“God, thank you for the amazing work you’re doing among young people at our church,” the pastor prays. “And thank you for using our youth director Laura as a part of that work.”
I see the good intentions here. When people like this (hypothetical) pastor employ the language of God ‘using’ people — and of people being ‘used’ by God — they want to center God and glorify God. They want to acknowledge that God is working, doing good things, and giving good gifts. Just as important, people want to articulate a humble view of human capacity and humanity’s role in God’s work.
None of this is bad in and of itself. But the idea that God ‘uses’ people is deeply problematic. God does not use people. People, in our sinfulness, often use other people. I bristle at the language of ‘using’ and ‘being used’ when it comes to God because these words hold a wide range of meanings in our everyday speech. Pastors and other Christian leaders who speak and pray in these ways might not intend for their words to take on certain meanings. And yet, these meanings exist in the minds of the speaker and of the hearers. This matters. The idea that God ‘uses’ people is deeply problematic. God does not use people. People, in our sinfulness, often use other people. Click To Tweet
When we hear that someone was ‘used,’ we tend to assume that this person was not respected nor honored as a full human being. We assume that they were treated as a means to someone else’s end — an end that this person may not have bought into for themselves or even have been aware of. When we feel ‘used’ by a person, a group of people, or an organization, it is not a good feeling. We may experience a wide range of emotions, none of them pleasant, including feeling duped, mistreated, or deliberately manipulated. Furthermore, those who ‘used’ us may not have actually cared about us at all, but instead only valued a particular skill or quality that happened to be useful to them for a time, after which we were discarded without a second thought. What is clear is that they did not have our best interests in mind, but their own.
Similarly, when we talk of God ‘using’ people, we carry some of these same associations. But God does not engage with us in these ways. Far from it. In reality, the ways that God interacts with us are consistently the opposite of the ways people use one another. God respects and honors us as full human beings. God does not dupe or manipulate us. God values us deeply and loves us unconditionally, not just for what we can produce or for a particular skill that we offer. God never discards us. God always has our best interest in mind. In reality, the ways that God interacts with us are consistently the opposite of how people use one another. God respects and honors us as human beings. God does not dupe or manipulate us. God values us, loving us unconditionally. Click To Tweet
I make these claims about God with confidence because I believe that God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus. I know how Jesus treated people throughout his life on earth. Jesus never ‘used’ anyone. Instead, he invited. He called. Jesus offered people the chance to be a part of something bigger and more interesting than they had ever thought to dream up. Jesus gave strangers and enemies the chance to form radical new communities as friends. He asked difficult questions. He challenged people to help them grow, and Jesus called them out when they were being hypocrites. He told stories that got people thinking and that helped them see things differently. He healed. Over and over again, Jesus listened.
Jesus sought out people who were most deeply used by others and treated these people with the dignity and honor they carried as children of God. When religious leaders dragged a woman caught in adultery before him, Jesus refused to join in their game of using her to make a point (John 8:1-11). When a powerful man named Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dead of night with questions he didn’t want his powerful friends to know he had, Jesus did not say to himself, how can I buddy up to and make good use of this man and his authority? Rather, he gently, but clearly, challenged Nicodemus in the ways he needed to be challenged (John 3:1-21). Jesus was for the woman caught in adultery – turning away the violence of the men who arrested her by asking them to contemplate their own sinfulness. And he was for Nicodemus – for Nicodemus’ growth, drawing forth in him a new kind of humility, the kind it takes to be willing to be born again. Jesus was for the woman caught in adultery – turning away the violence of the men who arrested her by asking them to contemplate their own sinfulness. Click To Tweet And Jesus was for Nicodemus – for Nicodemus’ growth, drawing forth in him a new kind of humility, the kind it takes to be willing to be born again. Click To Tweet
Christians often understand ourselves as those who try to follow the ways of God — or more specifically, as those who try to follow the person of Jesus. This is why it is so important that we do not see God as someone who uses people. If we think God uses people, it is not a far leap at all to create a permission structure for us to use people; all, of course, for a higher calling and a greater end. But Jesus’ life and actions show us that there is no higher calling and no greater end than to love and to want the best for every person we encounter. Like Jesus, we may seek to invite, challenge, heal, ask, and listen. But we must seek to do so in ways that value each person and especially those our society deliberately undervalues. As Christ-followers, we simply may not manipulate or otherwise ‘use’ people. It’s not the way of Jesus.
I think of Jesus’ startling words from John 15:15: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” With these words, I imagine Jesus intends to say something like the following:
‘I am intentionally choosing not to use you. I don’t see you as only being here to do what I want, as if you were my servants. I see you as valuable, powerful image-bearers of God. I see you as my friends. I want you to know my business and have the chance to be a part of it if you like. If you do so, it is entirely your choice. It is your agency, your intelligence, and the full amazing wonderfulness of who you are that you bring to the table.’ (Jesus in John 15:15, imaginatively paraphrased)
People who are being used do not know the business of the person who uses them. People who are treated as friends are invited to see the whole picture and freely choose if or how they want to be a part of it.
I don’t want God to ‘use’ me. I want to discern, as well as I can, what God might be inviting me into, and to move toward these things with the full force of my God-given dignity and agency. This is what God wants for all of us.
Perhaps we can learn new language that reflects this perspective. Instead of saying “Thank you God for using our youth director Laura,” what if our hypothetical pastor said, “Thank you God for Laura, who has chosen to love, invite, challenge, and value these young people as you have loved, invited, challenged, and valued us. Thank you for her intelligence, creativity, and insight. Bless and strengthen Laura in this work that she has chosen to do.” It’s a bit more wordy, yes, but much more dignifying of both Laura and God.
There are many ways to see what God is doing and to express a humble thankfulness for these things, to speak about God’s work in a manner that honors the agency of the people who are choosing to be part of this work. We can honor God and people without invoking the fraught language of ‘using’ and ‘being used.’
Thank you for her intelligence, creativity, and insight, indeed. Let the church say ‘Amen!’ I don’t want God to ‘use’ me. I want to discern, as well as I can, what God might be inviting me into, and to move toward these things with the full force of my God-given dignity and agency. This is what God wants for all of us. Click To Tweet