Sit up as straight and tall as you can. Put your hands on your hips with your elbows pointed out. If you’re able, stand up and place your feet a little wider than hip width apart.
If so, you’ve now assumed the “Wonder Woman.”
This kind of body language is what social psychologist Amy Cuddy has identified as a “high power pose.” Powerful, confident people tend to assume positions like this where they make their bodies occupy as much space as possible. We might not often literally see someone stand like Wonder Woman… but think of CEOs who sit with their feet propped up on their desks with their hands behind their head, taking up lots of space. Or runners who raise their arms as they cross the finish line. These are all “high power poses.”
As you can guess, there’s an equal and opposite pose.
Hunch over in your seat. Make your posture as terrible as you can. Fold your arms in close to your body a la Mary Katherine Gallagher. Bring one hand up to touch your neck, as though you’re protecting it.
This is what Cuddy calls a “low power pose,” when we make our bodies occupy as little space in the world as possible. She sees it among her less-confident MBA students who are hesitant to participate in that competitive classroom.
Two distinct extremes, right? Which makes them perfect for living into today’s Scripture.
Bible scholars suspect this passage from Philippians 2 is a very old hymn, possibly one sung by the early church. It’s written in poetic form and tells about the power poses of Jesus’ life.
It begins: “he was in the form of God” (v. 5). So assume a high power stance of your choosing to demonstrate that. Make yourself big. Take up a lot of space.
But then: he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (v. 7). So make yourself small, like you don’t want anyone to notice you.
And next: “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (v. 8). This is complete humiliation, what looks to the world like total defeat. It should be the lowest power pose ever.
But what position would Jesus be in on the cross?
That’s right – arms out wide. What Soundgarden called the “Jesus Christ pose.” This is more like a high power pose, right? Jesus is completely powerless at this point, and yet he’s assumed an incredible high power pose.
Weird. Except, not weird at all considering what happens next.
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…” (v. 10). So raise your hands in that V for victory, and this time your high power pose can double as raised hands to praise God.
This is the arc of Jesus’ existence, described for us so beautifully in Philippians 2: high power to low power to even higher power.
And because of Jesus, it’s the arc of our existence, too.
Before this hymn comes Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish conceit or ambition, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Paul includes the song about Jesus to remind the Philippians of the ultimate example of this kind of lifestyle. We are supposed to do what Jesus did: willingly go from high power to low power… so that, through Christ, we are raised by God rather than ourselves.
Our instinct is often the opposite. We want all the power we can get our grubby little hands on. We stockpile weapons and money and credentials to grab at power. Even the least among us has some thing or someone we can dominate: a spouse or neighbors; the kid who makes our sandwich at McDonald’s; even, sadly, the people next to us in the pews. We want to announce our presence with authority. We want to make ourselves bigger… and bigger… and bigger…
…but that only leads to a fall.
Just ask Adam and Eve.
Remember how they reached for a little more? They took the fruit from the one tree that was off-limits. The snake lured them in with a promise: “Your eyes will be opened,” he said. “You’ll be like God,” he said.
So Eve reached out a long arm to take the fruit from the tree… and with two bites, they fell.
Our path is not their path. Our path is the way of the cross: a humility that allows us not only to love others as our equals, but to serve them out of that love.
That’s a hard way for us, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. But here’s a glimmer of hope: the body is capable of changing the mind.
Cuddy – that social psychologist – did a study to evaluate the effects of these high and low power poses. She had students assume one or the other for two minutes – just two minutes – and then studied their hormonal changes afterward. Do you know what she found?
Taking on a high or low power stance altered their hormones significantly. A 20% increase in testosterone for those who took a high power pose. A 10% decrease in those who took a low power pose.
Literally: the body can shape the mind.
So taking on a low power pose might actually help us to think differently about ourselves and the way we relate to others. But we need a very particular low power pose. Our goal as Christians is not to debase ourselves; each one of us is a special child of God. Our goal, rather, is to let go of our selfish love and grow in our love of others.
Here’s just the pose we need. Are you ready?
Bow your head in prayer.
I couldn’t find any research to back this up, but long ago I was told that we bow to pray because that’s what knights would do before a king. It’s a sign of vulnerability that exposes one’s neck to the sword. When we bow our heads to pray, we take on this specific low power pose.
Here’s my challenge to you: all week long, as you remember that Christ chose to submit himself to the cross, bow your head in prayer. Better yet, get down on your knees when you pray. When you do, remember not only that Christ was willing to lower himself but also that we are called to lower ourselves.
And when you raise your head from prayer, may you rise to a life lived not for power… but love.
Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians
The New International Bible Commentary