Why Do We Hate Feeling Powerless?

There’s a danger in clutching too strongly to our achievements, our gifts, our money, and our accomplishments.

by Sharon Hersh

On a recent flight to Orlando, I sat next to a woman who was traveling to Florida to run a marathon. It took me only a few minutes to identify that she was a serious runner. She had the well-toned legs of a runner, and she carried her most prized possession with her on the airplane: her running shoes.  I asked her what she expected her marathon time to be, and when she told me close to four hours, I knew that I would not be sharing with her my nearly seven-hour times in the two marathons I had limped through. I asked her what prompted her to train and to run marathons. I learned that although her times were very different from mine, our motivations for running were similar. “It is something in my life that I can conquer,” she explained, “and that feels good!”

I understood. I ran my first marathon shortly after my marriage fell apart. With every step of the 26.2 miles, I told myself, “I can do hard things.” There is nothing wrong with attaining goals, mastering difficult circumstances, and overcoming overwhelming obstacles, but these are not the source of hope. They trick us into believing that we are the creators and maintainers of hope. They taught us that we need to hang on to our achievements, our gifts, our money, our accomplishments—ourselves—for dear life. It seems to be the American spirit to manage calamities and crises by focusing on what we can do.

I have felt powerless in my relationships, in my behaviors, and in all my efforts to prove that I am good enough to be worthy of love and to protect myself from being hurt. I remember crying out to a dear friend, “Why do I have to be so powerless—a lonely, fearful, insecure, and needy woman? Why can’t I make these realities go away?” He responded quietly and simply to my angst, “Have you ever asked God that?” Quite honestly, my first internal response to his question was a mocking answer, “No, I’ve never asked God that.” I think my cynicism was partly a fear that God wouldn’t answer and partly a fear of how He has already answered.

The New Testament reveals without apology God’s love for those who are powerless: “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30 NIV); “If you want to find your life, you need to lose it” (Mark 8:35, my paraphrase). The New Testament words of Jesus all point to the hope in powerlessness. No wonder I didn’t want to ask God about the presence of powerlessness in my life. At some level, I already knew that it was a gift from Him to teach me about the hope of letting go, especially of letting go of my need to earn love. When we respond to powerlessness by trying to prove that we are good enough, strong enough, and worthy enough of love, we will lose hope. Ironically, our effort to flee powerlessness is the very thing that leads to a loss of all hope.

We resist powerlessness because it frustrates our determination to do something and to feel in control. Ask the couple who has been married for 20 years, has four kids, and cannot figure out how to love each other again. Their histories, the wounds they’ve inflicted on each other, and the temptation to believe that the grass really is greener elsewhere all fuel their powerlessness to remain committed to their vows. In other words, their determination to do something actually makes their problem worse. It weakens their relationship and makes them vulnerable to infidelity.

Powerlessness is a gift that makes our hands bleed when we open it, so we often hide this gift in a dark, locked room in the basement of our lives. Could powerlessness really be the gift to reveal where we are intended to find hope? On some days, I believe that it could be. On those days, I can see a few gifts that a powerlessness-driven life is revealing to me, gifts that are all about hope.

Powerlessness can propel me to let go. Powerlessness allows us to give up being dependent on a perfectible self and encourages us to become dependent on God who not only loves imperfect people but invites them to intimacy. Hope is born in believing that God loves me when I’m good for nothing.

Powerlessness can compel me to love others for more than what they can do for me. We are more likely to let other people in and to move outside of ourselves when we are broken and unashamed of our brokenness. The mystery and vulnerability of powerlessness is that we connect with other powerless people. I don’t know about you, but I am drawn to people who have suffered, people who are twisted out of shape, and people who limp through marathons, but I have to embrace my own suffering, my misshapen life, and my limping before I can embrace it in others. I am discovering that I am powerless to produce this act of compassion, but powerlessness makes room for the gift of compassion and for real relationships that are not based on performance. Hope grows as I stop requiring others to be something for me.

Powerlessness invites us to an intimate relationship with a power greater than ourselves. When I finally followed my friend’s gentle suggestion and asked God, “Why do I have to experience powerlessness?” I began to hear an answer: I have to experience powerlessness so that I might be loved, love others, and experience radical hope that is dependent not on my hanging on but on my letting go.

One more part to this evolving answer came while I was reading the story of the powerless, prodigal son in Luke 15. His self-reliant older brother had not yet experienced powerlessness. He thought he had done a pretty good job of proving himself to the father and was frustrated that the father gave a party for the wayward, good-for-nothing brother. In his book, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables, Episcopal priest Robert Capon writes about this New Testament story. He explains that the older brother was invited to the party too. The father went out to the field to invite the competent brother. When the brother refused, determined to stay in the hell of his own effort, Capon imagines the father saying, “Stop it! Just stop it. This isn’t about bookkeeping. It’s about life and death.”

I can imagine the Father tenderly and sternly answering my question, “Why do I have to be powerless?” by saying, “Sharon, just stop it. Stop proving yourself. Stop protecting yourself. This isn’t about saving yourself or earning love. It’s about dying and it’s about resurrection.” Powerlessness becomes the path to live. The source of hope for my desire to love and be loved lies in compelling me to let go (to die) and let God (to be resurrected). If I believe that God loves me when I’m good for nothing, then I can love Him because He is good. This circle of give-and-take becomes the source of hope.

Taken from Begin Again, Believe Again by Sharon Hersh. Copyright © 2010. Used by permission of Zondervan.

Listen to an interview with Sharon Hersh on a recent FamilyLife Today® interview.

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