I Am Not A Drug: Why God Isn’t in the Business of Using People


Growing up, ministers would tell me that God wanted to use me.

Even as an adult, I have had people tell me they believe God is using me to do God’s work.

And it’s not just me. I cannot count the number of times I have heard people explain their own experiences and the experiences of others by saying that God had used them to accomplish God’s purpose.

God uses ordinary people, they said.

God uses your brokenness, they intoned.

God uses nobodies, they reassured.

God wants to use you, they implored.

They said it like it was a good thing, an honor.

But, really, it sounds more like a threat.

Substitute someone in power in the place of God in those sentences and you might get a sense of how disturbing this kind of language really is.

Still, people often give thanks for being used by God and tell me I should, too.

But, to be honest, I don’t really want anyone — not even God — to use me.

See, I am a human, not a drug.

A person, not an object.

The problem with understanding God’s active presence in the world in terms of using humans is that it robs people of their agency, their humanity, their very image of God. It turns creative and thinking people into a fistful of tangled copper wires, conduits for  the Divine current to thrum through them.

It transforms active and living human beings into marionettes dangling from the hands of a megalomaniacal God.

And I sincerely hope God isn’t in this business of using people.

Because, usually, when used, people get used up. And when people get used up, the user tends simply to move on and find another host to bleed dry.

More to the point, using people isn’t very far from abusing people. The line between the two is blurry at best, as both are primarily about exerting power and controlling another person.

Yet, Christianity is rife with language about God using people.

God used Abraham to establish God’s people.

God used Isaac to test Abraham’s faith.

God used Moses to free the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery.

God used Job to prove a point about suffering.

God used Hosea, and then Hosea used Gomer.

God used Jesus to save us from our sins.

God used humans.

God used us.

Thanks be to God?

There is something profoundly attractive to this understanding of God’s action in our world. While it robs us of agency and humanity, it relieves us of responsibility. Though it tends to cast God as one who compels without consent, it requires of us no investment of our own other than a passive willingness to be used.

But there is also something profoundly insulting about it, this demotion of humanity from sentient beings to inanimate objects — earthen vessels, dirt buckets, jars of clay — picked up and used at the pleasure of the Divine. For some, the damage may be in feeling used one too many times and wondering whether God will soon find someone else to use. For others, though, the damage is in never feeling used or used propely, as if you are the scrawny kid God never picks for Team Divine Purpose.

For some, like me, the damage is simply the idea of being used itself. I really don’t think God is in the business of using people, and I don’t believe our sacred story supports this idea either. I think the idea that God uses people is a profound misrepresentation of who God is and has revealed God’s self to be.

Throughout the Scriptures, God isn’t busy using people.

Rather, God is busy working with people, alongside them as a companion, a sojourner, an advocate. This is, of course, exactly who Jesus reveals God to be — a with-us-God, not a use-us-God.

God works with Abraham. God works with Moses.  There is mutuality, not hierarchy, in the work of God and humanity. God works with us, and we work with God.

In other words, we work together to do something neither can do alone: bend the arc of universe toward justice, build the the kingdom of God, join heaven and earth.

Together, God and us.

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Steve Hollinghurst

    really good post David – will be passing it on

  • tanyam

    Its also one of those phrases that make Christians sound silly because nobody else talks like this outside a tiny little Christian ghetto. Other people may say, “I’d like to be able to use my skills to make the world a better place.” You can even add that this is a spiritual matter for you. But ugh, those little turns of phrase that serve only to distance other people not in the club. Dislike.

  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

    I have had similar reservations about that term, “being used by God.” Reading your post makes me wonder if this is connected to another thing I have noticed about the Christian community: its lack of creativity. I see a lot of borrowing in terms of music, marketing, “youth appeal,” outreach strategies, etc., but there is a dearth of creativity. Is that because so many are waiting to be used instead of allowing their gifts to flow?

    • S R

      What kind of creativity are you envisioning?

      • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

        What kind of creativity? Anything that is no a copy of what someone else is doing. Soul expression without the gimmicks and cliches.

      • S R

        As far as evangelizing? Ministering to fellow believers? I’m just curious, not trying to be annoying. :) I always thought it would be cool to launch a guerilla art campaign around a city (ala Banksy or other street artists, but with a Christian message).

      • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

        This guy is getting at what I’m talking about: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/08/09/church-imitate-or-innovate

      • S R

        I get what you’re saying. BUT…
        As far as “luring” new believers into attending church/following its tenets, it’s kind of like anything else being marketed — it will appeal to most people based on an image, or cause, or conviction that they want to identify with — at first. There’s “marketing” to get people interested, and then there’s spirituality. Because appealing to people by marketing works, in general, for the masses (no pun intended), and pop-marketing is junk food for the mind –and talk about mediocrity! (Yes once in awhile you see something innovative in a commercial or whatever, but how many products still use the same old/same old “if you buy this, you can be one of the beautiful people too!”) However, if the Spirit is dwelling within, It will move regardless of how something is packaged. Although certainly, our environment can help “prime” how receptive we are to It. (For me, having great worship music is a MUST at any church I attend.) OK so yeah, as someone who enjoys cleverness and creativeness, it would be great to see churches break some molds, but there’s a large caveat to go with that. First — How do they go about coming up with something never done before? Most pastors and church staff are not creative geniuses as far as doing anything original, and I don’t mean that as a put-down at all. I’m fine with that, because that is not their “core competency”, if you will. I think getting believers down in the trenches and ministering to people “where they live”, when they’re down and out, hurting, hungry, etc., can appear to be very original and radical in itself to the person hurting and in need of grace. I think when you reach people and they feel some kind of connection with you, that’s very powerful and encouraging. And so, I dunno, is creativity for the sake of creativity really going to achieve much as far as furthering the Kingdom? Just my two cents’ worth. I’m not a real cerebral type, but hopefully I haven’t totally missed the point!

  • R Vogel

    Ask Pharaoh how great it was to be ‘used by G*d’ and he didn’t even get relief from responsibility!

  • http://www.lyndaalsford.com/ Lynda Alsford

    Brilliant post. I found it very enlightening and helpful. Thank you so much.

  • @LizCarter4

    It’s great to here someone else thinking along these lines. I blogged on this a while back, here http://greatadventure-liz.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/is-god-user.html – it is a term that worries me. My dh wrote a thesis on this – it’;s linked in that blogpost.

  • Christine

    It’s not quite in line with the sentiment expressed here about being “used” by God, but after reading this I feel that you might enjoy the theology in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Curse of Chalion”. It’s a fantasy book, but the theology in it is really interesting. (From a RC perspective, and very enthusiastically seconded by my Mennonite minister father-in-law.)

  • Deacon Don

    Very well spoken. Almost exactly what I rattled on about in a class I was teaching once, except that you said it much better. Bravo! And let’s work together with God to usher in God’s kingdom of peace and justice!

  • Copper Stewart

    I’ve got no use for the conceptual framework on which this sort of “use” or the reaction to it depends–seems to me there is nothing but God, that all is the expression of God’s being, and nothing more desirable than absolute identification with God. Morality is important to me, but is an ever-changing human construct–”God” is meaningless to me if identified only with the Good rather than the All (especially when the “Good” is little more than the tastes and preferences of a very selfish middle-class).

  • Sue

    I think of it more as a baseball coach or a director saying “I’d like to use you in this position in this game, or I’d like to use you in this play.” I’m happy to be part of the game, glad the person in charge has noticed me, willing to use my agency and gifts and free will to do the best I can in the place God wants me.

  • Tom

    This is right on David. My 17 year old son died in December and I’m tired of hearing “God is using Max’s death…” God is bringing life out of death is much more helpful and healing. And after 25 years in youth ministry, I’ve had my share of feeling “used.” ;) Thank you for your words today. Extremely poignant.

    • Guest

      I’m sorry for your loss.

  • generation4Him

    I like your overall premise…. but you mentioned “clay pots” and “earthen vessels” – and right away my mind goes to where these things are mentioned in scripture, verses like, “if a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be fit for the Master’s USE.” Perhaps there is a good and a bad way to speak of being used; and the typical way we hear the word “used” in our culture is negative, so only the negative version of it is being conjured in your mind when you speak of God “using” people; but could there also be something valid and praiseworthy of speaking of being “used” in some other, less ignoble sense?

  • sheila0405

    It’s not even God working with us, so much as it is God working through us.

  • Jerry Lynch

    I understand what you are saying, yet still feel your conclusions
    are not accurate. “Used” can be taken in its pejorative
    sense, where we are being unconsciously manipulated for someone
    else’s purpose, or in this instance, by God for his “mysterious
    ends.” It is not an actual loss of autonomy or agency, we do not
    become marionettes; in this instance, we are simply duped.

    When I think of being of perfect usefulness to God, I see a
    willing partaking in the divine: our ends are one and the same.
    Hidden in Christ, being as Christ was in the world; I and the Father
    are one. It is consciously surrendering to the will of God in all
    things. This is, to me, true companionship, sojourning, and advocacy,
    for I love and trust fully in this guiding friendship.

    It is my belief that God always has my ultimate well-being as his
    end. Whatever is the task or challenge or situation at hand,
    completely submitting to his direction—letting go of control—is
    to my maximum benefit.

    Dying to self is coming to realize our exact nature, our true
    potential, identity, and purpose, which, as the image and likeness of
    God, is of one heart and mind with God. It is not being used; it is
    realization.

    I work with some men that have addiction problems. They use me to
    help them stay sober. There was an instance where an ex-con was
    coming to AA primarily, it appeared, to use members to drive him
    around to take care of business and get some food. I was not aware of
    this when he asked me for “help.” After a few days, another
    member came up and told me the guy was just using me. I said, “That
    would be true if I were not giving of my time and energy freely. He
    has not taken anything from me.”

    To “be used” in the sense of your article indicates our loss
    for another’s gain or ends. Being of perfect usefulness to God, in my
    eyes, is for my greatest freedom and deepest joy.

  • Y’shua mind

    Oh I really have no problem with God using me ….. After the walk I took I was used so much by this world for such ungodliness that I want to be used by God… If I can let the enemy use me the way he did then I am willing to submit to God to be used by Him… As paul said I am a bindservant for Y’shua , a servant takes instruction from the superia I am one to be used and used greatly for the kingdom establishment hear …..

    Thank God Y’shua said not my will but yours, He didn’t let the cup pass from Him He was used…. God works a mighty work through us once we willing to be used…. I have been beaten, addicted, homless, rejected, attacked, neglected…. If it wasn’t for the understanding all my life that I am hear to be USED by God I would have died, even when I tried to kill myself death opulent take me, you see when God has a plan purpose and mandate for your life He will allow you to be used for His glory ….. You can’t even stop it even if you try…….I qualify to say this because I been through and made it

    Be blessed people of the living God be used and used for purpose knowing your mandate and commissioning don’t be caught up like the parasies over the little things focus on the bug thing that’s His love being manifested through us despite treatment

  • Pete

    I don’t like the term – way too impersonal. Did God the Father “use” God the Son (Jesus) to fulfill his plan of salvation? Does God “use” us to build His Kingdom? I think we work together empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve God and build his Kingdom.


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