Power without purpose is dangerous and wasteful. I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, a retelling of some of the stories of Odin, Thor, Loki, and the other gods of Norse mythology. I was struck time and again by a lack of purpose in their lives. They possessed an incredible power, yet they lacked any overarching sense of purpose and so they use this power in odd ways that usually turn out destructive for others.
Around the same time I had a conversation with some friends about my lack of interest in superhero movies. I generally find them entertaining, but they typically lack a depth of character worth exploring. At best, these characters are on a quest to save the world because, well, “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it seems more like an emotionally attached job description than a genuine desire for human flourishing.
And then my wife and I went to see Wonder Woman, and it was totally different. Diana has incredible power, but she has even greater love, empathy, and desire for justice. Yet it’s never a vengeful justice, but a redemptive one. (The footnote below contains some reflections on the Christian themes in the movie, but it contains spoilers). Diana, like other superheroes, understands that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but her motivation goes beyond this motto. Early in the movie, Diana has a choice to make. Her mother desires for her to stay in safety in their home, but Diana feels a pull to seek out the war in order to help. She asks her mother: “Who would I be if I stay?” She takes her power seriously and the way she wields it as a reflection of who she is—a misuse of power would point to a flaw in her character.
A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach on the topic of power, specifically the theme that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us (Eph 1:19-20). We as Christians possess a great power—a power greater than Diana, greater than Thor—and it should be wielded for the good of the world and human flourishing. This power is not some kind of impersonal force that we can tap into for aid. This power is not a conjuring trick. In fact, this power is not inherently ours, but God’s, in the person of the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus told his disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). This power throughout the book of Acts is for the purpose of gospel proclamation. The power of the Holy Spirit is also to be used for Christian service. Paul tells the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that each of them has a spiritual gift that is not to be wasted but rather to be used in service to the body and wielded in love. The power of the Holy Spirit is also consistently related to our identity (Rom 8; Gal 4). By the Spirit we cry out, “Abba, Father,” and we know that we are children of God. We who were once not a people are now a people, God’s people. We who were once sons of disobedience and children of Satan have been adopted in Christ by the power of the Spirit into the family of God (Eph 1-2). Finally, this “all-surpassing power” (2 Cor 4:7), the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, placed him at the right hand of the Father, and put all things in subjection under his feet, shines in our hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).
We have an incredible power at work within us, but how often do we allow it to lie dormant or, like the Norse gods, try to use it for destructive purposes. Power without purpose is destructive and wasteful, but God has given us not only the power in the person of the Holy Spirit, but also a purpose. We, like Diana, should show love, empathy, and justice and work for human flourishing. If we are sitting on the sidelines, failing to enter the brokenness of the world to bring healing, I think it’s fair to ask: “Who would I be if I stay?”
Spoiler warning: The Christian overtones in the final 20 minutes of the movie especially are strong. I find it fascinating that when Hollywood really strikes a chord with the public, not just for entertainment but with a truly fantastic movie and message, they consistently play off the Christian worldview (whether intentionally or not)—justice, sacrificial love, and more. In Wonder Woman, it looks like mankind created in the image of Zeus (God), corrupted by a supernatural being, Ares (Satan), so that men turn against each other in murder and war (Cain and Abel). Diana believes for much of the movie that mankind is inherently good (this is our culture’s narrative as well), but even when she comes to understand that man is bent toward evil, there is hope for redemption—and this hope is sacrificial love (Jesus, and this love modeled by those found in him). Although not a Christian movie, Wonder Woman is a movie that reflects the Christian worldview and Christian themes over and over again.