The Power of Powerlessness

ONE OF THE MOST confusing statements I have heard is “surrender to win.” Consider wartime principles: The Battle of Appomattox is one of the most momentous events in American history—Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, which effectively ended the Civil War. World War II ended on September 2, 1945 when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. By all normal accounts, Lee and Japan lost the war when they surrendered to their opponents. So, how can we win by surrendering? Because “starting” something new (presumably “good” or better) requires “stopping” something bad—surrendering our fleshly will to the source of all good and abandoning bad or evil behavior.

Our personal (spiritual) battles are not against people, but against the ruling powers of darkness. Paul says, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12, NRSV). Our enemies are not human, but rather cosmic powers (see Eph. 1:21; 2:2; 3:10). Paul is saying human existence is encompassed by cosmic forces, some clearly malevolent. Christ, through his crucifixion and resurrection, has given us power over these evil forces, but at a tremendous cost to Him, which necessarily required surrendering to the will of the Father, even unto death. Likewise, to have victory over sin and evil we must surrender to the will of the Father, and to the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The footnote to Ephesians 6:12 in the ESV Study Bible says, “This list of spiritual rulers, authorities, and cosmic forces (see 3:10) gives a sobering glimpse into the devil’s allies, the spiritual forces of evil who are exceedingly powerful in their exercise of cosmic powers over this present darkness. And yet Scripture makes clear that the enemy host is no match for the Lord” (1). Paul calls Satan the “god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, ESV). This is the sole reference to Satan as “god of this world” in the New Testament. Paul contrasts the wisdom of the Holy Spirit against the wisdom “of this age or of the rulers of this age” (see 1 Cor. 2:6).

Matthew Henry writes, “Spiritual strength and courage are needed for our spiritual warfare and suffering… [our] combat is not against human enemies” (2). Klein says these powers are “…personal, demonic intelligences whose influence affects structures and spheres in the world” (3). This type of malevolent power has the capability of altering our circumstances to its aggrandizement and our detriment. Many people are shocked by the amount of evil in this world. We see its proliferation every day in our media outlets. The problem of evil begins with the assumption that God should want to eliminate evil. If God is all good but not all powerful or knowing, then perhaps he doesn’t have the ability to intervene on every occasion. Likewise, if God is all powerful and knowing but not all good, then perhaps he has a mean streak. But we are free moral agents. God cannot “choose” for us by eliminating all the wrong choices we might make.

How This Applies to Addiction

It is sometimes incomprehensible to me that as a Christian I struggled in active addiction for four decades. I have met over a hundred Christians who also struggle in this manner. The key to breaking the cycle of addiction is surrender, and you would think a Christian would understand surrendering to Christ. The First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) requires the alcoholic to admit he or she is powerless over alcohol and as a result their life has become unmanageable. No one cares to admit to being powerless; it sounds like complete defeat. But I am talking about letting go—of the reins; of being in charge; of sitting on the throne; of past hurts, harms, and hangups. Yet, despite our best efforts, it is impossible to free ourselves from mistakes and baggage. Convinced we’ve been wronged, we hang on to anger and resentment. Personally, I resented family for “causing me” to become an addict. If you had my childhood, you’d use too! I became so involved in the whys of my drug and alcohol abuse that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees; there was a much larger issue at hand: no matter the cause, I needed to arrest my active addiction and move forward. I had to stop being overwhelmed by every little detail to the point where it obscured the overall situation.

Sadly, holding onto guilt, shame and grief causes unnecessary pain and suffering that can make it difficult to move forward. The longer we are in pain regarding past mistakes or harms, the more likely we forget who we were “before all this trouble began.” We identify with our pain, and unfortunately we choose destructive means for dealing with it. Proverbs 19:11 says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Jesus is speaking to the disciples in Luke 17 about harms and offenses committed against them. He adamantly states, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). There is a common unifying sense in the community of believers: rebuking of a sinning brother; forgiving the offense of such a brother. Jesus wants us to see how our “being offended” is a trap or snare (from the Greek skandala) of Satan. We must not be unforgiving, whatever the offense.

No matter the scenario, we can divide all offended people into two basic categories: those who have been treated unjustly, and those who think they have been treated unjustly.

For years I was unforgiving of my family’s unforgiveness. I went too far, sending an email to one of my brothers that essentially said, “Nice Christian attitude!” The response stung: You take a couple of courses online and now you have this ‘holier than thou’ attitude!” (He was referring to my graduate studies in theology.) I had taken this stance nothwithstanding my forty years of active addiction, countless promises to get clean, apologies for stealing their money and pills. I was expecting immediate forgiveness because this time things were “different.” Thankfully, I have managed to abstain from my drugs of choice (cannabis, benzodiazepines, and opiates) for 30 months. Regardless, I am not justified in demanding forgiveness. I completed my M.A. in Theology during that time. Still, I am not justified in demanding forgiveness. I have continued to minister to others who are struggling with active addiction (through this blog and through participation in the Recovery Church Movement at my local church). Yet, I still am not justified in demanding forgiveness.

The Power to Change

Powerlessness I can understand. It makes sense that we must surrender to win. When we let go of the past, we release ourselves from negative feelings attached to it, such as guilt, shame, resentment, and bitterness. But from where do we get the power to change? After all, “letting go” is easier said than done. Past hurts and harms bring many individuals to seek counseling. People with substance use disorder struggle mightily with letting go of the past. So, admitting our powerlessness is only part one of the process. It does us no good to sit and stew in our shortcomings. God told Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Isaiah said God will uphold us with His right hand (see Isa. 41:10). Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians covers great spiritual blessings brought to believers through the Holy Spirit. Paul discusses the “spiritual conflict” we all face, but is quick to inform us of the means by which we can admit our need for power and begin the process of changing who we are and how we behave. It is through our relationship with Jesus as Messiah that we too can come out from among the dead. As Christ was raised up and given all authority over sin and death, so we are raised with Him into the heavenly realm in identification with Him. The power by which we rise above our old sinful life is not of our own doing. Our new life is available only through the grace and mercy of the Father, predicated upon the death and resurrection of the Son. The victory of the cross has become our victory. We are no longer children of powerlessness. However, our success rests in admitting that without the victory of the cross we are powerless.

Paul says to “…put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). Frankly, to be in Christ is to both hear of Him and to be taught in Him. The discarding of the “old man” and the donning of the “new man” are two sides of the same coin—one cannot operate without the other. Further, by design this is a moment by moment process. As Paul notes, we must not yield our bodies to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, thereby presenting our bodies as instruments for righteousness (see Rom. 6:13). Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is what Paul calls our “spiritual worship” (see Rom. 12:1). Some translations call it our “reasonable service.” The upside to this sacrifice, however, is access to a power greater than ourselves.

Human nature cannot be “reformed.” Paul says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). Instead, human nature must be regenerated. The “new creation” replaces the old nature. Paul eloquently describes the war between sinful man and regenerate man in Romans 7—a battle I am sure we’re all rather familiar with. Paul said, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15), adding, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (7:19). Of course, it is never enough to simply acknowledge this dilemma, for if we do it becomes a loophole: Not even Paul could stop sinning, so how can I? Reading on, we find out how Paul addressed this problem. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:24-25).

Not Without Christ

The expression “to have a mind like a steel trap” euphemistically means to be able to understand or grasp information quickly. I always thought the phrase referred to having a good memory. Someone with a “mind like a steel trap” could recall something that was in his trap. But what of steel versus steal? Nothing steals happiness and fuels pain more than being trapped inside your own head. Many of us are trapped inside the “mirror box” of our mind where every anxious worry, painful past memory, and self-deprecating judgement is reflected back to us, stealing our contentment; our self-acceptance. This is sometimes referred to as the trappings of life—the objects, activities, and other imagery associated with a particular condition, situation, or position in life, such as wealth, power, and prestige.

Do you live your life based on the expectations of others? Are you living your life trying to conform and keep pace with everyone else? Have you become so comfortable in your discomfort that you cannot see your way clear of your trappings? These questions are presented not as judgments but as an opportunity to dig deep beneath the piles of untruths that have been heaped upon us throughout our lifetime. Our “trappings” reveal the truth of who we are and what we create and experience. We tend to fall into the trappings of a situation or desire when something is missing in our life. The more “temporary” these trappings are, the more “temporal” our life feels to us. The result often features a sense of discontentment regardless of what we have accomplished or accumulated. The self-centered fear of not getting what we deserve or desire, or losing what we already have, poisons our mind, “keeping score” in a manner that is unable to provide any true meaning.

Jesus warned, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). Making “earthly” treasure our goal leads to anxiety about our lives, what we will eat or drink; or about our bodies, what we will put on. Jesus asks, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). Instead, we should focus on the kingdom of God and His righteousness—our spiritual needs—and all these things will be added unto us (see Matt. 6:33). There is what we need, and what we think we need. It is only through trusting the Father for our needs that we can walk in the abundance of life of which Jesus speaks (see John 10:10).

Regarding these “trappings,” Paul says, “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, NRSV). He uses “warfare” imagery here to remind us of the battle for our minds. The weapons of this warfare are not physical but spiritual, such as prayer, faith, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God. For it is by the Spirit that we tear down strongholds of wrong thinking and behavior, not human reasoning or will power. The Greek transliteration of verses 4 and 5 is, “for the weapons of the warfare of us [are] not fleshly but powerful to God to overthrow of strongholds, reasonings, overthrowing every high thing rising up against the knowledge of God, and taking captive every design to the obedience of Christ” (4). Henry writes, “Thus the weapons of our warfare are very powerful; the evidence of truth is convincing. What opposition is made against the gospel by the powers of sin and Satan in the hearts of men! But observe the conquest the word of God gains” (5).

Greear writes, “…the gospel can change a heart, a community, and the world when it is recovered and applied… [but] it is essential that we distinguish religion from the gospel. Religion, as the default mode of our thinking and practices, is based upon performance… [but] the basic operating principle of the gospel, however, is not surprisingly an about-face, one of unmerited acceptance: I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore, I obey” (6). We love Christ because He first loved us. Love for God grows out of an experience of the love of God (see 1 John 4:19). Jesus told the disciples that the way to fruitfulness and joy—the “secret” to the Christian life—is to abide in Him. From the Greek (meno), abide literally means “to make your home in.” When we make our home in Christ, spiritual fruit begins to spring up in our daily affairs. True spiritual fruit comes only from getting swept up in intimate, loving encounters with Christ: to live as He lived and love as He loved.

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.A. Theology

(1) ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2273.
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Entire Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1153.
(3) William W. Klein, “Ephesians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 165.
(4) Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 730.
(5) Matthew Henry, Ibid., 1129.
(6) J.D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2011), xiv.

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