Have you ever noticed that the more power a person gains, the less compassion they have for those beneath them? Positions of power mean added responsibility, but we often find that those in power use their standing to take advantage of others. Tragically, we’ve recently seen this play out in the entertainment industry, where a number of powerful people were exposed for using their positions to take advantage of vulnerable women (and men). Too often it seems like power and corruption go hand in hand.
There may be something scientific to this pattern. Not long ago Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California, Berkley, shared two decades worth of research that helped to unmask the power plague. He writes, “I call this phenomenon [the tendency of power to corrupt] ‘the power paradox,’ and I’ve studied it in numerous settings: colleges, the U.S. Senate, pro sports teams, and a variety of other professional workplaces. In each, I’ve observed that people rise on the basis of their good qualities, but their behavior grows increasingly worse as they move up the ladder.”  Dacher’s conclusions were reinforced by other researchers who also observed that as power goes up, empathy tends to decrease.  These findings show that power often comes at the cost of compassion.
I suspect that at least some of the ancient biblical kings anticipated the “power paradox” described in modern research like Keltner’s. Consider what king David prayed on behalf of his son, Solomon, who was about to take the throne:
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! … For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence, he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. (Ps. 72: 4 & 12-14)
There was no one more powerful than the king in David’s day, and yet David knew that power without compassion was tyranny. He prayed that his son’s reign would be filled with care for the poor, oppressed, helpless, and needy. Their blood—the blood of the vulnerable—was to be precious in the eyes of the most strong. David’s prayer was partly fulfilled in Solomon, whose reign brought peace and prosperity to the Hebrews for a season (1 Kgs. 4:22-25). Ultimately, however, even Solomon’s ascendancy led to corruption, and the accumulation of wives and riches drew his heart away from God (1 Kgs. 11:3).
David’s prayers in Psalm 72 describe the perfect ruler, one that’s all-powerful, but also filled with matchless empathy. Research demonstrates how strange it is to find these two attributes together, and perhaps that’s why David asked for God’s help in the matter. He prayed that the one who would be seated on his throne would couple power with compassion instead of corruption. David probably hoped that his prayer would be answered by his immediate offspring, Solomon, but God had other plans.
Many generations after Solomon, another one in David’s line would arrive. This son of David, Jesus (Matt. 1:1), would be the full answer to David’s prayer in Psalm 72. When the poor cried to him for mercy, Jesus listened to their voice (Ps. 72:12, cf. Mk. 10:46-52). Consider the beauty of this king; although he reigned over the universe and created all things (Jn 1:3), he was still moved by love to empathize with the poor and the needy. The Lord of heaven took on our flesh and feelings, and because our blood was precious in his sight, he generously spilled his own to redeem our lives. We get a little bit of power and start acting like we own the place. Jesus is matchless in power (and owns the universe) but comes in the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). What’s shocking about Jesus isn’t his power or empathy in isolation, but the way in which the two are perfectly united in his Person. He is the sovereign Lord who listens to your cries no matter how small your voice, who values your life no matter how much others may marginalize you or make you feel worthless.
Have you found yourself falling into the “power paradox” and growing less empathetic as you gain wealth or popularity? Be reminded of Jesus, the one who is truly in power and yet did not come to be served or Lord himself over others (Matt. 20:25-28). Have you felt disillusioned with the “power paradox” because you see the exploitation of the vulnerable in society by those in power? Be reminded of Jesus, who didn’t come to use the vulnerable but to lay down his life for them as the king of heaven, and who promises to hear their cries and ultimately judge their oppressors.
The fact is, all of us are corrupt (Rom. 3:12). We relish in the faintest reasons to have a sense of superiority over others. We all, even the “weakest,” catch the power plague from time to time. The good news is that Jesus is powerful enough to deal with our corruption and compassionate enough to cleanse us of it. May the perfections of Christ’s power and empathy humble us and form us into compassionate leaders who use our positions (whatever they may be) to encourage rather than exploit. May Christians challenge the statistics of the “power paradox” as they imitate Jesus in all his beauty.