More than jars of clay

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” 1 Corinthians 4:7 (emphasis mine)

For the month of December I decided to follow a Bible Plan.  From the 1st of December to Christmas day I am reading someone else’s thoughts on the Christmas story.  I never use these plans as I find I get more out of just reading the Bible by itself and talking about it with other people than following a prescribed plan but I thought I’d do something different this year.

There are a few things that have quickly become apparent to me.  I’ve been out of the evangelical Christian mainstream for a while.  Until very recently I have not attended an institutional church that meets on Sunday mornings nor have I really hung around the people who attend those churches.  There’s a lot of evangelical Christian jargon that I haven’t heard for a while.

So when I started reading this Bible plan all this Christian jargon started popping up again.  It’s not that I haven’t heard these things before, albeit many years ago. But some of the lingo sounds very ‘odd’ to me now even though I had just accepted it in the past.  Some of the lingo downright bothers me, in fact.

Take, for example, this quote (in speaking of God’s favor to Mary): “…favor means, simply, that God is willing to use you.” (emphasis mine)  What?!  ‘Use you’?  Why would the author employ this language?  Where, in the realm of our human relationships, would we ever speak of ‘using’ people?  Not in any healthy relationships, that’s for sure!  When we hear the language of ‘using’ people, it is largely in a negative context, such as cases of abuse and exploitation.  Is this the picture we would want to paint of God?  The concept of ‘using’ people implies a devaluing, that people are ‘property’ to be ‘used’ rather than holding any intrinsic worth.  This is certainly not how I believe God views people or how He views humanity.

However, to be fair, there are Bible references that have been used to reinforce this concept of God using people.  Very often it is the references of God being the potter and man being the clay (Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:6, Romans 9:21).  When I looked closer at these passages, from my perspective, their main point is to emphasize that God is greater than we are, so who are we to question His actions or think we can hide our actions from Him.  These passages don’t explicitly speak of God ‘using’ people.  When I looked for specific references that would say “God uses…” or “God used <so and so>…” I couldn’t find any…in the whole Bible.  There is one passage I found that speaks of us being ‘useful’ to God (2 Timothy 2:21) but that doesn’t communicate the same thing as God ‘using’ us.  You can still have intrinsic value and be useful to a task or project.  Rather, I’ve found references of God appointing people or choosing them for a purpose.  Again, this doesn’t communicate the same devaluing message as the idea of ‘using’ people.

My point in all of this is we should be careful the language we employ when describing God and His relationship to us.  All throughout the Bible, the stronger message is that God loves the human race, that He put Himself in harms way for humanity, that He goes to whatever lengths necessary to communicate to mankind that we are dearly loved by Him.  But when we say things like “God uses us”, it undercuts that whole message of love.  If a person hears such things long enough, they will subconsciously start to believe that they do not have worth in God’s sight or that He actually loves them, rather that their only worth is in what they can ‘do’ for God.  This message marginalizes grace.  The Gospel is no longer the ‘Good News’.  It puts heavy chains on people who are broken and just trying to scrape by.  If they do not know they are loved, if they do not believe they are precious and beautiful…in the midst of their brokenness…, what hope will they have?

We all need to know we are loved and valued.  We need to know we are so much more than jars of clay.

4 Responses

  1. Tamara Wanner

    I loved your commentary. Can I quote you when I speak in January?

    December 12, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    • Tamara,
      Yes, you sure can. Where and when are you going to be speaking in January? And what about?

      December 12, 2013 at 8:17 pm

  2. Very interesting. I agree with you that the word “used” has a negative connotation in our society, one that doesn’t seem consistent with the character of Loving God. However, I’ve found one instance in the NIV of the verb “used”. Hosea 12:13 states “The Lord used a prophet to bring Israel up from Egypt, by a prophet he cared for him.” For me, personally, if I am using someone, it would be a negative act, because I am human. But the idea of God using someone doesn’t really bother me. Because His is God and if He chooses to use me for His glory, I would truly count that has a huge privilege and honor.

    Many Eastern societies have the same mindset. In ancient Japan, if your liege Lord decided to use you for the furtherance of his kingdom, it would be considered an amazing honor. This is a very different mindset in comparison to Western society, where our independence is valued so much, that the thought of being “used” is abhorrent.

    Different cultural lenses color God in different ways in our attempts to understand Him. Currently, western society emphasizes the love and Saving Nature of God, because that resonates with us. Eastern society emphasis the justice and Lordship of God, because that resonates with them. Both are needed, because both ideas are in the Bible.

    December 16, 2013 at 9:41 am

    • carolannetebay

      Thanks for your response, Rain. I love discussion and wrestling with ideas.

      You make a good point, about cultural context. Different cultures have different values and those will colour the lens through which we see God. And I believe that God speaks to each of us in and through our particular cultural contexts. It is wise to be conscious of and to honour different cultural perspectives as ours is not the only one! We gain a richer understanding when we are open to many, and differing voices.

      That being said, we do live in Western Society, and I would say that for our cultural context, it is not helpful to refer to God as ‘using’ anyone. I also do not believe that when it comes to concepts of morality that God is exempt. We don’t ‘use’ people but God can do that because He is God? What kind of God does that make Him out to be? Potentially abusive? Potentially manipulative?

      Because my perspective is one of God being a very relational God – He is in relationship and communion with Himself (the Trinity), He is in relation to His church (the Body of Christ), and He is in relation with us as individuals – I see our human relationships (the healthy ones) being dim reflections of all of this. That is why I don’t interpret God as acting in ways that would be considered unhealthy or abusive from the perspective of human relationships.

      I believe God has programmed into humanity an inherent sense of right and wrong. We may not follow that and people may be desensitized to that yet I still believe it exists. If we interpret God’s actions as being outside of those ideas of right and wrong, it influences our view of God’s character. Either our ideas of right and wrong are incorrect or God is not ‘good’. I believe this is a conclusion that people can come to (either consciously or subconsciously). I think it does more harm than good (in Western culture at least).

      December 20, 2013 at 1:58 pm