This week’s session of Kyle Idleman’s Gods at War focused on personal power as an idol. The Leader’s Guide noted that the desire for power can take many forms, and the narrator of the video described his experience pursuing political power. This session hit really close to home for me personally, as a different form of this idol has been a major issue God has been working on in my life for some time.
The video narrator was the late Chuck Colson, who worked his way up to becoming a personal aide of President Nixon and was one of the people who went to prison in the wake of Watergate. He fits the mold of what we may most easily envision for someone who treats power as an idol: driven, quickly rising through the ranks of his chosen field, a known leader and power player on a stage few of us can ever manage to even reach. The questions, however, focused on helping us connect to Colson’s story to see how the idol of power can draw any of us. As Colson noted his youth during the Great Depression and his time in the Marines to be factors in how he viewed the world and himself, the provided questions encouraged us to look back at our past to see how it has impacted our present and the way we view ourselves and others. In response to that goal, and because this topic was so personally relevant, and to help clarify a different way this idol can manifest, I told my own story. Which went something like this:
Growing up in a small city in the Rust Belt, which was in a state of constant recession since the steel mills left in my earliest years, I watched my town spiral deeper into its own problems thanks to city leaders who were more focused on getting the mills back than on considering options that might help us find a new path for ourselves, and the city was slowly forgotten as national attention turned to larger stories like Detroit or actual successes like Pittsburgh’s rebranding as a banking and arts center. It’s easy to grow apathetic in this environment, and to either seek a way out or a way to control your own fate. I know many people who left at the first opportunity; I resorted to control.
I had a stubborn father who came from a stubborn family and the only options in that situation are to grow submissive or develop a habit of fighting. I went with the latter. While he still denies it, he also very openly invested in my brothers and their sports while only showing vague, if any, interest in my love of marching band and stage crew. I felt just as forgotten and overlooked as my city, and longed to have someone obsess about me the way I believed I saw him obsess over their cross country meets and baseball games. The combination of these things, a quick wit, and a natural bent toward charismatic leadership resulted in a very overt idol of power and my own clever use of people and situations to my own advantage; I especially sought respect and adoration from people I could control.
The thing is, I wasn’t driven. No one would describe me throughout my youth and early 20s as seeking after power or influence or position. I didn’t look like someone who worshiped power in those ways. What I became was someone who didn’t much care where I ended up, as long as I had manipulated my way there. I wanted to explore loopholes, control situations, make connections, and just freely breeze through life on a series of half efforts and adoring hangers-on. I acquired friends who would follow me, I manipulated people into getting into serious trouble for my own entertainment, and no matter how friendly I seemed while meeting them I instantly forgot anyone who I didn’t read as useful because they were beneath my notice. It was my ex-fiancee that set me on the path to breaking me of that. I’ve mentioned her before, how our relationship was deeply unhealthy and how one aspect of that was her desire to receive the kind of love she felt her life had been missing. The other side of it was my manipulation. Regardless of how much of it was intentional and how much wasn’t, what I actually did was break her down and try to remold her into what I wanted over the span of our entire relationship. My behavior toward her cannot be honestly described as anything but abusive. And when our relationship drove her to attempt suicide, I was forced to face the fact that I had done this. My elevation of self and power combined with her desire to be accepted by me sent us onto a path where she was addicted to the love I had for her and the only love I could offer was so corrupted it had nearly killed her.
But I was so deep into this idol that that still wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be the first or last time she would make that attempt because of me, and in my attempts to fix things I took a path that still ended up with me controlling where things went and how she would be forced to recover, without receiving any input from her or granting her any power over what happened to our relationship. Rather than face what I’d done, I ran away, and over the course of the next year God beat me down over and over until the day came where I was truly alone for the first time. I had no car, no money, no prospects, and no friends or family close enough to come to my aid. And I was furious. It would end up being a seven hour walk back to my new apartment, and I began that walk demanding an answer from God about His treatment of me, raging at the heavens for the ways everything had fallen apart. During that walk, God finally had His opening to soften my heart and help me see what I had become and how hard He had been fighting for me. It was the summer of 2009, completely lost and alone walking along a road in western Massachusetts, that I finally gave up control of my own life and submitted myself to fully serve Christ. It would be years after leaving my home town before He had done enough work in my life that I could really be trusted with power again.
It was my responses to my environment that set the path to this idol, and the way I played out my worship of it was nearly invisible to everyone around me. Despite how I described it above, to everyone else it just looked like fun little anecdotes and a gift of leadership and a devoted, though deeply mentally ill, significant other. There are people who still, even after I’ve tried to explain how much of it was my fault, blame her and the illness they see in her as the cause of all the problems in our relationship. This idol was unseen to her, the woman closest to me, and she continued to blame herself for years after we last saw one another. It was unseen even to me; I honestly thought my hands were clean through all of it. Because the way I chased after it didn’t look like money and fame and promotions, it looked like a slacker just drifting through life and somehow always having someone to call to avoid the worst effects of the lifestyle.
What should stand out in my story to highlight the idol, and what occupied a large percentage of the discussion as guided by the Leader’s Guide for the session, is how people are treated and viewed. Whether this idol manifests as a drive for success that views people as competition to be crushed or surpassed, or an abusive desire to control those closest to us, or anything else that takes people and views them as something other than human beings with equal standing before God, this idol can usually be seen in the way we view our fellow human beings. Because, as image-bearers of God, how we view one another tells much of how we view Him. Is this not why Jesus said that that which we do to the least of these, we do to Him? The idol of power seeks not only power over situations, but over the course of our lives and everything around us. In some way or another, when this idol is seated in our hearts, our ultimate desire is to be like God in the same way that caused Satan to fall. And no matter how well we hide this desire, it will come out in how we view and treat our fellow image-bearers of God.
As we examine our hearts to find the idols that dwell there, let us also examine the burdens we carry from our youth and the way we interact with other people. When something unhealthy arises in these relationships, with the course of our lives or with others, it may very well be evidence of an idol hidden deep in ourselves that has remained hidden from even ourselves. We must be a people humble enough to let go of control, confess our sins, and submit to the lordship of Christ. Let us be a people marked by humility, confession, and a desire to make our God greater than ourselves in all things.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation