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Where does your strength come from?
We feel the need for strength when we feel threatened by powerful people. Bullying happens when powerful people misuse their power to harm those who are less powerful. According to an Australian study, 27% of school students are frequently bullied. As a parent, I know that the best thing I can do to help my kids deal with bullies is to give them strength. How? By giving them a secure and safe home life, by affirming them in who they are, and by praising them for what they do. Of course, sometimes as a parent you actually have to intervene directly in a bullying situation. But if you’ve done the groundwork—that is, if you’ve spent the years giving your kids strength and security in themselves—then they’re more likely to be able to shrug off initial attempts at bullying, so that it doesn’t escalate in the first place. They might be annoyed at the bully, and they might even be hurt in some little way by the bully, but they’re less likely to be seriously threatened and victimised, because they have that strength in themselves to deal with it. The same strategy can help in many areas of life, for people of all ages. When we have strength in ourselves, the powerful people don’t matter so much, and we feel the threat far less.
But so often, I have to admit, I feel weak. There are, in fact, powers that are stronger than I am. For example, there was a time in my life when I needed to rely on government welfare to provide for my family. In that situation, I felt my weakness: spending vast swathes of my day just trying to get through on the phone to the relevant government department, finding that the line was repeatedly busy, finally getting connected to a recording and being put on hold for an hour, and then being cut off at the end of the hour and having to start again. For me, that was a temporary and relatively mild example of weakness in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. But it can be far worse, can’t it? Sometimes those who have power over us aren’t just uncaring; they’re actively hostile. This leads to bullying and abuse. In cases like this, we certainly need to ask for help (if you’re in a situation like that now, there are people who can help at bullyingnoway.gov.au and www.1800respect.org.au). Yet whether it’s obvious cases of bullying and abuse, or subtler cases involving lack of care in our families or workplaces, we can often feel weak in the face of powerful people.
At various levels and in different ways, we Christians can feel our weakness in the face of power. The Barnabas Fund documents various ways in which Christians are mistreated, persecuted and denied justice by governments and powerful groups throughout the world. Alarmingly, their reports are increasingly featuring Western nations like the UK and Australia, as well as those countries where persecution of Christians is endemic. As Christians, we can feel that the earthly powers seem to be against us. And beyond this, there are the spiritual powers which might threaten and frighten us too.
What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power?
Prayer and knowledge
Here in Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself:
And I pray that you would know what is the outstanding greatness of his power towards us believers, according to the activity of his mighty strength. He enacted this in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.Ephesians 1:19–21
These verses are part of a prayer that Paul began in verse 17. He’s praying for his readers, that God would give them his Spirit to enable them to live rightly, to know him more and more, and to understand their future hope. Now in verses 19–21, he tells them that he’s praying that they would know “what is the extraordinary greatness of his power towards us believers, according to the activity of his mighty strength”. It’s this strength that we need to live for God in the face of the powers that be—a strength that comes from God.
What is God’s strength? God has shown his strength through certain mighty actions for us. As we come to understand these actions more and more, we come to see how strong he is, and find strength to live. These actions all involve his Son, Jesus Christ.
The first way that God has shown his strength is by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus is risen! If you’re a Christian, you probably know that. But have you ever stopped to contemplate what that means? It’s an incredible act: a dead body, with no power in itself whatsoever, raised to live again! And it’s not just any dead body that God has raised: it’s the body of his Son Jesus Christ, the ruler of the universe. In fact, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not just the beginning of his new life; it’s the beginning of a whole new creation. He himself is the guarantee that we who believe in him will also be raised from the dead. And the strength that God has shown in raising Jesus from the dead is a strength that can strengthen and encourage us even now, even in our weakness.
Jesus is risen from the dead, and he’s now in heaven with God. But he isn’t just hanging around in heaven twiddling his thumbs. No: he’s victorious! The fact that Jesus is risen from the dead means that he is the great king and ruler of this world. God has displayed his strength by “seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places”. This is a picture of victory and power. In the Bible, the right-hand seat is the position of honour and privilege next to a ruler. Paul is saying that Jesus shares the throne of his Father in heaven. He’s greater than everyone and everything in this universe. He’s greater than the powers and authorities. That means he’s greater and bigger than anything that could ever frighten us. And as Paul has already said back in verse 10, God is acting even now to “sum up” all things in Christ: to bring the whole world to a point of honouring Jesus, whether willingly or unwillingly. In the end, it will be obvious that it’s all about Jesus. Right now, it’s less obvious. But it’s still true. Christ is risen, and Christ reigns. He is strong. And his strength is for us who believe in him, since God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ” (verse 3). God has given Christ to us (verse 22). And we belong to him: he loves us now, and our future is secure.
Does that mean that God promises we’ll never be hurt? No. As Paul goes on in Ephesians, he reminds his readers several times that he’s a prisoner: locked up by the imperial power of his time, for preaching the gospel. Close to the end of his letter, Paul describes the Christian life as a spiritual battle against the rulers and authorities and cosmic powers. So Paul’s letter is not saying that nothing will ever hurt us. But it is telling us that, even as we suffer and feel weak, we have great strength from the powerful God who has displayed his strength, who rules over all things, and is in fact on our side. Or to be more precise, we’re on his side.
God’s active, mighty strength
When we feel weak in the face of the powers that be, where do we find strength to live? We naturally want to do something strong, don’t we? But what is Paul’s first response? His first response is not to do something strong; his response is to ask for help from someone who is strong. Paul asks God to grant that his Spirit would enable us to understand and know even more deeply the strong things that God has done. That might sound a little weak until we realise what those strong things are. God has raised Jesus from the dead. God has put Jesus “far above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” That is the greatest strength in the world. And it is the key source of our strength.
How exactly is God’s strength active in us? Does he promise to give us spiritual superpowers to wipe out our enemies with a cosmic death ray? No. But he does give us something far more powerful. He reminds us who we are. This might sound weak. But it is the most powerful thing God can do for us. At the start of this post, I mentioned that the best thing I can do to help my kids deal with bullies is to give them strength, by giving them security in their relationships at home and by affirming and praising them in who they are. When it comes to Christians, who are we? We are people in Christ, which means we are the kind of people Paul has described at the beginning of chapter 1. We are blessed with every spiritual blessing. We are chosen by God. We are adopted by God. We are loved by God. We are forgiven by God. We have that sure hope of a new creation with God, a hope not even death can take away. We matter deeply to God, in Christ, who is powerful. It’s this knowledge that gives us strength. Because we know who we are, the actions of others might hurt us, but they don’t need to crush us.
How does God remind us of who we are? He does it through his word of truth, the gospel (as we see for example in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians!)—and that means he does it through one another, speaking this word of truth to one another (which is very important a little later in Ephesians). That’s why it’s so important for us to remind each other of these truths, to encourage and affirm one another in who we are, from God’s word. Who are we? By ourselves, we are weak. But in Christ, we are God’s dearly loved, chosen, adopted, forgiven, secure children. And because it is God who grants this strength through his Spirit, we need to pray for one another, that we would know this more and more.
So we don’t have to live in denial, do we? There are powers in the world. There are spiritual powers and earthly powers. They’re real, and they can be scary. There are ways that they can hurt us. Sometimes, we can do something about it. And often, we should do something about it. But there are times when we don’t have the resources in ourselves to deal with these powers. We can’t just empower our way out of it all. But we do have a source of power and strength. What is my strength? It is not, ultimately, that I am strong by myself. It is that I am forgiven and loved, and so I am in fact secure in Christ, despite what the powers can do to me. Sometimes, I can be so weak that I forget this truth. Yes, I’m weak. That’s why I need to lift my eyes to the ruler of all things. That’s why I need to speak this truth to others who are weak. That’s why I need to pray, for myself and others, for God’s Spirit to be at work, to remind me of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to give me the strength that comes not from me, but from him.
What are the areas in life where you feel most weak?
What is it about who you are in Christ that can give you strength in these areas?
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.