I’ve been thinking about the culture of empowerment that strongly resonates with people these days. The idea that you can overcome just about anything with the right training, education, and discipline. You might recognize it in the litany of self-help material strewn throughout entertainment and media, or in the popular mantra: if it’s right for you then it’s right (as long as you don’t hurt others). The point is that the idea of progress, of individual empowerment to solve our personal issues, has become part of the engrained foundation of popular culture.
Of course, popular culture is always seeking inroads into everything else. It seeps and creeps and wiggles its way into every nook and crevice it can. I suppose that’s not always a bad thing, but it can be. In particular, as followers of Jesus, there is always the risk that popular culture will change our understanding of the good news. Put another way, those who are called to be in the world but not of it, start to become of it without realizing what has transpired. It’s not hard to make the case. If you look at Christian teaching and books and the sort of things we say, you’ll quickly find a dusting of empowerment here, and dollop of self-help there. 10 ways to a better marriage! God’s plan to fix your finances! How to be your best self!
Now, not every thing these sort of teachings advocate is bad, but they are at least flavored with empowerment. And, if they are flavored with empowerment, they aren’t very far from being transformed into the message of empowerment, albeit with Christian clothes on. There are many things that concern me about this trend, but one in particular I will point out today: A gospel of empowerment can never be enough.
The problem with a gospel of empowerment is that it can never be larger than we are. It lacks transcendency. We need a gospel that is bigger, that goes beyond our abilities, because we are simply helpless to conquer sin and death. No matter how powerful we are, no matter how much we hone our thoughts and gifts and skills, we can never defeat our biggest enemies, or fulfill our deepest needs.
If you look toward popular culture you can see this lack of transcendency and the resulting desperation to attain it. You can see it in the way some use science to minimize religion and miracles; you can see it in the vast array of differing spiritual experiences many people offer and seek ravenously; you can see it in the way some use power to control, or lust after prestige; you see it in our addiction to entertainment; but more pointedly, you see it in the way people are desperately trying to transcend themselves. The message of “Be whoever you are,” is a grasp toward transcendency. It allows us to justify our attempts to transcend sexuality, gender, morals, and just about anything else we want (with the exception of a few taboos still left standing).
However, there is cruel irony in the empowerment message, because while it purports to enlarge us, it actually weakens us; it gives false hope and forces us to deal with the deep brokenness of sin by rationalizing, justifying, and mollifying, because we can’t fix it. And it makes the gospel of Jesus weak; it makes the cross small, limited to our strengths and moments of cleverness. No, a gospel of empowerment is no gospel at all, no matter how many times you invoke Jesus’ name. I’ll take the opposite every time: the gospel of weakness and surrender, and smallness. It is in laying down our rights (1), and in limiting ourselves to what the Father has done, is doing (2), and is capable of, that we are actually enlarged. The only way we ever get beyond our own limitations is through relationship with others; how else then could we ever get beyond sin and even death, but in a relationship with a God that has defeated them? Putting ourselves wholly in the hands of a transcendent God, now that is empowering.
(1) Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Phillipians 2:6-8, NIV
(2) For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Matthew 16:25,26 NIV