When I was a younger Christian, dreaming about the the missionary ministry I felt called to, I would pray the impassioned petition of so many young people, “God, use me!”
And while I understand what we’re getting at when ask God to “use” us, I’ve stopped praying and talking like this. I don’t think it’s a good way of framing how God relates to us.
Who uses people? Bad leaders, that’s who
Think about any close relationship you have (spouse, kids, parents, friends). Do you “use” those people? Would it be healthy for one of my kids to say, “Dad, I just want you to use me for your purposes?” Would it be healthy for me to say, “Yes! You’re finally understanding how our relationship is supposed to work!”
I hope it seems obvious to you that there’s something off about this kind of relationship. And yet, this is how to many of us conceive of our relationship to God. We talk as if he’s just waiting for us to finally get to the point that we’re willing to be “used.”
Most of us come by this honestly, and I think a lot of it has to do with how we’ve experienced leaders in our lives.
A mentor of mine told a story about a leader in his life that he greatly loved and respected. But he would have episodes where, in his frustration, he’d become very utilitarian and harsh, saying things to his team like, “You’re just dogs pulling my sled. If you don’t like the job, there are a lot of other dogs out there willing to pull.”
I’ve heard stories about other prominent leaders saying similar things with different metaphors (“You’re just tools in my toolbox…”). Many people are used to being treated like tools to be used by those with grander visions or greater competency, living in fear that if we don’t perform well or if we complain too much, we’ll lose our place (and thus our belonging and significance).
It’s so easy for us to project this image onto God, making him the ultimate “leader” who is looking for people to use. But that’s what bad leaders do. And God is so much more to us than our “leader!” We need a better way of talking about how God relates to us!
God is not a utilitarian
Here’s what I’m getting at: the idea that God uses people to accomplish his purposes is too utilitarian and mechanical to do justice to what we see in the scriptures about how God relates to his people.
It assumes that all God really cares about is getting his stuff done, and people are just there for him to “use” to get that stuff done. Like tools. Or dogs pulling sleds. Objects whose sole purpose is performing a function. You use them until they wear out, then you get a new one.
But that’s not the picture scripture gives us of how God relates to us, in at least two ways:
1. God’s project IS his people
God doesn’t have a project that he uses people to accomplish. People are God’s project.
God created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation, creating us in his image and giving us the task of partnering with him in the cultivation of creation.
God’s project is bringing his people into abundant life. Flourishing in every way. Becoming fully and deeply human. It would be absurdly nonsensical for him to degrade us by “using” us in the pursuit of a project meant for our flourishing.
God’s commands, then, are meant to guide us toward that which is good for us. They aren’t arbitrary rules he establishes because he’s a control freak with a fragile ego.
“I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you…” (Isaiah 48:17)
God doesn’t use us to build his thing. Instead, his “thing” is to build us into everything he’s made us to be! He directs us because he knows what’s best for us, loves us, and wants us to flourish.
Almost every act of sin or rebellion is rooted in the lie that that God isn’t actually FOR us. We fear that he’s exploiting us for his own mysterious purposes, with no regard for our own flourishing. We don’t believe God is actually GOOD.
But he is! His project is his people. He’s working for our good. Therefore he never “uses” anyone. But he is very interested in partnering with us.
2. God wants to partner with us, not use us
So I stopped saying that God “uses” people. Instead, I now try to talk about God’s desire to partner with us.
One of the remarkable things about the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus is how many commands are given.
- “Don’t hold on to me, but go and tell my brothers…”
- “Receive the Holy Spirit…”
- “Stay in Jerusalem until the gift comes…”
The resurrection of Christ means that God’s new world has begun, but instead of basking in the glow of vindication, Jesus is calling his disciples to partner with him in implementing his achievement.
Just like God gave Adam the job of cultivation creation, Jesus invites his disciples to partner with him in cultivating new creation. Instead of telling people to step back and watch, Jesus is inviting people to step up and partner.
God isn’t looking for obedient slaves he can use, he’s looking for willing partners he can empower.
Try a language experiment
We give people the wrong impression when we talk about God “using” us. They automatically think about the bad leaders in their lives who left them feeling exploited and dishonored.
So that’s why I’ve stopped saying “God, use me!” I’d invite you to do the same.
In fact, why don’t you try a language experiment: for the next 30 days, in everything you say and write, eliminate references to God “using” people. Instead, talk about partnering with God.
Here are a few examples:
- Don’t say “God, use us for your glory.” Instead say, “God, we want to partner with you in your work.”
- Don’t say, “God uses people in his kingdom.” Instead say, “God calls people to partner with him in his kingdom.”
- Don’t say, “God wants to use you for his purposes.” Instead say, “God is inviting you to partner with him in new creation.”
You get the idea. The language we repeatedly use over time is powerfully formative in the kind of culture we cultivate. See what the results are of eliminating, “God use me!” from your leadership vocabulary!
Robin Scott says
Great thinking! Most Christians waste so much time “praying” for God to “reveal his will”. They should listen to their hearts and get on with things, assuming God as their partner. “Fear not, little flock, your father is pleased to give you the kingdom”.
I get what the message is, though I doubt anyone who uses the phrase “God use me” means it the way the writer thinks it means. I know my father uses me and I use him. My son uses me (for nurture and care) and I use him (for companionship, grounding and a sense of purpose). Good relationships work because they are of “use” to both parties. Symbiosis. Parasitic relationships are the ones where only one person gets use out of the other. So to me the problem here is only with the writers interpretation of the “use” concept.
Ben Sternke says
I’m sure people don’t mean to use the language in a negative way, but our language and conceptual tools deeply affect how we see the world and think about God, ourselves, etc. It seems to me that saying “my son uses me for nurture and care” is (at best) too thin and shallow to account for what’s happening in human relationships. And if it’s too thin for human relationships, it’s definitely too thin for divine-human relationships! We are talking about connection and presence and encounter… the language of “using” (again, at best) doesn’t allow us access into the depths that are available to us. Being careful with the language I use has been helpful to reframe the way I think about and live into my relationship with God (and others).
I agree with your intent, but what do you say to someone (like me) who has only desired to serve God, but after trying many ways, God has consistently closed doors and refused to allow me to minister to others. I tried using my talents to reach the unsaved, minister to churches and youth groups, tried helping the homeless, and lastly being an advocate for victims of child sexual abuse. In every instance I have been rejected and isolated by organizations, churches and even friends. This has been going on for years and years. I have prayed and prayed and nothing has changed. To make things even worse, those who have rejected me or hurt me, God seems to have blessed them while leaving me to suffer alone.
Ben Sternke says
I hear your struggle, Jonah, and I’m sorry to hear it’s been a difficult journey for you. It’s hard to know what to say without more context about your situation, but something we say at Gravity a lot is “Whatever God does THROUGH you he also does IN you.” It may be simply a season for you to find a community within which to simply receive and grow, rather than focus on serving. Perhaps an opportunity for service can emerge organically from finding a place to flourish yourself?
Micah Hook says
The thing about “partnering with God is that it implies equality and that is not something that can be grasped. “Use” is used to show that we cannot do any works by ourselves and that god needs to be in control in order for us to get things done.
Ben Sternke says
Hm, I don’t think that “partnership” necessarily implies equality. I think of it more as “involvement” or “participation.” “Use” does indeed imply control, but I also don’t think that’s how God’s power works 😉 God is not control, God is love. And love is real power. I see control as something that reveals insecurity, rather than power.
Chris H says
Did you really just say “God is not in control”?
I appreciate and understand where you are coming from in terms of the importance of the language we use. It has the power to intentionally or unintentionally shift our theology one way or the other. In this example, it seems there are logical arguments for both.
However, regardless, this article has made me think about the words that I use both publicly and privately in prayer.
Thank you for everything! God has used…. or partnered with… you to edify the body in many ways.
Ben Sternke says
Yes, I think I did say God is not in control 😉
But again, the language is important. I do believe God is sovereign, but the reason I don’t like the phrase “God is in control” is that I don’t think “control” is how God exercises his sovereignty. I think in the West we don’t realize how many already-formed ideas about power we impute onto God without reflection. We think power = the ability to CONTROL things, when the New Testament seems to indicate something else entirely, namely that LOVE is the power of God.
Linda Zalamea says
Yes, God is sovereign and powerful. I have never thought of him as controlling. “Used” is my most disliked word in the Christian lexicon. It doesn’t accurately describe the relationship between God and His children or the metaphor of God and his bride. If I were to say, “My husband pushed me on the bed and used me for sex last night,” people would interpret that as an abusive relationship. It would not describe the true nature of our loving, non-abusive relationship in the least. If I said, “I used my kid to do a bunch of yard work for my purposes and glory,” people would call CPS. I teach my children a work ethic, ask them to participate with me in projects, and pay them for a job well done, because I am a good parent, who loves my children dearly. When the Bible speaks of control, it speaks of God freeing us from the control of sin or oppressors, God in control of the weather, and the fruit of self-control which the Holy Spirit grows in us.
Ben Sternke says
Yes, Linda, that’s exactly the dichotomy I was getting at. I don’t think the language of “using” does good work for our relationship with God.
Certainly something to think about. “Use” does have some negative connotations in current use. And there are certainly many examples of what poor leaders and parents look like.
That said, I’m not certain yet that “participate” fully captures our relationship with God and to His mission. I have noticed that Michael Gorman in his “Becoming the Gospel” and “Abide and God” does use “participate” as his operative word for being involved in God’s mission. It may be “participate” is more incarnational than “use”. So, I will certainly give this some more reflection. Thank you Ben.
Ben Sternke says
Hi Andy – thanks for taking the time to read and reflect with me 🙂 I agree with Gorman here – I think participation is a great word for our relationships to God and his mission… “fellowship” is an older translation of the same word, I believe, but in modern usage it doesn’t really convey the sense of mutual indwelling that is indicated.
Neil Oldham says
No single phraseology seems to suffice and maybe that’s why Jesus used such a variety. That said, most of the metaphors in Scripture for our relationship to God are not egalitarian but, rather, clearly show His place of authority in a way that I’m not sure partnering relates for most folks. That said, partnership does highlight a facet of the relationship that may be missing from “use me.” Maybe the two can be corrective to each other? For me, “use me” has been both a corrective to pride and an exercise in radically trusting that He has my/our good in mind. But your point is well taken that there is something to guard against in that phraseology, too!
Ben Sternke says
Hi Neil, I do hear you on the dangers of saying that we “partner” with God. There’s definitely a difference in authority and initiative, etc. In re-reading the piece, I actually think that “participation” may be a better way of talking about it. As a translation of *koinonia*, I think it captures much of what the New Testament is indicating when it talks about how we (together as the church!) relate to God and his mission.
Kevin McIntire says
Thanks for the article, Ben. I think one of the biggest hang-ups in adjusting our vocabulary in this area has to do with what we would perceive as a disrespectful shift in our thinking about who God is, compared to who we are. We are so used to the authoritarian approach in our society, that “partnering” with someone in authority, especially the God of the universe, makes our minds spin. I read this in an article from Skye Jethani just a few days ago… “People were made to rule the earth with God—in relationship to him and under his authority.” Relationship and authority. I feel that making the change from “use” to “partner,” as you stated in your article, more accurately reflects this unique dynamic, and has the potential to help us see God in a new light.
Ben Sternke says
Amen, Kevin! I think a lot of our hang-ups in this arena have to do with the assumptions we’ve unthinkingly swallowed about what “authority” and “power” are. We assume power = control and then project that concept onto God, assuming he must be the “most controlling.” But God’s power isn’t just MORE of what we think of as power… it’s a completely different *kind* of power, which, as you said, “makes our minds spin.”
Ben Woodd says
Thanks Ben. Very stimulating 🙂
2 Tim 2:21 seems to set “usefulness” to the master as something to aspire to. Do you think that’s different to being “used”?
Ben Sternke says
Hey Ben, I of course affirm the “usefulness” that Paul exhorts Timothy toward in 2 Tim 2:21 – and I do think it’s different than being “used.” I think a big part of this is re-learning the “tone” of the scriptures. For example, in the West, for a long time we’ve thought about God’s power/sovereignty in terms of control and dominance. “Usefulness” to a controlling/dominating God is very different than “usefulness” to a non-coercive God of love. I’m trying to help folks have a paradigm shift in how they think about what it would mean to be “useful to the Master” when they read 2 Tim 2:21.
Thanks for your comment!
Scott Richardson says
Amen! I’ve been on a one-man mission to rid this language use from my vocabulary (and my friends :). About the time you wrote this article, a man I met challenged me on the same idea, asking, “Do you really want to worship a God who USES people?” Seeing the world through a Trinitarian lens has deepened this even further — God the Father didn’t “use” Jesus to accomplish his purposes in the world, they collaborated. Everything flows out of the conversation between the Father, Son and Spirit. “Let’s do this together!”
Does a coaching metaphor work as well? God’s our coach and we are players on his team? A great coach loves his players and helps them to “win” the game by teaching them how to play it. Think of the movie Hoosiers. Gene Hackman was often hard on his players, but it wasn’t because he was using them just to win games. Rather he was hard on them to teach them how to become better players (and better humans). And in the end he tells his players he loves them. Anyway, just a thought, I’m sure the coaching metaphor has flaws as well….