Power with a Purpose
“Ambition” doesn’t have to be a dirty word for Christians.
Alexander Hamilton wrote that a couple of centuries ago. But it doesn’t resonate very well with contemporary readers, who are used to thinking of fame as something you get for degrading yourself on reality television. And it really doesn’t sit well with Christians. How can you reconcile such a statement with a commitment to Jesus Christ, who called His followers to lives of humility and service? Is it even possible?
Hugh Hewitt thinks so. In fact, he thinks it’s necessary.
Hewitt quotes Hamilton’s statement approvingly in his new book, which is titled In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition and the Desire to Influence the World. He wants to see Christians “consciously commit to impacting the culture. To do that requires influence. Influence is not an automatic gift bestowed on good people. It is earned.”
That’s why Hewitt wrote the book: as a practical guide for young Christians who want to make a difference in the world. And when I say practical, I mean practical. Hewitt has a penchant for details, providing ample instruction on everything from what city you should live in, to the best way to make polite conversation, to whether you should learn to play golf (yes), to whether you should get a tattoo (no). He gives us his premise, stated above, and then lays out a carefully structured plan for achieving power and influence.
But back up a minute, you may be thinking. How can a Christian accept a premise like that? Doesn’t the Bible teach that the follower of Christ is to shun power? Many of Jesus’ teachings — “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and “the last shall be first,” to give just a couple of examples — seem to support that view. Grasping after fame and fortune is something the secular world does, but not us.
At least, that’s what many of us claim to believe. But when you stop to think about it, there’s a gap between what we believe and what we say.
Christian publications, pastors, teachers and parents have probably taught you that you need to go out there and make an impact for Christ in the world. And they’ve probably held up examples to you: well-known Christian politicians, writers, or athletes, for example, who are living out their faith in the public sphere and using their fame for noble purposes. Hewitt himself gives examples: Ronald Reagan and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in different ways helped to bring down the Soviet Union; Thomas More, adviser to a king; William Wilberforce, who ended the slave trade in England; even the Apostle Paul, who used every advantage he had been given to help spread the gospel of Christ.
Guess what? None of these people got where they were by accident. They may not have known how high they would rise in the world — Reagan, as Hewitt says, was at one point merely a washed-up actor — but they knew they wanted to rise, and they disciplined themselves to set goals and achieve them. Otherwise, they never would have gotten anywhere.
Hewitt himself knows something about influence and impacting the culture. Currently a law professor, columnist and radio talk-show host, he served in the Reagan White House and also worked for former President Nixon. He’s seen power up close. And he’s not surprised that so many Christians are afraid of it. The struggle for power, he acknowledges, can be emotionally damaging. And actually gaining power can be extremely bad for one’s character. You’ve probably heard the old saying (attributed to Lord Acton) that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The world has seen too many examples of great men and women whose own flaws brought them down for us to doubt the truth of that statement.
As well, Hewitt is nothing if not a realist. Besides all this, he also drives home the point that this fame and influence he keeps encouraging us to seek isn’t going to last. “Fame always fades,” he writes with typical bluntness. “You may have a pretty good run at the top or near top of your calling. But it will be a run, and it will have an end.”
So let’s add this all up. You work and struggle and climb and claw your way to the top of your chosen field, taking all kinds of risks along the way. (The principles of Thomas More, one of the book’s examples, cost him not only his position of power but also his life. The same thing has happened to other once-powerful people.) Assuming you manage to survive the battle and actually make it to a position of influence, you then get to fight against the corrupting influence of power for the short while you have it, before it vanishes and everybody forgets you ever existed.
Doesn’t sound like much of a deal, does it?
But here’s where Hewitt differs from so many other motivational writers and speakers. (Besides his realism about the fleeting nature of fame, I mean.) His whole point is that we’re not to seek fame, power and influence for our own benefit. We’re supposed to seek them to the extent that God’s called us to seek them. Anyone who seeks power and influence for His sake must be careful not to lose sight of that fact for one moment.
As Hewitt puts it, “The most powerful jobs in America may be far less significant than any ministry that provides the context for a conversion from disbelief to belief. You don’t believe that? Then you don’t believe the gospel, and you don’t believe Christ.” He uses Winston Churchill as an example: “Box all of Churchill’s tangible achievements . . . and that box might be nothing compared to the life of a humble missionary who took the gospel to an obscure Amazon tribe.” What Churchill did was crucial — “I pause to wonder how the church would look today . . . if Hitler had not been crushed,” Hewitt writes — but all the same, “we cannot calculate using God’s abacus.” In other words, seek after power knowing that it is far from being the most important thing in the world, that you are seeking it solely to serve God and your fellow Christian workers.
Talk about keeping things in perspective.
And we have to keep this perspective, because “soul work” is the most important work anyone can do. All the power in the world is of no use unless it is being used to further that work: for instance, to protect religious liberty here in America or to help bring it to another country, so that the Church is free to evangelize. Power and influence must always be means to the right end, and never become ends in themselves, for no Christian, no matter how powerful, can truly be effective outside the will of God.
C. S. Lewis, one of Hewitt’s heroes, understood this. In the introduction to Lewis’ essay collection The Weight of Glory, his friend Walter Hooper writes of a conversation he had with the great author: “Without intending any embarrassment, I asked Lewis if he was ever aware of the fact that regardless of his intentions he was ‘winning worship’ from his books. He said in a low, still voice, and with the deepest and most complete humility I’ve ever observed in anyone, ‘One cannot be too careful not to think of it.'”
This is crucial stuff, because if we’re going to keep holding up powerful Christian role models, and lauding them for their impact on the world, we’re also going to have to provide a guidebook for those who want to follow in their footsteps. We have to show them how to get there without falling victim to pride, greed, dishonesty, or a whole host of other sins that accompany power.
Of course this book isn’t for everyone. Some Christians aren’t called to seek power, but to use their God-given abilities in other ways (as Hewitt states up front), and for them the book will have little relevance. Not all of Hewitt’s advice is for everyone. Should I ever meet him, I’d like to engage him on the topic of “being slow to take offense,” which he urges more than once. He has a point, but he doesn’t address the fact that, while they shouldn’t take offense to the ungodliness of non-believers, some Christians in this culture are way too willing to let non-Christian ideas and practices form parts of their lives.
In addition, the book’s focus is narrow. It’s understandable that Hewitt would concentrate on the area of politics, since that’s where he spent much of his career. However, early in the book he mentions other fields where it’s important for Christians to seek influence (business, culture, academia) and I was disappointed that he says so little about them in the rest of the book. Most of his comments on popular culture, for example, are of the Hollywood-is-full-of-crazies variety. I can hardly argue with him there. But that’s all the more reason we should have a presence in the cultural arena. Someone has to bring God’s influence to this area which has so much influence on the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, for those called by God to influence this world publicly, In, But Not Of is just what the doctor ordered: a realistic, practical guide to what to expect and how to handle it. If you think God even might be calling you in this direction, I can’t recommend it too highly.
Copyright 2003 Gina R. Dalfonzo. All rights reserved.