to do with knowing where we stand in our relationships. Jesus knew who he belonged to.
For me, using my power in relationships looks a lot like slowing down, making eye contact, listening more than speaking, being curious, and considering: how can I use my presence to give life here in this moment, and not take it away? What power differential is at play in this relationship? Power is not bad. It is a beautiful gift, that when used well, brings much life, peace, and joy. We will not always get it right. In fact, we will probably mess up more than we wish. The hope is that day by day, the Holy Spirit’s power will more and more manifest in our hearts so that the words we speak, and the actions we take with our bodies, will be nourishment to those we find ourselves connected to.
For reflection: What is it like for others to be in relationship with me?
What is the story of power in my life? Where does my mind go when I meditate upon power?
How can I use my presence to nurture my relationships?
Who in your life do you give too much power to/take power away from?