When Paul stood before his audience in Athens, he knew exactly what word would trigger them. The Greeks had a long and proud history distinguished by learning, enlightenment, and wisdom. In other words, they were smart. So when Paul promises to correct their ignorance in Acts 17:23, he was guaranteed to get their attention. If Paul was to get our attention today, what might he appeal to? Ignorance? Maybe. We are very proud of our knowledge just like the philosophers of Athens. I think he’d make a different appeal though. If ignorance was a scandal in ancient Athens, powerlessness is a scandal in modern America.
We simply find powerlessness unacceptable. I mean, we were a plucky group of colonies who threw off the British Empire. We invented the light bulb, the airplane, and the personal computer. We were the first country to harness the power of the atom. We were the first and only country to send men to the moon. We were the country that made the Kardashians billionaires. Nothing is outside of our grasp. In the history of this country, the best way to get something done is to insist that it can’t be done.
Related to our aversion to powerlessness is our expectation for control. We might as well admit that we are control freaks. Control is our birthright. There is nothing that we don’t attempt to control; our time, our work, our leisure, our health, our education, our relationships. Control controls our lives.
During times of distress and anxiety, our craving for control is only amplified. Powerlessness when things are falling apart is terrifying. It is in this moment when God’s people most run the risk of substituting control for faith. This was the warning of the psalmist in Psalm 20. “May the LORD answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.” A few verses later, he presents a dramatic contrast: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
The thing is, this would at first appear to be awful advice. It’s not just conventional wisdom; it’s actually common sense. If you are in distress and have access to some sweet horses and chariots, you’d be a fool not to place your hope in them. Horses and chariots represent all of the mechanisms of control at our disposal – all the technology, all the human ingenuity, all the raw power. The alternative to horses and chariots? Faith. Steadfast trust. The abandonment of control to wait on the Lord. I don’t have to tell you how counter-cultural that message is today. The problem with horses and chariots is that they never completely deliver on their promise. For all of the trust that we place in our mechanisms of control, they always manage to let us down sooner or later.
I’ve been thinking about that verse a lot the last couple of weeks. Every generation of God’s people must wrestle with the horses and chariots of their day. This is especially true for Christians in 2020. We have been thrown into distress. We have been buffeted by bad news and its attendant anxiety. We are in the midst of it even now as we come close to the end of this year, but not the end of our distress.
What is perhaps most distressing to us is that our powerlessness has become glaringly obvious. Despite our plans and policies, our technologies and our wealth, the pandemic rages on. The fear of powerlessness is popping up in all sorts of places. It pops up in those poor souls who insist that they have barely left their homes since March. It also pops up in those people who insist that the virus isn’t real or perhaps is a hoax. Both the hoaxer and the hider are terrified of their powerlessness and are coping accordingly. This fear of powerlessness is perhaps most evident in our politicians and leaders. A politician could never say, “You know, despite all our best efforts, it seems that we are powerless to stop the spread of the virus.” No, instead when people get sick and when cases spike, the politician must find someone to blame.
Close the schools. Close the gyms. The churches. The bars. Wear your stinking mask! I will turn this car around right now! If people get sick, it’s not because my plan is flawed; it’s only because irresponsible people aren’t following the rules. Did I mention that the federal government gave us no help? This was all preventable, you know. If we would just listen to science, we could control this virus.
We mustn’t be honest about our powerlessness. No, powerlessness must be met with more and more control.
Chariots and horses. Chariots and horses.
I can hear the protest. “Should we then do nothing?” “Should we just let the virus run its course and let people die?” Well, unfortunately people are going to die. It’s not callous or indifferent to admit this sad reality. It is pure hubris to imagine that we are the first generation of humans with the capacity to control life and death. But to answer the question directly. No. We shouldn’t do nothing. We should be smart. We should be responsible. We should be compassionate and gracious to one another. We should be a blessing and a godly example to our communities, but we of all people should also be willing to admit that we are powerless. Horses and chariots, face masks and vaccines, do not change the fact that our efforts at control are illusory and fleeting.
My friend Matt Proctor, gave some very wise and godly instruction to our campus family at the beginning of what was sure to be a tough semester this fall. He reminded us that faith is not the opposite of fear. Foolishness is fear’s opposite. Faith, true faith, exists somewhere between fear and foolishness. Fear and foolishness are powerlessness without hope. Faith, however, is different. With faith, powerlessness and hopelessness are not the same thing. In fact, hope is only realized when we are bold enough to recognize our powerlessness and to place our trust in the God of Jacob.