From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
Feb 22, 2023
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This quote was written by British politician, Lord Acton in 1887 in a letter he wrote to a leader of the church. Acton was referring to situations in history when men (usually it was men and not women) seized power and worked hard to gain a position of absolute power and in the process ended up looking after their own needs first rather than after the needs of others. Romans emperors in the time of the New Testament and shortly thereafter are examples of those who sought absolute power and did so by declaring that they were not only emperors but were also divine, meaning that they were to be seen as gods. Under their rule, they and their friends benefited while many people under their care suffered. We see the corruption resulting from having too much power in some countries today where a leader of that country has stolen billions of dollars from his people and hidden it away in offshore accounts. There is no accounting for their theft except to say that their power has resulted in their becoming exceedingly corrupt. While they have far more money than they could ever possibly spend, they continue to steal from the people, and often the people of that country are becoming increasingly impoverished. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and great (powerful) people are almost always bad men. Lord Acton’s words can be verified by many historical situations.
I would like to think that if I would have absolute power that I would use that power for the benefit of others. I would like to think that I wouldn’t become corrupt and use my power for my own benefit first, but I suspect that I, like so many others who have become powerful, would also become corrupted. When people become powerful, it seems as if they begin to believe that the laws that govern human behaviour no longer apply to them. Though they may be the very ones writing the laws and demanding that others follow them, they do not obey those laws themselves. One illustration of this might be Robert Mugabe, now deceased, former president of Zimbabwe who instituted land reform, taking land from the big, mostly white landowners with the stated purpose of giving it back to the common people. While that may have happened in some cases, the reality is that Mugabe gave much of the seized land to his friends and relatives, making them rich at the expense of others. He made the laws, but he ignored them for himself. When someone has absolute power, they are easily corrupted, and I probably would be among them.
God has absolute power. The question, of course, is this: can God be corrupted. Does God believe himself to be above the law? He wrote the law, so to speak, but is he obligated to keep the law? If absolute power corrupts absolutely, is God corruptible?
The easy answer is, “Not a chance.” But how do we know? How do we know that God doesn’t govern this world for his own advantage? How do we know that God didn’t create this world as a way to boost his ego? After all, who wouldn’t want 8 billion people serving him and doing his will? That would corrupt most of us, I am sure. It would go to our heads.
Our answer to this is to say that God is different from us. But how is he different? We could mention God’s inherent goodness, his absolute holiness, his complete otherness, and we would be right. Those tell us that God is incorruptible, and that is helpful. We can trust that in the case of God, absolute power does not corrupt absolutely. God is great, but he is also good. We can say that, but we also can experience that.
The difference between God and a human being who has absolute power is this: a human being must coerce others to submit and obey him where as God invites us into a relationship with himself. The Roman emperors maintained their power by creating a mighty military machine led by people they could trust who were well rewarded for their loyalty. This machine coerced the people to fall into line, and if someone didn’t, they were eliminated. God has not set into place such a military machine to coerce us to submit to his power. God gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey, but he also allowed them to disobey. There were consequences, of course, for disobedience, but Adam and Eve disobeyed anyway. All of Adam and Eve’s descendants bear the consequences of sin and rebellion, but it seems that even though we know those consequences, those same consequences, as dire as they are, do not compel us to return to God. Many people are well aware that there is a place called hell, but that does not move them to return to the Lord their God. The consequences of rebellion are not coercive, meaning that God does not use them to make people toe the line. He simply states them so that we know what to expect when we disobey.
God doesn’t use his power to coerce us to submit to him. Rather, God’s way of dealing with us is a way of grace. He invites us to enter into a relationship with him, offering to become a Father to us even as we become his children. Those of the Reformed tradition recognize that none would accept God’s invitation unless the Holy Spirit moves in them, but that doesn’t make God’s invitation anything less than an invitation. If God were to force us to submit to his authority, we might think that he has something to gain from our submission, much as powerful people have something to gain when they can get others to submit to them. But in extending an invitation to become his children, God gains nothing himself. (No proper parent has children so that they can rich from their children’s work. They know that children will cost them much more than they will ever contribute.) God gains nothing by making us his children, but, rather, it costs him a lot. God gave his Son to us to become our substitute, taking our sin on himself so that we could become qualified to be named as his children. That cost was huge, far more than any of us would ever be willing to bear. Which of us would ever give our child over to torture and death so that someone outside of the family could be adopted? We wouldn’t, but God did.
This is what sets God apart from powerful human beings. Those who are powerful force submission while God invites us into relationship. One uses coercion while the other uses grace. One results in a nation of fearful, impoverished people, the other in a family of children blessed and cared for by a loving and providing Father.
Lord Acton is right when it comes to human beings. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, for absolute power is gained through coercing others into submission and taking what they have. Lord Acton is wrong when it comes to God, for God is gracious in inviting us into his family by giving of himself and offering to us what we do not have.