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The Gospel of Personal Empowerment

On one occasion Jesus got into a boat with his disciples and instructed them to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. As they sailed, he fell asleep, no doubt exhausted by his taxing itinerary of preaching, teaching, and healing. Partway through the voyage, a violent storm descended on the Sea, threatening to capsize the boat. Panicking at the prospect of imminent death, the disciples cried out to Jesus: “Master, Master, we are perishing!”

Calmly and almost casually, Jesus stood up and rebuked the wind and the raging sea. To the disciples’ amazement, the wind immediately ceased and the waves subsided. But instead of complimenting the disciples for calling upon him in their hour of need, Jesus chastised them for their wilful dependency: “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8.22-25). It was as if Jesus was saying, “You should have been able to sort this out yourselves by now.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus tried to get the disciples to stand on their own feet; he encouraged them to learn from him, but not to depend on him in a physical sense. We see his modus operandi in the gospel of Mark:

And he went up on the mountain and called to him those he himself wanted. And they came to him. Then he appointed twelve, that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons. (Mark 3.13-15)

He wanted them to be “with him” so that they might learn his ways; however, his ultimate goal was to “send them out” on their own to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and cast out demons. The Book of Acts is, in fact, a record of the apostles continuing the work of the ascended Jesus throughout the known world.

Jesus revealed his ‘end game’ in John 14.12; “He who believes in me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my Father.” However, when he spoke about leaving and returning to the Father, the disciples were crestfallen. “How can we continue on without you?” they must have been thinking. Jesus immediately sought to reassure them: “I will not leave you orphans … I will ask the Father to give you another helper, just like me … he will be with you and in you” (John 14.16-18).

Jesus also wanted the disciples to understand that henceforth, they were to enjoy their own personal relationship with the Father. He would no longer be acting as a physical intermediary.

In that day you will ask me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full … In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you because you have loved me, and have believed that I came forth from God” (John 16.23-27)

In his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul expressed the sense of personal empowerment that comes from the Spirit: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4.13). Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews characterised a spiritually mature person as one who is self-sufficient and is able to provide for others (Heb 5.12-14).

The example of Moses

The Bible is replete with stories of God challenging people to do extraordinary things that were seemingly beyond their capabilities — stories of God’s power touching human potential and producing incredible results. One such story concerns Moses, the man chosen to lead the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery into the Promised Land.

When God encountered Moses at the burning bush and commissioned him to deliver the Israelites, Moses responded with a negative statement that reflected a far deeper problem in his psyche: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex 3.11). It was as if Moses was saying, “Don’t you remember God, I’ve already tried to do this once and failed. In fact, that’s what I am, a failure. An ex-military commander whose best days are behind him. You’ve got the wrong man. I’m a has-been, a spent force, a washed-up relic. You’d better find someone else.”

Moses said, “I can’t” but God said, “Yes, you can for I will be with you.” Moses said, “What if they don’t believe me?”, and God responded, “What is in your hand?” In other words, “Look at the potential that is in your life. Give it to me. I will bless it. I will sanctify it. I will multiply it.”

Several months later as the people of Israel stood on the shores of the Red Sea, the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea” (Ex 14.15-16). Once again, God was telling Moses to use the resources that he had at his disposal. “Don’t cry out to me. You take the initiative. Use the power I have given you. And together, we will get the job done!

Personal empowerment and self-actualisation v learned helplessness and cultivated dependency

The Covid-19 pandemic may well be a defining moment in the life of the Church, and indeed, the world. If nothing else, the pandemic has given the Church an opportunity to examine its raison d’être and to reinvent itself in the light of God’s prophetic word. The Church is at a crossroads: It can either embrace the gospel of personal empowerment that leads to self-actualisation, or maintain a system that thrives on helplessness and dependency.

The Protestant Reformation was founded on the principle of ‘the right to examination and interpretation’. As Helena Rosenblatt observed,

While the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ was seen as promoting a dangerous kind of equality, the idea of ‘free examination’ was seen as encouraging a sinful form of individualism that invariably led to the disrespect for community and tradition. Endlessly repeated in anti-Lutheran pamphlets was the idea that Luther, by encouraging people to read the Bible on their own, also encouraged individuals to question established traditional authorities.” The Immanent Frame, November 8, 2017

Facing his accusers at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther appealed to the concept of ‘freedom of conscience’. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand.” The 1947 UNESCO Memorandum on Human Rights cited the Reformation as one of the historical events most responsible for the development of human rights because of its “appeal to the absolute authority of the individual conscience.”

Encouraging people to examine and interpret the Bible, and to act according to the dictates of their conscience, inevitably leads to personal empowerment. And personal empowerment leads to self-actualisation — the realisation of one’s God-given potential; becoming all that one can possibly be in the context of his will and purpose.

The late, great David Westbrook, Director of the Oxford Cognitive Therapy Centre, said: “Our ultimate aim is to make ourselves redundant by helping clients to become their own therapists.” During a career that spanned more than two decades, he trained therapists to empower people through education and skills building so that they might become their own agents of change.

Legendary Pentecostal pastor, Jack W. Hayford, put it this way: “My goal is to do myself out of a job. I want to build up my congregation’s relationship with the Lord to the point that they don’t need me anymore.”

In my book, that just about epitomises the apostolic ideal: to present each and every person mature and complete in Christ, and able to stand on their own two feet! (Col 1.28).

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