We all know what an icon is—a little picture you click on a screen to open an app. But before screens dominaed our lives, “icon” referred to the ornate altar paintings and crosses with images of Mary or Jesus used as focal points for Eastern Orthodox meditation and worship.
The Eastern Orthodox understand what is true for all of us: who we become is shaped by the pictures we hang in our mental galleries. Our personal icons—those images to which we give our focused attention—shape our thinking and ultimately determine our character.
A major icon shaping many of our lives is our image of power. Our culture offers many images of power. They are almost always self-promoting, self-centered, self-focused. But there is another way.
1. Where Are You Stuck?
Dr. Arch Hart, the former Dean of the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, told our class about his new red Jaguar convertible.
It was his dream car. He felt alive and manly tooling around southern California with the top down, and it sure didn’t hurt his image. Then one day his Jag was sideswiped while parked on a city street and the beautiful body crushed. Dr. Hart said he became very emotional—he actually cried. His car would never be perfect again. He told us: what had damaged his car, damaged him.
When a highly perceptive and intelligent nationally known psychologist is this honest, I listen. What have I “bonded” with like his Jaguar with that makes me feel powerful and successful? My looks? Career path? Achievements? Boat? The image I project to others? My kid’s performance on the soccer field?
I remember a hilarious episode of “Home Improvement” when Tim Taylor is demonstrating a super-powerful electromagnetic. If you ever watched the show, you know Tim was always about “MORE POWER!” Al, his faithful sidekick, says, “Be careful, Tim, that magnet is very powerful.” Never listening to Al, Tim holds the magnet in front of him and turns it to maximum power. Whoosh! The magnet sucks the TV camera toward him until the TV screen is filled with Tim’s face stuck on the camera lens.
Freedom comes from laughing at ourselves as we laugh at Tim. Instead of “more power,” we can turn the magnet off:
- “ I can’t believe I got so wrapped up in winning that golf tournament.”
- “ What an idiot I was to think that promotion would change my life.”
- “How could I have been so dumb to give more attention to my flowers than to my family?”
When we laugh at our modern icons of power, we see them for the shams they are—actually powerless to help us. We become unstuck. We’re ready to consider a new image.
2. Embrace Humility
When Abraham Lincoln went off to the Black Hawk War, he left as a captain and (through no fault of his own) returned as a private. That ended his military career. Then his little shop in a country village went broke, marking his failure as a businessman. He moved to Springfield, IL,and became a lawyer, but he was too impractical and unpolished to be a great success. He was defeated in his campaign for the legislature, defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for Congress, defeated in the Senate election of 1854, defeated in his aspiration to the Vice Presidency in 1856, defeated again in the Senatorial election of 1858.
In 1861, Lincoln moved to the White House as President of the United States. How did he interpret his life of one failure after another which finally culminated in the highest office in the land? One might assume he would celebrate his success. But Lincoln wrote,
“That the Almighty directly intervenes in human affairs is one of the plainest statements in the Bible. I have had so many evidences of his direction, so many instances when I have been controlled by some power other than my own will, that I have no doubt that this power comes from above.”
Historians affirm the genius of Abraham Lincoln was his ability to remain vulnerable and humble. He did not see his achievements as self-valedictory, but gave credit to God. Biographers say Lincoln’s humility was his real source of perseverance and strength through the darkest days of the Civil War
3. Find Power in Weakness
The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that the Lord had told him, “my power is made perfect in weakness.” He then goes on to make this personal: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
Earlier in his former letter to these people, Paul had exclaimed, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate.”
When you are reviled or slandered, which takes more power—to give as good as you get or try to bless and conciliate? When you feel persecuted, which is harder—to speak or hit back or silently endure it?
It takes almost no strength to be macho. Our brains our programmed to strike back when threatened. Whether we lash out with our fists or memos makes little difference. It takes so much more personal power to bless and endure and conciliate.
How we can respond to threats in ways that defy our natural instincts is a mystery. It’s not abdicating our responsibilities or becoming doormats. We have roles in life (parent, work supervisor, church elder) where we must make decisions that are not popular with everyone.
The only way I’ve found to embrace weakness or give up my “right” to retaliate is the grace of God. There is no easy three-step process. Rather, it’s taking seriously what Paul heard Jesus say to him: “My grace is sufficient for you…for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Jesus’ power—not my power. We can claim his power to live in ways that may appear weak to others, yet take strength far beyond what we can muster in ourselves.