By Debie Thomas
What does it mean that God is all-powerful? Traditional Christianity — the version I grew up with — posits a God who is an almighty sovereign. An omnipotent God who controls all things at all times according to his will. The hymns I learned and sang so eagerly as a little girl — “All Hail the Power,” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” — reinforced this image of a superhero God who unilaterally controls both people and events. Many of the miracle stories I learned in Sunday School literalized this version of power: a God who curses snakes, a God who parts the sea, a God who rains down bread, a God who slaughters firstborns.
As a child, I watched the adults in my life engage in all sorts of theological gymnastics to square this brand of omnipotence with God’s other most abiding and essential trait: his goodness. “God allows” is the phrase I heard most often in defense of the omnipotence formula: “Bad things happen because God allows them to happen. Nothing happens without his permission. He is perfectly capable of intervening against evil and suffering, and sometimes does. But when he doesn’t, it’s only because he has chosen to exercise restraint in order to accomplish a higher purpose of his own.”
This “higher purpose” was most often a mystery, though we were free to speculate: maybe God allowed the hurricane in order to demonstrate his power over nature. Maybe God allowed the neck injury in order to build character. Maybe God allowed the chemotherapy to fail because he wanted to take his beloved child home. Maybe God allowed the bomb to detonate in order to punish sin.
It was a very neat formula; it covered all bases, and explained the inexplicable. I believed it wholeheartedly for a long time. And then I couldn’t anymore.
From the ages of nine to fourteen, I was molested by two adult men who professed faith in the same God I did. These men were active, engaged Christians, and often targeted me in the sacred spaces of the church: in the choir room, after a Bible study in Fellowship Hall, during coffee hour following Sunday services. Looking back now, I can draw a direct line from some of the teachings of traditional Christianity — the virtues of submissiveness, especially for girls and women; the patriarchal power structures in place among church leaders; the caustic shame and fear that surrounded all discussions of sex; the basic assumption that an all-powerful God “allows” bad things to happen for a reason — and the ways in which the abuse unfolded.
For years, I told no one. For years, I believed I was at fault. And for years, I believed that God had permitted the abuse to happen. Who knew why? Perhaps he wanted to strengthen my faith through suffering. Perhaps I had sinned in some way, and deserved punishment. Perhaps God loved my abusers too much to curtail their freedom on my behalf. Perhaps I would understand someday.
Sometimes it takes years to call a lie a lie. Sometimes it takes decades to lean into what’s true. This is a complicated moment in our cultural history. In the wake of “#metoo,” thousands of women around the world have come forward with personal experiences of harassment, molestation, assault, and rape. What they have described in its various forms is a power that exists to take, to dominate, to inflict, and to break. In other arenas of our common life, we have spent the past year witnessing egregious abuses of power from religious, political, and military leaders; from gun-toting fanatics; and from entertainers, comedians, and trusted celebrities of all kinds. Among other things, we’ve been exposed to a version of power that denies dignity and basic services to the poor. A version that mass incarcerates. A version that demeans people on the basis of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. A version that abuses sex to control others. A version that turns human bodies into suicide bombs.
What does it mean, in this fraught context, to serve an “all powerful” God? Is it possible, given the ignoble versions of power we have witnessed all around us for so long, that we have misunderstood the nature of divine power? So often in our human context, power means getting our way. It means imposing our wills on others, and holding and withholding favors in order to further our own interests. For human beings, power means being in control. What if God’s power is altogether different?
I know even as I write these words that I’m wading into territory that doesn’t belong to me. Theologians have pondered the theodicy question for centuries, and I don’t dare hope to add anything to their collective wisdom. Nor do I want to; I just want to figure out what I can live with. And what I can’t.
Because the bottom line is, I can’t live with a God who heard a nine-year-old’s anguished cries for help, had the power to rescue her, and chose not to. I can’t live with a God who “allows” my fifteen-year-old son to suffer migraines, or my eighteen-year-old daughter to battle anxiety, all so that he can build their characters or punish their sins. I can’t live with a God who daily sits on his own immense power, exercising teeth-gritting restraint while earthquakes, hurricanes, homicides, genocides, mass shootings, mass rapes, corrupt politicians, and evil military leaders ravage the world.
And I don’t have to. This essay will post on the first Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season when we prepare for the coming of a tiny, naked, and appallingly vulnerable God into a harsh and dangerous world. A God who entered humanity red-faced and crying, a God whose greatest displays of power included riding on a donkey, washing dirty feet, hanging on a cross, and frying fish on a beach for his agnostic friends. How exactly, I wonder now, did we go from this God of kenosis — the God who empties himself of all privilege, the God who perpetually pours himself out and surrenders his own life for his loved ones — to God as Iron Man?
Maybe the fantasies of earth-shattering power we impose on God are just that — our own lustful fantasies. Maybe such a God is easier — more familiar, more palatable, more safe. He will, after all, keep us passive and complacent — why bother getting involved in the world’s sorrows ourselves when everything that happens or doesn’t happen is God’s will? Why lean into our own creativity, why respond to our own deep longings for justice, why call each other out to engage in the slow, risky work of renewing creation, when “God’s plan” will take care of everything by and by? Why relate to God as someone who longs to be loved, desired, explored, and enjoyed for his own sake, when we can reduce him to a deal-maker, a Superman, or a Santa Claus instead?
I couldn’t have written this ten years, five years, or even one year ago. But I think I can write it now, however shakily: I no longer need God to be in control in order for him to be good. In fact, a God who wields his power as human beings typically do is not beautiful or appealing to me; he’s ugly and sinister. What I need is for God to be powerful enough to remain present. To be Emmanuel — God with me. Weeping with me. Laughing with me. Raging with me. What I need is a God who is strong enough to place himself squarely in the hot center of my pain — not as one who remains safely anesthetized, but as one who knows the terrors of vulnerability, uncertainty, and disappointment from the inside out.
The longer I live in the world, and the more I see of its suffering, the more in awe I am that the God who reveals himself in Christ has the power to remain present in the midst of so much brokenness. I certainly can’t do it; I’m tempted to tune out all the time. One more “#metoo” story, one more mass shooting, one more fatal cancer diagnosis, and I am felled — numb, curled inward, and ready to run. What kind of omnipotence is this, that enables our God to hold all of the world’s brutality, agony, and sorrow in his heart and not fold into cynicism or despair? What kind of power fuels such amazing stamina, such risky hope, such healing, life-giving empathy? I can’t pretend to know. All I can do is bend the knee, because this is a power I can live with. It’s a power that accompanies, sustains, redeems, and resurrects. It’s the almighty power to lay down one’s life for love, no matter what the cost. All hail this power.
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