Used by God: Sarah Bessey

From Sarah Bessey:

“God wants to use you.”

I have had to yank that lie right out of the ground, burn it like chaff. I know we mean well, of course we do. We say things like: “oh,  I just want to be used by God!” We sing songs: “use me, Jesus!” and we mean so well. When we say “used by God” we mean that we want our lives to count for something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps it’s because we have bought into the evangelical hero complex, and now we think God wants big, God wants important, God wants power and famous celebrities and cable television, God has big, important work to do in the world, so it’s time to do our part….

The language we use matters because our words tip our hand. Our words reveal what we truly think and believe about God, don’t they? Perhaps it’s semantics, molehill-to-mountain-making (it wouldn’t be the first time I did that, as we all know), but the word “use” makes the hackles on the back of my neck brindle now, my blood get a bit hot: here I go:  I don’t believe God wants to use me. Not in the least…

God saved you because he loves you and longs to restore you to relationship. You were rescued and redeemed to bewith God. He delights in you. He yearns to walk with you, to be with you, to see you become fully human, fully alive, fully your own self.

God does not want to use you: God wants to be with you because he loves you.

There’s the hint in his name itself: Immanuel. His very name is God with us. Not God to us. Not God using us. Not God for us. Not God managing us. Not God working us. Not God manipulating or puppeteering us – he tipped his own hand right there in Isaiah with the word about the Word, he is God with us.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Tim

    I understand where Sarah is coming from but I still disagree with her, evangelicals aren’t wrong to think that God wants to “use them” via his spirit to do good things in the world. Rather, they get off track in having a somewhat narrow vision of what it looks like to be used by God, which they frequently imagine to involve to big projects and/or evangelism/missions. The idea that God could be calling most people to do rather mundane things is seldom explicitly recognized, which leaves the people whom God is calling to do rather mundane things frustrated and wondering whether they’re really being used by God or not.

  • http://stephencswan.wordpress.com/ Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    “God saved you because he loves you and longs to restore you to relationship.” I dunno, sounds pretty ‘soterian’ to me (and therefore suspect). Haha, just kidding.

    I think I hear where she’s coming from. The culture springing from ‘God wants you use you’ can probably become toxic. The way I think she is meaning it, I’m with her. I read her other post and liked it.

    Nevertheless, strictly speaking a little bit of a false dichotomy – with God vs used by God. God does call us to stuff, doesn’t He? We can be slaves as well as sons/daughters can’t we?

  • Matt Miles

    The conversation of usefulness and how our language betrays our cynical view of it has come up a lot in the past few weeks. The professor I work for as a grad assistant was shocked that a worker in an assisted living home wouldn’t give a resident CPR because “we don’t do that here.” This led us to discuss the prevailing thought that more of us would help someone that helps us in some way, and fewer of us would help the weak, or less able-bodied (his field is special ed). I decided that day I’ll try to never refer to people as “resources”. I almost wonder if we’ve created a false god in our image, one who sees his favorites as “resources.” It’s for this reason that I wholeheartedly agree with the blogger.

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    I think she has a twisted sense of what being used by God means and implies.

    She interprets the term in the sense of people using other people, as if they were chattel, without regard to the other person’s feeling.

    I have NEVER understood the term this way, whether it was said to me or whether I said it to someone else.

    It is a sad state of affairs when we re-interpret the age-old language of the church in the light of our modern-day perversions.

  • http://www.spirithome.com/ Bob Longman

    Then , how *does* one express the act of doing things in God’s purposes (rather than in some self-issued plan)? Especially BIG things (since not all acts are small)? If you don’t want it pictured in certain language, I’m asking for true alternatives that more effectively describe the same phenomenon.

    I also think this piece has a monochrome approach to the word ‘use’, as if it means the same thing as ‘manipulate’ or ‘control’ or even ‘abuse’. It normally does *not*.

  • MWK

    Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

  • http://dianatrautwein.com Diana Trautwein

    Wow. Way to pick apart a thoughtful essay without seriously wrestling with the ideas it presents. Yes, of course she is talking about the more negative implications of the verb – our culture knows a whole lot about ‘using’ people. I read this as much more closely akin to the recent proverb, “Love people, not things; use things, not people.” Certainly God works through us for the good of the kingdom, the good of the world. And certainly, “God has no other hands but ours.” I don’t think Sarah is denying these truths. She is warning us about language and its power to twist thinking and believing. Thanks for featuring it, Scot.

  • http://www.danwhitejr.blogspot.com Dan Jr.

    I completely agree with her when she says “perhaps it’s because we have bought into the evangelical hero complex — God wants big, God wants important, God wants power and famous celebrities and cable television, so it’s time to do our part…” I too agree this is exceptionally distorted and narcissistic.

    Still, can I be honest, her statements seem soaked in visceral anger to the point that they are causing an extreme reaction. Her bitterness with “being used” is propelling a pendulum swing so far that she divorces “redemption” from “Jesus’ invitation to work for the Kingdom of God”. I wish more of the deconstructive-prophetic-criticism coming from more progressive Christianity (which I’m a sympathetic to) was anchored in emotional health more than in disdain and cynicism. I’m convinced this polarizing language (though it gets blog hits) is just creating collateral damage we will all be trying to over-correct in 20 years.

  • Andy W.

    This is too often used as code for: The church needs you to be invovled in the things we determined are our priority. So to be of “use” to God, you need to get on board!

  • http://www.schooleyfiles.com Keith Schooley

    There’s a both-and possibility here. There are very personal images such as what Sarah suggests from the name “Immanuel.” But there’s also passages like 2 Tim. 2:20-21: “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” Neither set of scriptures should trump the other. Jesus puts them right together in John 15:14: “You are my friends if you do what I command.”

  • Rick

    I don’t get it. Maybe its a generational thing, which is cool. But, this seems like reactive theology, as opposed to real life biblical theology apprised of God’s narrative, where it seems like being in God’s plane, being an active participant, and actually being used by God is a fairly common thing.

    She is a great writer though, and I appreciate her emphasis on being in and with God, but shouldn’t this be a both/and?

  • Rick

    Dan Jr.

    I couldn’t agree more. Reactive versus biblical.

  • Jennifer E.

    #8 Dan Jr., I completely agree with your post–the first point and the second. To the second, I’ve noticed a lot of people finally pushing back and calling bloggers out on their cynicism lately. It’s as if we’re watching wounds weep angrily. That anger/cynicism does nothing to change the minds of the folks they want to change. Instead, it creates a shutdown of communication.

  • Mark E. Smith

    Yes, mountain out of a molehill. The language reflects a desire to serve God.

  • Isaac

    I think this is akin to the ideal that everyone has a “calling.” To my mind this is too individualistic. Sure individuals will be called, but we need to ground our calling in the calling of the church. I am often surprised how the “calling” scenes in the Bible are used for every single person. Leaves people with unnecessary guilt if they never figure it out. The OT prophet’s call was grounded in the covenant with Israel. In short, all of this “God will use you” language is part of our meager understanding of the calling of the fellowship of believers.

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick O

    I think it’s pretty Scriptural to say that God uses people in the negative sense of the verb as well. That seems to be a big theme of the prophets, that God is going to use these other nations. God uses nations and people to accomplish his will, some are on board with this will and some have no idea they’re being used.

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick O

    Also, it suggests a curious understanding of the Spirit. God is with us, sure, but the Spirit gives gifts to be used for the sake of the community. What’s the Spirit’s work if not to utilize people (maybe ‘utilize’ is a more friendly term than ‘use’).

  • Percival

    We are called to serve. That’s active and personal and is modeled by Christ.

    “Being used” is passive, impersonal, and is sometimes a picture of what God does with uncooperative people. He uses them for His purposes.

  • Denise

    While I understand some of the tension I’m reading in other responses, I am completely on board with Sarah. I spent too many years tied up in knots, not accepting that God loves us and includes us and wants to be with us. I worried instead that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t being useful enough to Him. Thank you for voicing that tension, Sarah, and for highlighting it here, Scot.

  • http://www.mycatholicblog.com Erin Pascal

    Wonderful article Sarah! Thank you for sharing your thoughts to us. I agree with you on this. I don’t have any problems being used by God as an instrument for His work. I know that He has plans for me and I gladly accept them. God bless. :)

  • PLTK

    I think many people haven’t gone to Sarah’s website to read the full text of her post — Scot has only copied about half of it here. If you read the whole essay issues some of you have with the post would disappear (e.g., those commenters who talk about her ignoring God wanting people to be active hands in this world).

    It clearly is pushing back against both 1) a pride in “works” and 2) the idea that God using us is manipulative (which is the modern interpretation of this verb).

    As part (and only part) of the rest of the essay goes:

    “So those things we do in this life? Great. Wonderful. Good on us. Rah-rah.

    But I’m learning to just go do them because I love to do them, and I love to do them with Immanuel. I’m learning to let them be the natural consequence of the sacred company I keep, but those things aren’t my identity, they are not The Thing or The Point of my life. They’re not my pathway to God, or my status updates to the Most High, my progress reports. Maybe no one will ever say God “used” me mightily, oh well, that’s just fine.”

  • Rick

    Great post. Some people here do seem to be missing the wise thing she is saying.

    Also, her Evangelical Superhero Complex post is perhaps even better.

  • MatthewS

    I’m guessing she’s responding to a mindset that is less “vessel of honor” and more worm theology. Against that, this would be a breath of fresh air and a helpful corrective, even though it’s not the complete picture of what “using” is really supposed to mean in the best senses of the concept.

  • Peter

    Wrestling with how to interpret my own efforts to “do great things for God,” I came across, “Brendan,” a novel by Frederick Buechner. This was a great read AND helped me to see Brendan in my own life. I feel as though it brought me back to the basics (Think, “Jesus Creed” basics).

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    Tim Challies has a similar type of comment a little while ago. He said something like “I don’t want to ever hear that a Book, movie, song, etc really made the scripture come alive. Scripture is already alive.”

    I got his point. But to really buy into his point you have to dismiss all of the good uses of the phrase that he complained about. My pastor yesterday used the phrase ‘made scripture come alive’ in context of a tribute to Howard Hendricks and the importance of good biblical teaching. Challies would never say that it is wrong to teach scripture in a way that people get excited about both scripture and the meaning behind scripture.

    In a similar way, I don’t think that the author of this would really would be against people feeling like they were being used by God. It is the improper use of the phrase, not the meaning of the proper use that is being questioned.

    So I wish people would just say, ‘when we say this, we should mean that. But if we mean this other thing, then we are doing a disservice to the body. So be investigate you heart and language and try to use that phrase properly.’

    That is about teaching people character, not about teaching them the right way to use language. Asking people to change language is just a temporary solution that will need changed again when people start using that language improperly.