In regard to understanding the nature of God’s power, a subject that is much misunderstood and contended over in theological discourse I have found no one as helpful as Arthur McGill. McGill’s book, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method is one of the most under-read books out there. I strongly suggest that everyone get a copy (and a copy of his other book, Death and Life: An American Theology).
In light of recent discussions I think it is worthwhile to quote extensively from McGill on the issue of God’s power. I’ve yet to find another treatment of this issue that puts everything quite as well as McGill does:
It is possible to speak of “evil” as that which contradicts the good of man. But for the Christian life it is not man but God who determines what evil is. The Bible therefore speaks of evil as that which opposes God’s will, or as that which mocks God’s power, or as that which abuses God’s goodness. If God within himself is an eternal interchange of self-giving between the Father and the Son, we must now try to see why acts that are designed to hurt and cause suffering are essentially evil. It is obvious that such acts contradict the good of man when man is a victim of suffering. but in what sense do they also stand opposed to God?
Violent suffering is the product of excessive power. It shows that one thing is able to dispose of something else, is able to break it and shatter it. It represents, therefore, the decisive way by which any agent can prove that it has power over another thing. If God had no character of his own but were simply the bearer of any and every sort of power, if he acted always to vindicate himself at the expense of other things and n that sense were the absolute intensification of all power, then he would have to be honored as the supreme agent of violence. Then all torturing and degradation, all action by which one creature uses his superior power to exploit the weakness of others and to subject them to his control and domination would be an expression of God’s kind of power.
But by his life and teachings, Jesus makes perfectly clear that the divinity active through him is not Absolute Power. That divinity is not a potentially tyrannical force that might just do anything at all, such as produce square circles or smash the world to pieces. Within himself God is the life and power and energy whereby the Father generates the Son as his perfect equal in all regards and the Son adores the Father as his perfect in all regards. Therefore, in his outward actions toward his creatures, God does not act by some other kind of life or power. The energy that informs all his dealings with men is the energy of his own being.
Thus, when God moves toward his creatures, he does not exercise his powerfulness by subjecting them to his domination, or by shattering them with his superior force so as to demonstrate their helplessness before him. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not brute power raised to the nth degree. This God exercises his powerfulness by his giving, by how much he nourishes his creatures, by how much he communicates his own reality to them. To be sure, their being lifted by him into life may involve pain to them. But this pain is only a means for their elevation not an enhancement of God at their expense. Because of his essential nature as the loving community of Father and Son, God cannot act without conferring something of himself on those toward whom he acts.
Therefore, should God will that certain creatures dry and shrivel up, losing their vigor and life, he does not attain this by acting upon them positively with violent force, for “force is no attribute of God.”[The Epistle to Diognetus] He simple withdraws his action from them. In these terms, then, a creature’s misery and death can only be the result of God’s inaction and absence, not of his active presence.
This leads us to a judgment about the behavior of creatures. When they use force to exploit the weakness of others and by this means establish their superiority and domination over others, they are not then acting by the power of God, they are not then being vitalized by the life of God, and they are not then proceeding in accord with the will of God. In short, they belong to the realm of evil. As Jesus said:
“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. . . . For the Son of man . . . came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for man.” (Mark 10:42-45)
If Jesus is the revelation of the essential power and life of God, then men cannot do violence to one another for their own self-expansion within the area of his Lordship. So far as they do this, they are exercising a powerfulness that contradicts the power of God. They have turned from light to darkness. (p. 84-86)
This is as good a statement about the true nature of God’s power as you are likely to find anywhere. Too many Christians are still tempted to think God’s power merely in terms of unconstrained, raw power. As McGill shows, this is precisely the wrong way to think of God’s power. Rather God is powerful in that God gives, loves, nourishes, sustains, and transfigures. The author of the Epistle to Dignetus was indeed right that “force is no attribute of God.” Rather the power of God must always and everywhere be understood as the power of the cross and resurrection.