A famous and popular Christian speaker once asserted that Love is the opposite of Strength. In this view a person has to choose to express either one or the other, and the Christian choice is to express Love. However, the basic assertion is not only wrong, but so wrong as to miss the entire point of Christianity.
Before I get to that though, let me explore why it might appear to be right in the first place. It seems to share the sort of counter-intuitive wisdom that’s common in Christian teaching. Paul wrote that he preached Christ crucified. How many religions would want to keep prominent the brutal and humiliating death of their founder? Even more, Jesus talked about losing one’s life to find it, about how the meek and poor are blessed, about giving up everything to be a servant to others. All of those passages seem to extol weakness over strength; the Love or Strength decision looks like it fits in perfectly.
Nietzsche certainly thought so. He often railed against Christianity as a religion of slaves, people who lionized their own weakness as a way of making themselves feel better about it. Suddenly they weren’t poor, ignorant, trapped wretches; they were noble saints. He figured that if they had had any strength though, they would have used it instead. He called that impulse the “Will to Power,” and he established it as the ground of an ethic he considered to be far superior.
It can make sense for Christians look at Nietzsche’s Will to Power and denounce it as the presence of Sin in every heart. It’s the desire to assert control over others, to lift up oneself even at the expense of others, to do what one wants without restriction. It certainly sounds like Sin, so doesn’t it make sense to say that Christians ought to pursue the opposite? Rather than trying to be strong, doesn’t it make sense for Christians to say that Strength is the opposite of what they want, that they want Love instead?
One of the beauties of Christianity is that it can withstand investigation. The Love versus Strength philosophy, on the other hand, crumbles rather quickly; one need only consider the following horror. If a monstrous man abuses his wife and children and they don’t have the power to resist him, ought they to stay in that situation? If Love is the opposite of Strength, then staying would be an act of Love, because leaving would be an expression of Strength.
But that isn’t the Christian view at all! Christians would help the wife and children escape! In the true Christian understanding, rather than being opposed, Love requires Strength. Love is itself an expression of Strength. In the situation described above, the wife’s and children’s lack of strength is a problem, not a virtue. Christianity doesn’t extol victims, it empowers them.
That’s why Paul preached Christ crucified, not because it was Christ’s moment of weakness and defeat, but because it was an awesome display of both Christ’s Love and his Strength. He withstood torture and death without wavering in his commitment to obeying the Father. It would have been easier for him to quit earlier, to have quit in the garden, or even to have quit before people started hating him.
Had it been me, that’s probably what I would have done. I don’t like being hated; being hated is hard, and I’m weak. Being hated makes me feel bad, and I’m inclined to sacrifice my ideals, independence, and too many other things just to be well liked again. Christ had Strength though, so he kept preaching even when people hated him.
Had I somehow lasted until the garden, I probably would have fled rather than praying. If I had been alone in the night, knowing that people were coming to arrest me and kill me, I probably would have hidden at the very least. Being unjustly imprisoned terrifies me, because I’m weak. Christ had Strength though, so he stayed in the open, stayed where he could be found, and declared his obedience to the Father in prayer.
Then he was arrested and tried. He knew what was coming if the trial didn’t go well; people were shouting it from the streets: “Crucify him!” If it had been me, I would have taken any opportunity to defend myself. I would have said whatever the judge wanted to hear. Pilate even seemed to be trying to get Jesus to do just that. He was offered a chance to back down, to escape. A weak person would have taken it. Christ had Strength though.
Then he was tortured. Especially in the last decade, television and cinema have become obsessed with torture. It shows up in dramas as a sign of how serious they are, and nowadays we even have “reality” shows in which we watch people be treated horribly in an effort to win a little bit of money. The curious thing is this: we never assume that the person who lasts the longest is the weakest. I wouldn’t last, because I’m weak, and I’d probably crack at just the threat of torture. Jesus lasted, because he had Strength.
Ironically, people taunted him by joking that he would save himself if her were actually the Son of God. They didn’t realize that saving himself wasn’t the real test of his power. He had walked on water, healed the lame, even raised the dead; saving himself would have been easy. I’m sure that the devil was hoping he’d save himself, which probably inspired a lot of the torture. The devil was probably hoping to push Jesus to his breaking point. Had Jesus saved himself he would have been disobedient, so the devil would have won. Jesus didn’t break though–he was obedient even unto death–because he had Strength.
Paul preached Christ crucified because Love requires Strength, and God both Loves the world and has the Strength to back it up. A gospel without Strength couldn’t have made it to the Crucifixion, much less had the Strength to raise Christ from the Dead. In a certain way, Nietzsche was right–people ought to pursue Strength–he just misunderstood what it would look like if we did. Real weakness is what causes us to fail at Love. Strength looks like Jesus.