What is spiritual power? How do you get it? How do you use it? How do you give the glory to God?
By Mark D. Harris
A patient came to me in tears. As a child she had suffered abuse, alcoholism, and even rape. The Christianity she had known was stern and foreboding. Images of the past were hard to overcome, much less erase. Now she was in a good marriage, had a healthy boy, and was in a solid church. Nevertheless, she was fearful and depressed, feeling unable to face most days. Completing the basic tasks of life, such as caring for her infant son and keeping the house, was nearly impossible. In her dark moments, this woman was afraid that she would lose everything she had ever dreamed of, and now had.
She is not alone. One professionally successful acquaintance is going through a divorce, a job change, and struggling with alcohol abuse. Another young woman told me of her troubles with anxiety and perfectionism while she was cleaning my teeth. A middle-aged friend struggles with his self-worth after being without a job for nearly two years. A woman jumped off the roof of her 17-story apartment building.
Our Naturalistic Bias
Many of these people are Christians, or claimed that they once were. Few of these people had gone to seek counseling from their pastor or other spiritual leader, choosing instead to seek care from a physician. This is no surprise, as in the post-Enlightenment West we have denied the importance, and even the existence, of a spiritual world. Rather, we consider all problems as biologically, chemically, or physically derived and therefore amenable to biological, chemical, or physical cures. Pneumonia is perceived only as a bacterial infection which is treated with antibiotics, and depression is perceived only as a chemical imbalance in the brain which is treated with antidepressants. If we accept these assumptions, going to a physician makes perfect sense; why seek spiritual help if the spirit world doesn’t exist, or if it doesn’t have any real bearing on our day to day life?
Even Christians who genuinely believe in the existence and power of a non-material world have trouble finding spiritual power to help with their problems. Western Christians, especially Americans, are taught that since all followers of Christ have the same Spirit, we all have the right and ability to interpret the Bible for ourselves, and therefore all have the same spiritual power. Genuine Christians readily admit their sins, and the most faithful believers are the readiest to confess their failings. In the interest of relational peace, dedicated saints may take the blame for sins that they did not commit. Thus those who take God most seriously, who know Him best and follow Him the most, are often the least likely to claim spiritual power, even though they have it.
Musings on Power
We must now consider types of power and posit a working definition of spiritual power. Position power is power that is inherent in a person because they hold a socially recognized position. The US President can launch US air strikes on Syrian airbases only because he is the President; no one else in the country can legitimately do so. Referent power is based on what a person knows because of education and experience. Reward and punishment power can be related to position but can also be used to command resources. If I were to please a billionaire, regardless of his relationship to me, he could give me lots of money, fame, power, or other gifts. If I were to anger one, he could sue me for something, valid or not, or buy my company (thus gaining position power) and fire me. Physical power can be derived from great physical skill, strength, or beauty – entertainers, athletes, and models are examples. Relationships also confer power – parents have power over their children, and spouses over each other.
Spiritual power is conferred by a being in the spirit realm; a non-material entity. Most people in the world believe in such beings, whether they call them angels, demons, ancestors, tree or animal spirits, gods, or God. Christians would list three types of non-material entities – angels, demons, and God (Father and Holy Spirit) – and two types of hybrid beings (material and non-material) – Jesus Christ (God the Son), and man. Christians differ on the nature of the spiritual forces that animate other living things, such as animals and plants, but that discussion is for another place and time. Muslims might name Allah, angels, and Jinn, and folk religionists might add shamans or witches. Many might argue that every human being has spiritual power, and most would probably affirm that some people have more than others.
The Bible talks a lot about spiritual power.
- It is a gift of God, just as all types of power are (position, education, resources, etc).
- God gives it for His purposes, even though some creatures (angels, demons, and men) will use such power to cause suffering (Job 1-3).
- It is real. Both Moses and the Egyptian magicians used spiritual power to change their staves into snakes (Exodus 7:8-13). The prophets and the apostles performed hundreds of healings and other miracles as recorded in the pages of Scripture.
- Spiritual power cannot be sharply demarcated from physical phenomena. Isaiah applied a poultice from a cake of figs to heal Hezekiah’s infection (2 Kings 20:7, Isaiah 38:21), probably because the figs as prepared had grown natural antibiotics. However, the presence of a scientific explanation does not exclude the presence of spiritual power.
- Jesus promised that every Christian, everyone indwelt by the Spirit of God, would have spiritual power (John 7:37-39).
- Spiritual power most often manifests itself in Christian character – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
- The primary use of spiritual power is to win spiritual battles (1 Corinthians 10:4), though it can be used to change the physical world.
- Since spiritual power is not given by man, it cannot be taken away by man (Acts 1:8, Romans 8:35-39).
Spiritual power is problematic to Westerners. Focused as we are on the material universe, we are not sure if we care about a power that primarily affects the spirit realm, which we may doubt really exists. Furthermore, spiritual power is offensive. We believe that “All men are created equal”, but we rarely consider what we mean by that phrase. In practice, we assume an ill-defined egalitarianism which denies differences in power between people, or at least the legitimacy of those differences. None of us like admitting that other people have legitimate power, especially power over us. Position power is the easiest to accept because such power is conferred by others. Presidents can be impeached, chief executives fired, and leaders ousted. What people confer, people can take away. Resource power is harder to legitimately remove, but it can be done. Rich people can be sued, can have their businesses boycotted, and can have their possessions stolen or destroyed. Physical power can be ignored and in any event wanes quickly. Athletes and models rarely have careers more than two decades, entertainers a little more or much less, and are soon replaced or even forgotten. The Eagles lamented this fact in their hit song, A New Kid in Town. Referent power lasts longer, and cannot be removed by others, but is even easier to ignore.
People with these types of power usually hate to be overlooked. Those in high positions need good press to maintain their position. The rich often use their money to impress others and to gain fame. Athletes, models, and entertainers want to display their skill and beauty for all to see and appreciate. They have to, for that is the nature of their jobs. Experts are expected to seek and gain recognition in their field through writing and speaking, and they won’t advance, either through tenure or into upper echelons of the company or university, if they don’t.
Spiritual power is not conferred by others and cannot be removed by others. If a king is chosen by God, as was the belief of the “Divine Right of Kings”, no one can take that right away. He may be deposed, but he is still the legitimate king. As the pen is mightier than the sword, so spiritual power is powerful. There are many lists of the most important people in history, but religious leaders such as Jesus, St. Paul, Muhammad, and Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha), always rank very high – higher on average than generals, kings, or scientists. In fact, the greatest generals, kings, and scientists functioned as spiritual leaders. Alexander the Great considered himself a god and commanded awe in his subjects. Napoleon saw himself as a chosen instrument of the Almighty. Mahatma Gandhi’s ascetic Hinduism accounted for much of his authority, and Charles Darwin’s naturalistic assault on the Christian account of the origins of the universe assured his fame.
Spiritual power does not eschew fame but it doesn’t need it, and such power is hard to ignore. It deals with the most important questions of life, those surrounding being, meaning, suffering, eternity, and purpose. It is also hard to ignore because it commands the greatest allegiances – higher than family, tribe, nation, or even person. Christians with great spiritual power want to be heeded for the benefit of others, because such power can bring life and peace. They do not care, however, if people ignore them as individuals, because life is not about them anyway. It is about the glory of God.
Many religions see spiritual power not only in man but also in places and times. The Koran teaches the holiness of Mecca and the requirement for all Muslims to journey there. Hindus go to the Ganges River and Catholics go to Lourdes to experience the spiritual power in those places. Even in more ordinary places such as churches, temples, and mosques, people feel spiritual power. Catholic vestments and Buddhist saffron robes communicate spiritual power. Rituals such as Communion and items such as artifacts and holy books seem to possess spiritual power.
A reader may object that in reality, spiritual power is only conferred by others. The people must believe in the divine right of a king to allow him to rule. The masses need to be convinced of the spiritual power in a man to follow him. A place, such as Jerusalem, only has spiritual power because Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe that it has such power. Clothes such as those worn by a Jewish high priest have power only to Jews – other religionists see only ornate garments – and therefore the spiritual power of these clothes is conferred, not inherent. People who believe that spiritual power does not exist outside of the opinions of others are often those who do not believe that spiritual power exists at all.
There are three reasons to suspect that spiritual power exists regardless of what people think:
- Humans exist, and they have some degree of power. If spiritual beings exist, they must also have some degree of power.
- Every culture and every religion throughout all of history, even so-called atheistic religions such as Jainism, have recognized some spiritual or at least numinous power, though sometimes they locate that power “life force” in the material universe rather than outside it.
- Science, defined as the study of the material universe, can say nothing about the presence or absence of the non-material. Therefore, scientific explanations of events of “spiritual power” can in no way refute those events. If plate tectonics caused an earthquake which killed 1,000 people, that fact does not exclude the possibility that spiritual forces also played a role. Therefore, the main objection to the existence of a spiritual realm actually does not even speak to the question.
The skeptics do make one good point, however. There is no doubt that all power, whether position, referent, resource, physical, or whatever, depends in part on the interplay of the parties in a situation. Even Jesus, the Son of God, was not able to use His spiritual power to heal the sick in Nazareth because of the villagers’ unbelief (Mark 6:4-6).
Sources of Spiritual Power
Ultimately, all types of power come from God, who gives it to men and angels to accomplish His perfect will. In day to day life, however, where and how can people get spiritual power? First, they must believe that the spiritual universe exists. No one who denies spiritual reality will get spiritual power. Second, people who want spiritual power must believe that spiritual power exists. In our modern, mechanistic, and materialistic world, this is easier said than done.
Power of Person
God is the ultimate source of spiritual power, but people are the proximate source. Places such as Jerusalem confer spiritual power to Christians because Jesus was there. Times such as the Sabbath are moments of spiritual power because a person, God, consecrated them.
For someone to gain spiritual power, they must believe that some people have more spiritual power, or are better able to use the spiritual power that they possess, than others. If all men are equal in spiritual power, then no one can help anyone else, and there is no point in trying to get more. People seeking the power of the Spirit must develop their own spiritual power, usually by practicing the spiritual disciplines.
- Disciplines of Abstinence (denying yourself to make space to focus on God) – solitude, silence, fasting, Sabbath, secrecy, and submission.
- Disciplines of Engagement (Bible reading, worship, prayer, friendship, reflection, and service.
God made man to live in community and spread His power among His people so that we would help each other in life and ministry. Therefore, Christians who need spiritual power to solve problems and become more like God in their lives must learn to identify who has spiritual power. Look for the following:
- Fruits of the Spirit
- Knowledge of the Bible
- Testimony of trusted others
- Experiences in service to God
- Education in general and special revelation
- Prayerful leading of the Holy Spirit
- Evidence of the ongoing work of God
Modern technological culture is addicted to numbers. Anything that can be measured and analyzed mathematically is “good”, if not morally than at least analytically, and anything that cannot is “bad”, or at least uncertain. This thinking pervades our Christian life – more people in church is good, more mature people in church is uncertain (because it is hard to measure Christian maturity). Fewer people in church, even if a higher percentage of them are spiritually mature, is “bad”.
Consider another example – prayer. If you have a serious prayer request, a family member with cancer, for example, how do you seek prayer support? Many Christians tell as many others as possible, knowing that some percentage will actually pray for their request, and hoping to get as many believers praying as possible. The underlying assumption is that each person has a certain amount of prayer power, say ten points, and so having more people pray is more effective than having fewer people pray. If no one has more spiritual power than another, this is a logical strategy. If some people have far more, then a better strategy is to request prayer from those with the power. How many “points” of spiritual power did Paul have? What about Peter, or Moses, or David, or Abraham? Where does your local pastor rank in spiritual power points? Where do you rank?
Notice that we do not follow this strategy if we need money. In that case, we let as many people as we can know of our need, but we specifically request support from those that have more money. We ask the rich for money, but we ask everyone for prayer. What does this say about our belief in spiritual power, or at least our ability to identify it?
There is another interesting dynamic to power, including spiritual power. I have been in health care administration for many decades, and physicians who are clean, neat, and professional appearing tend to have healthier, more compliant patients than those who are dirty, slovenly, and non-professional. This fact holds true even when other factors such as experience are similar. It seems that we attribute power to people based on their appearance, their car, their house, their office, and a host of other factors – even if those factors have little or no direct bearing on that person’s overall performance. If what is true in medicine is equally true in religion, perhaps well-groomed pastors will be perceived as having more spiritual power than poorly groomed ones.
My family had attended a community worship service two weeks before Easter, with black and white ministers, and talked about the spiritual power of these men. The churches where these black pastors serve give them expensive cars; one has a Corvette and the other a Maserati. The white pastors drive sedans, mini-vans, and pick-up trucks. If they have expensive cars, congregants complain that they are paying the pastor too much. But how does the fact that the black church provides a nice car affect the spiritual power of the pastor, both in his eyes and in the eyes of his congregation? Maybe these African American Christians are wise, using their funds to help get something far more valuable: spiritual power.
We learn a lot about spiritual power from God’s instructions to Moses in building the tabernacle and establishing the high priesthood of Israel. Appearance and ceremony confer spiritual power. In Exodus 28, God tells Moses to make holy garments for Aaron, His choice for high priest (vv. 2-3). The Lord’s purpose is “for glory and for beauty” (NASB) or to “give him dignity and honor” (NIV), thus consecrating Aaron for His service. Aaron and his sons are further set apart to God by the impressive ritual outlined in Exodus 29. The incense, the anointing oil, the tabernacle, and its furnishings are all beautiful, unique, and set apart as sacred to the Lord. In fact, God specifically forbids anyone from using the same formula for incense (30:37-38) and for the anointing oil (30:31-33) in any other context and for any other purpose. While no physical things, such as garments, buildings, incense, or oil, are required for spiritual power – consider the examples of Paul and Peter, not to mention Jesus – they can confer it.
Self-perceptions of spiritual power are important. All power, whether medical (referent) or spiritual, comes from God. He gives and He takes away; and all glory is ultimately His. The Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ day had spiritual power, but were notorious for thinking too highly of themselves. Paul tells us to think so as to have a sound mind (Romans 12:1-2). Christians dare not overestimate their spiritual power, nor fail to give the glory to God in every circumstance. People pursuing spiritual power must always remember that the purpose of such power is the glory of God, not any type of personal aggrandizement.
This point deserves expansion. If spiritual power is given to an individual by God, then only God can take it away. Thus, a holder of such power may feel unaccountable to others. If it is the most powerful power, because it comes directly from the sovereign of the universe, then a holder of such power may feel that he is sovereign over others. People who are spiritually powerful must be especially humble, because they have a precious gift to be used only for the glory of the Lord and the benefit of others.
However, underestimating our spiritual power is equally dangerous. I was once injecting steroids into the knee of an arthritic patient. I had seen her several times before and we had a great therapeutic relationship, but she was nervous. She said, “Dr. Harris, please be careful, because this is my first time.” I replied, “I will, this is my first time too.” I smiled at the patient, the medic chuckled, because we had done thousands of these injections together, and the patient said, “Dr. Harris!” Everyone laughed, my patient relaxed, and the procedure turned out well. Had I not been confident in my God-given power to handle the situation, I may not have done it, and my patient would have suffered. If pastors and other spiritual leaders are not confident in their God-given spiritual power to address the needs of others, they will not do what the Lord is calling them to do, and people will suffer.
Finally, we must commit ourselves to imitate those with great spiritual power. Seek them out, be mentored by them, and ask them to pray. Just seeing or touching a person of great spiritual power confers a blessing. Hindus pursue darsan, the sight or “face” of the holy, whether a person or a place, to help them encounter Brahman. When I served as the deputy commander for military medical forces at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration, onlookers strained for a glimpse of Barack Obama, and were thrilled if he looked towards them. Catholics wait for hours or days to see the Pope. They may know something that Protestants do not.
Power of Place
Most religions teach that some places, such as Mecca, the Ganges, or a local hill, have more spiritual power than other places. Christians believe that all places have equal power
- Neither the Father nor the Son ever identify one place as holier than another. Even the “Holy of Holies” in the Temple was desecrated. Now even the Temple is gone.
- God made the whole universe and is equally present in every place therein. Every place is equally dedicated to His glory, and therefore no one place is more sacred than another.
To restate, Christians believe that every place is holy. The disadvantage of this belief is that humans have less trouble seeing God in a vermillion sunset or a mystical forest glade than in a pile of rocks. If God is everywhere, it is easy to reach the conclusion that God is nowhere. By nature, man needs markers to designate the holy, to separate the sacred from the secular. That is why God provided the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Ark of the Covenant, for the early Hebrews. In the same spirit, Christians have built beautiful churches and other places of worship.
Pagans use a knife, an athame, to demarcate sacred space for their rituals. Hindus make the outside of their temples look like mountains, and the inside resemble caves, to communicate the spiritual power of nature and the heart of the earth. Muslims cover mosques in beautiful and inspirational calligraphy from the Koran to tell the Faithful that the place they are in is special.
Medieval cathedrals are masterpieces, using light, sculpture, and architecture to communicate the knowledge and glory of God. The acoustics amplify and enrich the chants and psalms of the monk choir. Whether a Scandinavian stave church or a cathedral, the house of worship in Medieval Europe was the most magnificent place in the village and region. People therein gained knowledge and had experiences denied to those outside. They had real spiritual power from the place they inhabited.
Power of Time
In Genesis, we learn that God rested on the seventh day of creation, making that day holy. In Exodus He commands Moses to set aside the seventh day for the people, keeping the Sabbath holy. Jesus clarified but reinforced God’s requirement for a Sabbath rest. God created and is present in every moment, and every day is holy to Him, but He has specifically set apart one day per week as sacred.
To gain spiritual power from the power of time, Christians today must observe one Holy Day (Sabbath) per week, often Sunday, depending upon one’s culture. Holy Days are for rest, for worship, for Bible Study, for family, and for fellowship with other believers. The Sabbath is not for work, for shopping, or for fighting. It is certainly not for sin.
The weekly Holy Day (Sabbath) is not the only source of spiritual power in time. God commanded Israel to observe annual feasts at Passover (spring) and Tabernacles (fall) to give the Hebrews time to remember Him. Likewise, Christians have Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas, and many additional times in the Church Year. If we want spiritual power, we will learn about these events and celebrate them with friends and family.
Other times are also sacred in human lives. Birth is a celebration of a great gift of God. It is not purely a biological event, but a cosmological event. The coming of a child, every child, has eternal, not just temporal, significance. Children are more than merely an expense, in time and treasure, to their families and others. Many religions and cultures celebrate rites of passage, such as a Bar Mitzvah, commemorating a boy’s passage into manhood. Christians could do the same. These are important times to define and cement God’s role in the life of a young man. Women have similar rituals, such as the Latin Quinceanera. Marriage is a sacred event, with God uniting the lives of a man and a woman. The ceremony should have profound spiritual power; an experience with the Lord that none present will ever forget. Retirement marks an important transition and must be celebrated. Death is the moment where the living touch the dead; where man touches eternity. It is the inevitable future of us all, and begs the question of where our afterlife will be. A funeral, therefore, is another sacred time in a person’s life, and can be a source of great spiritual power.
People with the most spiritual power set aside time daily, often in the morning, to encounter God. They pray and study the Bible, but primarily they simply exist in the presence of God, communing with the one that they love the most.
My patients are often desperate; if I cannot help them, they feel that they have no other place to go. Many are right, as my practice includes many of the most impoverished people in Memphis. A huge percentage suffer from terminal illness, substance abuse, gang violence, and serious mental disease. A large minority are homeless, without adequate food or transportation. Their needs often seem far greater than my resources. To help them, I need power, but medical power is not enough. I need the power of the Almighty – spiritual power – to make a difference in these lives.
Challenges like this force us to question our assumptions, and I have found that some things that I believed about power stem more from modern secularism than from the Bible, and more from the Enlightenment than from Christianity.
All power comes from God, and all glory returns to Him, but He gives power to us for His purposes. Power comes in many forms, some conferred and therefore easily revocable by others, and some more intrinsic to the individual. Some people have more power than others, whether we like it or not, but everyone has some. Spiritual power is found in persons, and to a lesser extent in places and spaces. People can and should develop their own spiritual power, and rely on others to help them in these endeavors.