One of the most frightening and misunderstood characteristics of God is omnipotence, almighty power. Our experience with power is ambiguous, to say the least. Power is neither good nor evil, but it can be used for good or evil. We wish more power for ourselves—economic power, physical strength, intelligence and political influence. And we want to ally ourselves with people and groups that possess such power. But we also fear getting on the wrong side of power. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, asteroid impacts, exploding suns, nuclear bombs, evil tyrants, and schoolyard or workplace bullies strike terror into our hearts.
These powers, however, are finite and we may avoid them, escape them or find a way to cope with them. But to affirm that God is omnipotent is to say that God is infinitely powerful and totally unavoidable. There is no escape! Many people find this thought disturbing. As we observed in earlier installments of this series, some people, in response to their image of Almighty God, deny God’s existence. Others feel the urge to defy God in the name of human freedom and dignity or rush to submit to God to avoid divine anger, or they simply try not to think about God.
The modern self’s image of divine omnipotence applies to God the common understanding of power as the ability to reshape or destroy things, to control by intimidation or promise of reward, or to live lavishly and evoke envy in others. As I explained above, our experience with power is morally ambiguous. So, what if you thought of God as possessing not some but all of this morally ambiguous power without being completely confident that God is perfectly good, that he uses his infinite power only for good? Your attitude toward God could rise no higher than wary ambivalence. This is the situation of those who conceive of God’s nature as pure, arbitrary will. God is an almighty Will who may or may not act in our best interest.
Meditating on the message of Scripture, the greatest Christian thinkers came to realize that the concept of power does not apply to God in the same way it applies to worldly powers. God is the Creator of the world. Hence God does not merely use power but creates it. God is beyond the power we know only as the ability to shape or destroy things. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), among a long list of others, says we ought not to say that “God has power” but that “God is power itself.” That is to say, it is God’s very nature to be alive and life-giving. Power is not a means God uses but an aspect of God’s essential being. When God wants something to exist, it exists. No exertion or process of any kind is necessary.
One more step in our thinking is necessary before we escape the terrifying image of the Almighty as pure, omnipotent will.
Indeed, God is by nature power, and that power is unlimitedly creative. But as is clearly taught in the scriptures and demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ, God is also love, pure self-giving. When we think these two truths together something wonderful comes into view. Get this clear in your mind and let it sink into your heart: God is by nature pure, infinitely powerful, self-giving love. God is not pure, arbitrary will. He eternally wills to love, to create and to bestow what he is on creatures, on you and me. Remember those two words: “for us.” God is never against us. God, who is by nature power itself, is only and always and fully for us. No matter what God assigns us or what he asks us to endure or what we must suffer from worldly powers, in life and death, God is only and always and fully for us.
Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 9 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Irony of Divine Weakness”)
Questions for Discussion
1. In your experience how do you and others you know understand divine power? Do you sense any ambivalence in yourself and others about divine omnipotence?
2. Explain how thinking of God as possessing and using power (as opposed to being power by nature) reinforces the modern self’s understanding of God and the human self as pure, arbitrary will.
3. Discuss the difference it makes in our attitude toward divine power when we come to understand God to be both power and love by nature. Connect this thought to the “for us” nature of God’s relationship with us.
4. Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks of the cross of Christ as “the power of God” (1:18). Given this essay on divine power, speculate about how the cross, which appears to embody weakness, is really an exercise of divine power.
Next week we will consider God’s complete knowledge of us and presence with us. Is divine inescapability a blessing or a curse?