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The Power of Powerlessness

In his book, On God’s Side, Jim Wallis makes the point (and I’m probably doing a poor job of paraphrasing) that we, especially those of us benefiting from the status quo, have a tendency to claim to be not responsible for what’s going on in the world today and are powerless to change it. Politicians can be quick to say, “it’s the will of the people” when it suits them instead of standing behind their beliefs; when executives make millions of dollars in compensation, thousands of times what their average employees earn, their response often is “I didn’t make the rules”; when jobs are lost to maximize profits while workers elsewhere are paid starvation wages, we can be quick to point out “it’s globalization”; or perhaps more locally, when we see a homeless person around town we might think “what can I do….if I give them money they’ll just waste it or they’ll be back for more tomorrow”.

And yes, the above comments are a little harsh. After all, the problems we see around us can be so daunting as to feel overwhelming. Moreover we are bombarded with options to avoid dealing with these issues, whether it’s becoming enmeshed in the alternate reality that is the Kardashians, becoming a social media junkie, or maybe allowing our work to dominate every free minute. It can feel like we are being swept along in a tide of “stuff” with little ability to influence things. In fact we can feel like we’re doing okay if we continue to stay afloat. And I suppose to a degree we are.

During the Roman occupation of what we now call the Holy Land, most of the Jews weren’t too happy with the status quo, and had high expectations that the Messiah who was promised, would sort things out. They were expecting that the savior would be a powerful king, who’d right wrongs, give the oppressors their comeuppance, and I suspect in many of their minds, put the Jewish people back on top. So what did they get: a baby in a stable who, like all babies, couldn’t even look after himself. Many Jews didn’t realize that the powerlessness of the baby Jesus was a core part of God’s message.

In the business world there’s an adage that goes: we praise effort, but reward performance. As was often the case, Jesus turned messages like these upside down. He admonished His listeners that they shouldn’t worry about outcomes; that’s God’s job. In essence, let God be God. All we need to do is the right thing in each situation and be sufficiently humble to allow God’s plan to unfold.

So what might be some indicators that we are doing God’s will? Well apart from the obvious answer that we need to pray for guidance and regularly examine our conscience, here are some simple things we might consider:

  • If we’re not inconvenienced or discomfited regularly for the benefit of someone else, we might want to question how we’re spending our time

  • If we do something that harms the environment or hurts a living thing, perhaps acknowledge however briefly, that it isn’t our best self and we need to try a little harder

  • If we buy a product that’s impossibly cheap, give a second’s thought to the worker who made it

  • If we are overly self-righteous in our (political) debates, are we speaking out of love or a desire to be right

And I’m sure you can come up with many other examples.

When the baseball player Yogi Berra gave directions to his house, he would include a phrase that said: “when you come to the fork in the road, take it”. Apparently, when you actually did encounter the fork, it was clear what you should do. So it is if we listen to and reflect on Jesus teachings. Each time we encounter a fork, we will know what to do.


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