Introduction

In the Thomas the Tank Engine books of the Rev’d W. Audrey (1996), the greatest commendation that can be bestowed is that of “Really Useful Engine.” (p.36) In this little world, ruled over by an omnipotent and omniscient dictator, the highest moral imperative is to be useful and the worst crime is to delay passengers by being lazy or incompetent. If you are not willing to be useful then you run the risk of being bricked up in a tunnel (p.19) until you’re willing to be useful again. (p.20) The name of the directing mind in this world is “The Fat Controller.”

It seems to me that there is a strand in contemporary Western, Evangelical, Christian thinking that tends to see the world and God in a similar way. I think that this is exemplified by the phrase “God wants to use you.” I am deeply uncomfortable with this language for three reasons. Firstly, because my wife suffers from a life-limiting medical condition and has struggled with the fact that she feels unable to be useful. I do not believe that insisting that God wants to use her anyway is helpful. Our experience is that coming to an appreciation that God loves and values her because of who she is and because of who God is has been more important. Secondly, I believe that this language is deeply strange to the ears of those in the world. It is my experience that in any other context speaking about someone using someone else is to say something negative about the first person. Thirdly, as a church leader and pastor I have felt the temptation to see people as resources and tools in the work of the Kingdom, rather than as people who God loves, and whom I am called to love.

Given this background, this dissertation seeks to explore the reasons that this language is used, to critique it from a range of perspectives, and to investigate whether alternative language might be available. This task begins by analysing examples of popular Christian literature that utilise this language, uncovering its theological foundations and revealing the pastoral contexts in which it is employed.

The first critical perspective is that of Scripture. This is addressed by exploring whether there is any precedent in the Bible for “God uses” language in relation to people. The second critical perspective is that of contemporary secular usage. This is given a voice by looking at the occurrences of the verb “to use” with a personal object in English newspapers. The third critical perspective is one that integrates conceptions of God, self, and relationship. These three concepts are seen to be entwined, but are addressed in three sections for the purposes of clarity. The third section deploys Buber’s I-Thou / I-It model to demonstrate the negative implications of “God uses” language on our understanding of God, our selves, and our relationships.

Having critiqued this language from these perspectives, the dissertation moves on to address the major theological root of this language, that of God’s sovereignty. Consideration is given to different ways of apprehending God’s sovereignty and whether this language provides the most appropriate way of expressing a person’s response to it.

Finally the pastoral deployment of “God uses” language is addressed. The contention that everybody can and should be used by God is often employed in an attempt to encourage and to motivate the discouraged or complacent. It is proposed that there are alternatives to this language that should be embraced because they are more deeply rooted in Scripture, have a greater potential for deepening a disciple’s relationship with God, and are more intrinsically affirming.


Literature Review

In order to address the potential issues with, and identify the possible strengths of “God uses” language, an analysis of the use of that language in popular Christian literature was required. The first task was to select a group of texts which could be examined in order to discover how and why this language is


Biblical Material

The next stage of the investigation is to discover whether there is any precedent in the Bible for “God uses” language in relation to people. There was very little evidence provided for this in the literature review. Dictionary Work In order to provide a thorough examination of the Biblical material a two pronged approach was


Contemporary Secular Usage

It is clear from this analysis that the word “use” and its cognates are relatively rare in the Bible. However, this is not the case in contemporary English. In order to investigate the dimensions of meanings, and the frequency of these meanings, it was decided to analyse its occurrences in a set of newspapers in


Who is God?

Having demonstrated that “God uses” language has little Biblical precedent, and that the idea of a person being used does have negative connotations in secular use, we now turn to its wider implications. This part of the discussion begins with the foundational work of exploring who God is, and the teasing out of certain principles


Who Am I?

Having explored who God is, we now turn to an exploration of human self. Storied-Self Martin and Barresi (2006) provide a pen sketch of the development of concepts of selfhood. They trace the idea of the true self, as an individual that characterises who we really are, to Cicero. (p.30) In Plotinus is seen the


Relationship

Having discovered that relationship is at the heart of who God is, and of who we are, we now turn to a consideration of the impact of “God uses” language is on our understanding of relationships. As we have seen, the way that we talk about God is formative, and therefore it is important that


The Sovereignty of God

It was observed in the literature review that one of the key strengths of “God uses” language was its ability to express complete surrender to the Sovereign God. Therefore we now turn to a consideration of God’s sovereignty and whether this language provides the most appropriate way of expressing it and our response to it.


Pastoral Implications

A common theme revealed in the literature review was the pastoral deployment of “God uses” language. The assertion that anybody can and should be used by God is believed by these writers to provide resources for the pastoral work of encouraging those who have become discouraged, and of spurring on to more faithful discipleship those


Conclusion

I began this work with an antipathy for “God uses” language that was founded in personal experience and a concern for God’s mission in the world. Having completed it, my antipathy for the language is deeper. From the literature review it was evident to me that these writers have a deep appreciation of the sovereignty