The power of fear and the fear of power

Oct 9, 2019 by

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“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (John 4:18a).

“…you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8).

In my experience as pastor I’ve often been dismayed at the feelings of powerlessness many people experience.

New members often feel that only those with a long history with the congregation have a voice, whereas those who have been a part of the church for generations feel the opposite, that it is the newcomers whose views get all the attention.

Youth and young adults see older members as having all the power, whereas older folks tend to feel younger members have the greater say. Women tend to feel dominated by men, and many men feel intimidated by certain women in the congregation.

As a result, participation in congregational business meetings and leadership roles is diminished. Members fail to appreciate the power they actually have, defined as “the ability to achieve ends and influence outcomes.” Many hesitate to express their views, believing they won’t really make a difference anyway. And some reason that Christians are supposed to set aside all claims to power, and practice the kind of Demut (humility) and Gelassenheit (yieldedness) that attributes all power to God and to others in positions of authority.

As a counselor I see some of these perceptions of helplessness going back to our having been in a relatively powerless position throughout the most formative first years of our growing up. Parents and other giant-size adults may seldom affirm us for expressing our opinions, especially if they didn’t align with theirs. As children we may have heard messages like, “As long as you’re in our house, you do as we say” far more frequently than something like, “Thanks for sharing your ideas. Tell us more.”

Regardless of our past history, each of us actually has an abundance of available power, more than enough to be an effective influence in our congregation and community. For followers of Jesus, this doesn’t mean power over people, of course, but power with them. It means always using the power we have in ways that help empower others and that invite their collaboration in seeing more of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Not all forms of power are equal, of course. In fact, there are at least three distinct kinds.

1) In the first category are healthy forms of divine power, always good and freely available to each of us. Such grace-laced forms of power include:
— Love, joy, peace, patience and other “fruit of the Spirit,”
— Christ-like influence and example,
— Prayer and intercession,
— A transformative “new birth,”
— Ministries of kindness and mercy,
— Acts of justice and liberation,
— Peacemaking and reconciling,
— Membership in a strong community of faith,
— The indwelling presence and gifts of the Spirit,
— Ability to respectfully appeal and persuade,
— Being unselfishly hospitable and invitational,
— Experiencing lots of faith-based courage and confidence
We can all be transformed into having these supernatural expressions becoming natural and powerful parts of our everyday lives.

2) As a second category, universally available human power involves things we may each be able to claim, and which can be used for good or ill. They include the following:
— Education and experience,
— Age/maturity,
— Wealth and possessions,
— Intelligence, knowledge,
— Status, titles, degrees, positions,
— Race, ethnicity, national origin,
— Physical appearance, stature and strength,
— Gender, marital status,
— Family of origin,
— Charisma, personality traits,
— Talents, skills and special abilities,
— Organizational and professional affiliations.
We all have some combination of these assets and benefits with which we can accomplish good things — or that we can use in self-serving ways

3) A third category involves harmful forms of evil power. These are never acceptable, and yet are things we are prone to resort to when we feel angry, anxious or desperate. They include such things as:
— Violence,
— Coercion,
— Deception,
— Domination,
— Manipulation,
— Seduction,
— Threats,
— Intimidation,
— Verbal, physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse.

As believers, we reject these out of hand, while also rejecting Sir Acton’s axiom that “all power corrupts.” We recognize that power is essential, and that without an abundance of good power we are as useless as a vehicle without an engine, or an electrical appliance without a power source. So having effective power is not only a good thing but an absolutely necessary thing.

Above all, believers must reject powerlessness, and recognize that to a great extent power may lie in the perception and perspective of the beholder. With an exception in the case of sheer physical power, we can agree there can be no effective power wielder without a power yielder.

Together we affirm that followers of Jesus can and must claim all the good forms of power available in order to accomplish the good work of the kingdom.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation, and blogs at

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