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 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.