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.

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