Spiritual Power or Spiritual Flourishing?


It comes as a surprise to no one, least of all those who have suffered from some form of spiritual abuse, that spiritual power corrupts just as much as any other kind. Anyone capable of desiring power over another person is, by that very fact, precisely the person who will inevitably abuse it. Few people, however, start that way. For example, as I continue to sort through how I was affected by the “spiritual powerbroker” in my little world, and reflect on how I can avoid perpetuating the same kind of damage on other people, I don’t think that the minister in question was activated by the desire for power over other people per se. The real temptation of power is more subtle.

The attractiveness of the Pentecostal promise

I am no stranger to the hunger for spiritual power–a deep-seated part of the romance of my life, as far back as when I was fourteen, has been the idea that there is waiting for me out there some watershed experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit that will once and for all lift me far above the realm of struggle and failure, into a powerful current of unbroken participation in the work of God. I’ve gone through periods in my life when I have devoted much time and energy to seeking it–and emerged with the question of whether that preoccupation is really healthy.

It would be easy, of course, to trash the whole thing if I were really entering a post-Christian phase, or if I were becoming attracted to cessationist Calvinism. Neither, however, is true. I remain deeply sympathetic with the Pentecostal view that baptism in the Holy Spirit is, or ought to be, a normal and expected part of the Christian life–that it is, indeed, necessary to its proper functioning. Leaving aside the question of whether speaking in tongues is really a big enough deal to be the hallmark of this baptism, I remain a Christian romantic unwilling to relinquish the dream that Jesus’ followers on earth could learn to heal and restore the world around them with the same kind of miraculous overflow that characterized Jesus’ own life. I understand the appeal of longing for more from God, and believing that there is more. And I don’t think that the answer is to lower our expectations. I stand by Thomas Traherne, who in the seventeenth century wrote, “It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable…. You must want like a god that you may be satisfied like God.” Modern day Calvinists may see clearly the abuses of Pentecostalism, but what they offer in its place is far more oppressive in its dismal limitations. Give me insatiability!

Evangelicalism legitimizes the hunger for power

That being said, the abuses are real. Insatiability is a curse as well as a blessing. How can the hunger to know more of God’s power seemingly lead us so far astray? My theories are just theories, constructed to help me understand as best I can right now, but my theory is that it has to do with a pervasive, false representation in the Christian world of our personal “calling” as Christians, coupled with the unhealthy soteriology and eschatology that comes standard with the package. In short, we seek God’s power so that we can “reach the world for Christ”, and save as many people as possible from God–I mean from God’s wrath! The idea dies hard: for as many years as I have believed that every human being is ultimately safe in God’s care, I still have to remind myself that God does not need my help to save the world. I say that to myself as a corrective, not as a blanket dismissal. In point of fact, I actually do believe that God has chosen to need each one of us–that he needs each one of us to be in full who he has made us to be. The corrective is necessary because I so easily shift my focus from being to doing as my vocation.

Called to thrive

Slowly, I am convincing my soul that my true calling–my exclusive calling, I would almost say–is to delight God, and to delight in him. By this, I do not mean working hard to please him. I mean consenting to be his delight, in the realization that he has delighted in me from the beginning. On paper, this is what Christians classically have believed to be our human vocation. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism famously opens, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” It is impossible for me to resist quoting George MacDonald’s pungent commentary: “For my part, I wish the spiritual engineers who constructed [the Shorter Catechism] had, after laying the grandest foundation-stone that truth could afford them, glorified God by going no further.” And MacDonald, of course, has a point: it is in going beyond this that we leave wisdom behind.

Another profoundly human way to phrase this true vocation is that my calling is simply to thrive, to flourish. Recently, Jennifer and I reread Madeleine L’Engle’s lovely and profound book, A Wind in the Door (sequel to A Wrinkle in Time). The plot revolves around the disastrous consequences of the refusal of certain farandolae, tiny, scampering “mouse creatures” that live inside the mitochondria of a cell, to fulfill their calling to Deepen into mature, treelike farae. By this refusal they imperil both the life of their human host, and the balance of the cosmos. In the story, L’Engle observes that human beings need their Deepening Places, too. I am finding the image just right. My calling, as I am coming to see it, is to Deepen, to send down roots into the Ground that grounds my being–to consent to flourish.

One would think that this would be an easy choice. As in L’Engle’s story, however, there are Echthroi (Greek for “enemies”) at work. These Echthroi convince us to keep running frantically in circles, as they did the farandolae in the story. They convince us that freedom is the opposite of rest, and that acceptance of our calling to Be spells the end of our productive lives. I can soon tell, however, whenever I slip into being product focused, because of the misery that inevitably follows. Whether it is snapping at the kids because they are keeping me from my “important writing”, or sinking into mindless distraction because my work isn’t “coming together”, my behavior degenerates almost as soon as I shift my focus from the Fructifier to the fruit.

We cannot afford to start from lack

I don’t want to start moralizing about how we should desire God instead of his gifts. Plenty of that is done by the same people who most need the lesson themselves. Nor do I want to suggest that “true spirituality” lies in suppressing our natural desire to act. Still, in the effort to describe how things go wrong, we need some distinction like this. No person can be a means to an end–every person must be seen as an End in themselves. This is true of God, too. He can only be our End, not our means to another end, no matter how seemingly sacred or connected with him. 

The thing is, that power is not the issue. God is endlessly pouring himself out for us, in a cataract of life and energy that is more than sufficient for anything that we might need to do. Paradoxically, the difficult thing for God is to persuade us to simply receive from him. It seems absurd that our clamoring for more of God should be what keeps us from receiving him, yet I have never found it beneficial to begin by assuming that I am trying to get something that I lack. Lack cannot be our starting point. The temptation is to step outside, thinking that the world is going to ruin, or that my little world is going to ruin, and I have to do something. It is not the doing something itself that leads me astray, but the departure from my ground, the departure from the solid reality of God’s all-sufficiency into the whirlwind of spurious demands.

God stands ready to satiate us with Being, if we will receive it from him. The temptation is to doubt that it is enough. Will my flourishing really overflow to others in a powerful enough way to help as I long to help? If I stay in my Deepening Place, will  I really be a fountain? It is here that the conviction that I have no other calling can come to my help. God has released me from responsibility for the outcome, when it comes to other people. They are safe in his hands. The quality of who I am is the only thing I can offer to them.

We cannot afford to start from fear

It is therefore necessary, if we would avoid seeking and abusing spiritual power, to believe in a God who does not seek power for himself. If we stay with the standard Christian view that God is concerned with his own glory–failing to learn from the insights of people like George MacDonald, who saw clearly that this cannot be–our concept of ministry will inevitably be warped by the untruth in our idea of God. We then make our business something that is fundamentally not our business–making sure that other people “fall in line” with his glory–and, from there, we take responsibility for people’s souls that is not ours to take. This is how spiritual abuse begins–not from a lust for power per se, but from a mistaken concept of our responsibility.

This gives me the ability to feel for the minister who hurt me. She really thought that my soul was in danger, and that it was (at least partially) up to her to make sure that I didn’t go astray. Paradoxically, for someone who claims to operate in the power of the Holy Spirit, she was activated by fear. Is it too extreme to say that to fear for someone is to ensure that you will mistreat them? Certainly, it makes it impossible to honor them–because to honor someone’s dignity is, at least in part, to say, “I believe in the sufficiency of God’s work in you.” Instead of dwelling down deep in the oneness in God that unites us to other people, and which alone allows any benefit to flow between us, we seek to have and to exercise God’s power to benefit other people’s souls, as if we could bring some operation of God down into them from outside.

What would ministry even look like if we were to start from the assumption that other people are complete in God, instead of seeing them as broken? Our need would not be for power to “fix the problem”. We could give them freedom to be and to become, without having to make them replicas of ourselves. We could be a source of refreshment, instead of condemnation. I do not know whether such a ministry could ever be a successful business. It does not assume that our “product” is what other people need. It could, however, allow us to be a truly healing presence–in the natural power of our own flourishing.

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