A Stronger Power
One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s sustained critiques of Christianity was that it promoted weakness as a virtue. He argued in his book On the Genealogy of Morals that Christianity promoted a “slave morality.” Looking at the Beatitude sayings of Jesus as the centerpiece of this morality, Nietzsche railed against this unique vision of the moral life, particularly as it was embodied in Jesus as the “Suffering Servant.”
For Nietzsche, all of Western society, built as it was upon a foundation of Judeo-Christian morality—with its appeal to kindness, service, and caring for others—had to be torn down. The proper solution, for Nietzsche, was to argue for the exact opposite: the will to power by the ubermensch, serving no one and forging a moral vision rooted firmly in the powerful individual as the basis for virtue.
While one might either recoil at Nietzsche’s criticism or agree with his radical vision of morality, the clarity of his insights into the heart of Christianity cannot be dismissed easily. For in Jesus’s very first sermon, he declares that the poor in spirit, the meek, those who have been persecuted, and the peacemakers are blessed.1 Indeed, Jesus extends a radical call to what appears to be weakness: “Do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39-42). If this wasn’t clear enough, Jesus elsewhere tells his followers, “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it.”2 This was a call that Jesus would willingly undertake himself on a Roman cross.
When I am honest with myself, I recognize a deep aversion to this radical vision of service and sacrifice. Nor is it difficult to understand Nietzsche’s aversion and critique. The recognition of Jesus as the Suffering Servant and the implications for his followers to go and do likewise go against the grain of a self-serving heart. Why would anyone choose what appears to be a form of weakness embodied by Jesus over the will to power of Nietzsche?
Immediately, another question comes to mind: Is the call of Jesus to lose one’s life really a call to weakness, or is it about strength of will more powerful than anything Nietzsche could fathom? While following Jesus offers no security guarantee or promise of reward, it is a powerful choice to trust that as I lay my life down, someone will pick it up again. It is the potent surrender to God uttered by the psalmist—and reiterated by Jesus on the cross—“Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”3
It is not simply an historical aside that Nietzsche’s desire to gain mastery through power did not prevent his own self-destruction. Losing his mind eleven years prior to his death and having his work largely neglected by his contemporaries, he could neither master the forces of academic whim nor unwelcome mental weakness.4 And yet, we can learn from his insights into Christianity as we wrestle with our own struggles with power and weakness. Ultimately, the bravado of the will to power will face its own limits. All of us—even Nietzsche—are subject to weakness and to finitude.
As the apostle Paul reflected on the weakness of Jesus, he argued that the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. In entrusting our lives to this God who freely chose the weakness of the cross, we can find true strength—indeed, find our true lives in Christ. Author James Loder suggests that the weighty choice to follow Jesus and to offer our lives present the opportunity for true self-understanding. He writes, “Christian self-understanding drives toward the goal of giving love sacrificially with integrity after the pattern of Christ. This means the willing breaking of one’s wholeness potential for the sake of another, a free choice that has nothing to do with oppression because it is an act of integrity and everything to do with Christ’s free choice to go to the cross as an act of love.”5
The weakness involved in laying down one’s own life provides the opportunity for the other to walk over, across, and through to the One who first laid down his life. And that is a will to power far stronger than Nietzsche could ever conceive.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
1 See Matthew 5:3-11.
2 Mark 8:35.
3 Psalm 31:5.
4 See Michael Tanner, Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 3.
5 James Loder, The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 308.