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 being used. To provide a sample for this examination eight books were chosen. The main criterion for this selection was that they all included the assertion that God uses people in the title or subtitle of the work. In order to provide a focus for the research the selection was restricted to works published in the last thirty years in England and the US. However, it was possible to include a range of authors and intended audiences, both men and women, black and white.

Having identified the works to be analysed, certain questions were posed of each work in turn.
• What issue or problem is being addressed in this work?
• What synonyms or parallels are used in this work for “God uses” that might reveal its meaning for the author and implied reader?
• What Biblical evidence or examples are cited as justification for the assertion that God uses people?
• What theology is evident or implied alongside the choice of the language of “God uses”?
• Is there any evidence that there might be ambivalence in the meaning of the concept of someone using someone else?
• How important is this language to the work in question?

The answers to these questions were sought in both qualitative and quantitative analysis of the texts.

The quantitative analysis involved:

• Counting the occurrences of forms of the verb “to use” with God as the subject and a personal object.
• Identifying and counting direct and implied synonyms and parallels of “God uses”.
• Identifying and counting the examples of Biblical characters described by the authors as being used by God.

The results of the quantitative analysis are detailed in the appendices and referenced as evidence in the qualitative analysis as appropriate.
Gonzales – Hey God, I’m A Woman! Can You Use Me?
Gonzales’ (2008) aim is to demonstrate that it is entirely fitting for women to exercise public teaching and leadership ministry in the church. She addresses an American, evangelical context. The main thrust of her argument is that the objections to women exercising these ministries are based on tradition and that Scripture encourages women to fulfil the call of God on their lives, including the call to leadership.

For Gonzales the most important parallels of “God uses” language are those relating to God’s call and commission. Of the fourteen occurrences of parallels, twelve have this meaning. It seems clear, therefore, that for Gonzales “God uses” is largely synonymous with “God calls” and that in this context that call is understood as a call to a particular task or ministry.

Whilst Gonzales does make reference to God using female characters in the Bible (p.15) this is fleeting and there is no direct evidence offered of the Bible describing these women as being used by God. One of the arguments put forward to support women in the exercise of leadership ministry is based on Genesis 3. (p.18ff) It is suggested that just as Satan tempted the woman, so God’s plan of restoration involves woman. It is a woman who will bring the Saviour to birth, and given this it is argued that it is perverse to argue that they should be excluded from other roles in the Kingdom of God. This assertion is summarised in this way “God, in turn, used the woman to reinforce His purpose for the human race and to bring restoration.” (p.25) Unfortunately this does, for me, raise the image of woman as a doll being used in turn by Satan and God to further their own ends. Furthermore, it strikes me as ironic that in this discussion Gonzales does not describe Satan as using the woman, but God.

In an exposition of Luke 1:26-28, Gonzales writes “God can use anyone who is willing to yield to him.”(p.27) This provides an example of a concept that “God uses” language expresses strongly, that of surrender. Whilst, as noted above, Gonzales mostly utilises “God uses” interchangeably with “God calls”, here we have a case where “God can call” will not carry the same weight that “God can use” does. Here is a theology that includes the necessity of the absolute yielding of the creature to the creator. The question that this raises is whether distaste for the language of “God uses” is entirely derived from a right caution about its dangers, or whether there is also an aspect of unwillingness to bend the knee absolutely to the Lord?

Whilst the potential ambivalence of “God uses” language is not explicitly explored, Gonzales does, as part of her argument, note that God created both men and women for blessing and relationship with God. (p.35ff ) As part of this argument she writes “Our Lord is never abusive…Jesus finds no reason to belittle His Bride; He is totally secure, and besides He truly loves us.” (p.38) From this it is clear that she does not believe that there is any sense in which use by God is abusive.

“God uses” language is used relatively infrequently in this work, and of the seventeen occurrences, eight are repetitions of the title at the end of each chapter. The main meaning apparently intended by the author is one conveying an idea of being chosen and called. Given this, it does seem that this language is not critical to the achievement of the aim of the book.

Rouse – God uses Black Sheep
Rouse (2009) writes in order to encourage those who have been rejected and are on the outside of the church and society. He argues passionately that God loves them, values them, and is reaching out to them with a plan for their lives. He also rebukes the Christian community that excludes them. The origins of the book are related in the testimony of the author who writes “the Spirit of the Lord came to me and spoke these words into my heart ‘I use black sheep.’”(p.5)

In the discussion of “God uses” language it is important to take seriously the witness of God’s self revelation to someone. At the same time it is right to exercise discernment. What options are available to us? We might conclude that this language is contrary to Scripture and therefore God would not use it to communicate with someone. We might conclude that the language is neutral or even unsatisfactory but that God graciously communicates with people in a language that they understand. We might conclude that as this language is used by God, it is evidently a right way of talking about the relationship between God and people, and that we should not question it.

The parallels used by Rouse largely involve the call and choosing of people by God. Although there are references to a few Biblical characters, there is no evidence offered of the Bible saying that God used them.

In his analysis of 1 Corinthians 1:27, Rouse writes “So God will always use the base things.” (p.11) This implies that there is an underlying understanding that it is things that are used, not people, but there is no expansion or exploration of this. Rouse does also use this language in a negative way “… we allowed him [the devil] to use our tongue and the knowledge of a person to bring about destruction.”(p.26) However, there is no exploration of the possible dilemma that is found in the juxtaposition of “God using” and “The devil using.”

Rouse uses “God uses” language relatively infrequently and utilises parallels with a greater relative frequency than any of the other works being considered. In fact, the only clear imperative for its inclusion is that it is the language that Rouse believes God spoke to him.
Blackaby and Blackaby – The Man God Uses
Blackaby and Blackaby (1999) wrote this book in order to call men to live out their lives as faithful disciples. Core to the argument is the concept that men are called to be used by God and that in order to be used, their characters must be Godly and their relationship with God must be strong. This argument is made from Scriptural examples, personal anecdotes, and from the examples of well known historical Christian men.

This work contains more parallels, more widely used, than any of the other texts. Of these, almost a third relate to being called or chosen by God. The remainder are very task orientated, either God using men as tools to accomplish tasks or men being given tasks to do. Every aspect of discipleship is cast in the language of being used by God. For instance “Our prayers allow us to become more aware of how God wants to use us.” (p.174)

At this point it is worth remembering that this book is written specifically for men. It may be that the focus on task is deliberate, driven by a perception that men respond more favourably to the language of task and mission. However, as a man, whilst I agree with much of what is written in terms of practical discipleship, I find unhelpful the underlying, and unexamined, assumption that men are of value if they can be used by God.

Whilst there are many Biblical characters held up as examples of men that God used, either despite certain failings or because of Godly disciplines, there is no evidence of Biblical occurrences of “God used.” There is a brief reference to 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 which does refer to people as things. (p.3)

One Biblical character is mentioned in this context, uniquely among these texts, in a formulation that is worth considering separately. The authors write that “Christ is our primary example of how God uses a man in relationship to himself.” (p.33) This does seem to imply some problematic consequences for Christology, the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the Trinity, not all of which we have space to discuss.

These problems are further illustrated by the authors’ understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Bible. Based on their understanding of John 1 they write “Scripture is not a concept; Scripture is a person….The Word is a person. The Word is God speaking to you and me. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ and lived among us.” (p.83) However, they also see God’s word as a tool in God’s toolbox “God used his Word to speak clearly to me during my prayer time with him.” (p.91)

I think that this confusion runs through the book. I do not agree that “the Word” in John refers to Scripture, it refers to Jesus. (Beasley-Murray, 2002, p.1ff) They are different but are conflated in this book. Perhaps this blurring of the distinction contributes, or is a part of, the blurring of the distinction between people and things that is implied in the concept of God using people.

The sovereignty of God appears to be a very important aspect of the theology that underpins this work. This sovereignty appears to be understood as an absolute control by God of people and circumstances. This is seen in the argument that is put forward that humility of attitude is necessary in the service of God. People are tools in God’s hands and God’s plans, and pride has no place. (p.88) This point is made even more strongly later, that Christians have submitted to Christ as Lord, and that “God has the right to help himself to your life anytime he wants.” (p.93) It is also seen in the assertions made that God uses circumstances to shape people, especially their character. The argument follows this path: God uses circumstances, good and bad, to form us into tools that God can then use for other purposes. (p.27ff)

Here again we have “God uses” language carrying a weight in the discourse of yielding and surrender that may be appropriate. However, the formulation appears to me to be overly manipulative and mechanistic. Later I will address the theology of God’s sovereignty and discuss whether there might be other ways of understanding and describing it that might more adequately preserve the depth of surrender without eliding our created personhood.

There is a fairly unrelenting emphasis throughout the book on God using men, and being prepared to be useful. Despite this, there are hints that there is more than a utilitarian manipulation in view. “God wants to commune with us in a reciprocating love relationship.” (p.17) and “We are not called to a task, a mission, a job, or a ministry. We are called to a relationship with our heavenly Father.” (p.32) However, there seems to be no recognition that the very language that is being used might destroy relationship and that the over bearing volume of the task focussed language almost drowns these whispers of love.

In what appears to me to be one of the most internally contradictory statements made in any of these books, the authors write “The man God uses is first encountered by God.” (p.92) I will argue later that you cannot authentically encounter with someone you use, because you use things not people.

“God use” language is so prevalent in this book that it could not be written without it. I believe that its aims could be met more effectively without “God uses” language, but it would be a fundamentally different book.

Calver and Delve – God Can Use You
Calver and Delve (1983) write to call the people of God to radical discipleship, and more holy living, in order to fulfil God’s creation purposes. It is aimed at “ordinary” Christians who may believe that they are useless, or that they are not called to this kind of discipleship. It consists of three parts. The first focuses on the need in the world for faithful followers of Jesus. The second describes the answer in terms of the practical out workings of discipleship. The third part is an account of D.L. Moody’s life, written by R.A. Torrey.

The parallels are so sparse in this book, that they do not provide any insight into the meaning of “God uses” language. Only two Biblical characters are considered, and again there is no evidence that the Bible describes God as using them.

In an observation of how the world defines people, and as part of a call to live counter culturally, the authors write “Identity is swiftly established by how we earn our living. The life-style of the Kingdom speaks for a different standard of values.” (p.113) Perhaps one of the reasons that “God uses” language is found so thinly in this book, despite the title, is the acknowledgment that our identity isn’t formed by what we do for God, but that what we do for God is established by our identity in God. This possibility is reinforced by a comment made in the teaching on prayer “God wants willing companions, not slaves.” (p.65)

That said, the frequency of “God uses” language does rise significantly in the third section of the book. Here the main thrust is on Moody’s fundamental surrender to God and the necessity of that surrender for the work that he did.

“Is it too much to say that God is always looking for a man he can use? Notice the word ‘use’, for there seem to be four ideas concerning our relationship to God in service. Some teach that man is instructed of God. The divine command is given and man must obey. Others teach that in service man is helped of God. Still others, that he is led of God. All of these suggest a partnership with Deity. The fourth idea, and the right one, is that man can be used of God. This demands surrender and submission of a Christian. This looks to God for enablement and gives to Him the glory. Moody was used of God.” (p.161)

In this forthright assertion we find again intrinsic links between a particular conception of the sovereignty of God, utter yielding, and “God uses” language which will be considered in more detail later.

The first two sections of this book could have been written with no reference to “God uses”. This demonstrates that it is possible to write about strong and radical discipleship, encouraging those who feel useless, without insisting that the resolution is to believe that God wants to use them. However, the language of “God uses” is foundational to the third section. It is the primary lens through which Moody’s life and ministry is presented.

LaHaye and Crouse – A Woman’s Path to True Significance: How God Used the Women of the Bible and Will Use You Today
LaHaye and Crouse (2007) retell the stories of the five women in Matthew’s genealogy, drawing lessons from these stories which they present in order to encourage women to live lives that are significant and fulfilled for God.

Half the parallels that are used in this work are clustered around concepts of being called or chosen. The other half describes service and obedience. Of the seven female characters mentioned, there is no evidence for the Bible describing any of them as used by God.

The strongest relevant theological theme that can be identified is that of the Sovereignty of God. As part of this, there is again the theme of God shaping the Christian to be a useful tool. (p.17) There is a strong theme throughout the book of the plans of God being woven together throughout the circumstances and episodes of life. This strong concept of God’s controlling mind in all circumstances seems to feed the idea that all players in it, including people, must, in some way, be under that control, or used. This is seen in the call to complete surrender.

“Mary’s response to the angel is a model of us of true humility: God has the right to arrange my life however He chooses, whenever He wants to intervene. Because Mary’s attitude was one of willingness to serve, God could use her to do the miraculous.” (p.252)

The potential ambivalence of “God uses” language is highlighted in the retelling of the story of Tamar. Recounting the deceit of Onan, the author writes “But after using her, he would withdraw in time to prevent her from getting pregnant.” (p.33) However, this doesn’t prevent the author, in her analysis of the story, commenting “It is the story of how … God used a woman to strip a man of his excuses…” (p.49)

Given the relative infrequency of “God uses” language I think that the majority of the aims of this book could have been met without it. However, it must be noted again that it might not be possible to talk about surrender in the same way without it. This possibility is reinforced by the observation that the frequency of “God uses” language intensifies around the discussion of humility.

Packer and Nystrom – Never beyond hope: How God touches and uses imperfect people.
Packer and Nystrom (2000) present a series of examinations of Biblical characters with the aim of showing how God blessed them and used them despite their flaws. From this, encouragement is offered to the reader not to allow their own flaws to cut them off from God. This encouragement is formed in a framework of offering hope that is seen by the authors as one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.

About a third of the parallels in this work have meanings associated with being called or chosen. The remaining majority are task and service focussed. There is no mention of people being tools or God working through people. Being used by God seems to mean that there is work that God has for people to do and God is calling them to do it. The recounting of episodes from the lives of several Biblical characters contains no evidence that the Bible refers to any of them as having been used by God.

What we find in terms of theology is an understanding of sanctification that sees God forming God’s people at the same time as involving them in the work that is prepared for them. “God’s way with folk is to change them as he uses them and to use them while he’s remaking them.” (p.77)

In the recounting of Martha’s story we find an unwitting example of the ambivalence of the language of use; “Martha is actually trying to manipulate Jesus, to use Jesus as her heavy hammer for hitting her sister Mary over the head.” (p.99) This implies that it was wrong for Martha to use Jesus. Although it is asserted that Jesus’ response contains a refusal to be used as a tool by Martha (p.101), there is no discussion about whether that is because it is not appropriate for Jesus to be used as a tool, or for people in general not to use each other as tools, or if the problem was that she was trying to use him to harm someone else.

The fact that this work is effectively a collection of Packer’s sermons, grouped around this theme, is evident from the uneven distribution of “God uses” language. It is very apparent in some of the chapters, and completely absent in others. I think that this demonstrates that it is possible to address the aims of this book without “God uses” language.

Kendall – Second Chance: However Far You Fall, God Can Use You Again
Kendall (2008) aims to reach church leaders who have sinned and been exposed. He writes to encourage them to return to God, that they may be restored but warns that the road is hard and dependent on true repentance. It has secondary audiences of church leaders and others, who are warned of the severity of the consequences of sinning. Underpinning this analysis is a particular concept of God’s judgement at the end of time, and in particular the reward of faithful servants and passing over of unfaithful servants.

In this book there are a few occurrences of a description of those who are used by God as vessels. Just under a third of the parallels used by Kendall focus on the ministry and service aspects of being used by God. The remaining parallels describe these people as being called or chosen. The examples of more different Biblical characters are presented in this book than in any of the other works in the sample. There is no evidence presented that the Bible describes God using any of them.

In considering the underlying theological themes there is a familiar pattern beginning to emerge. The idea of God’s Sovereignty, expressed in the control and shaping of people and circumstances is clear, as is a very strong emphasis on surrender to God.

The shaping and sanctification elements of this understanding are seen in the presentation of the argument that a Godly character is imperative for resisting temptation. Kendall describes the development of this character as God building the house of our lives. He then develops this idea using Psalm 127:1 “unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” From this he asserts that we have responsibility in the task of shaping our characters, under the direction of God. “He builds it, yes, but he uses builders. Us!”(p.46)

In a discussion of sexual purity, and the acceptability of sexual love in the appropriate contexts, we find this statement “… eros love … is what God uses to make a man and woman fall in love and want to get married.”(p.82) Whilst this does not state that God uses people, I feel that it reveals a conception of God’s sovereignty that includes a strong element of control. This feeling strengthens later in the same chapter when Kendall discusses Joseph’s rejection of Potiphar’s wife “He did not know that all that was going on in his life was the consequence of an Architect’s carefully drawn plan.” (p.85) This understanding of the God’s sovereignty is most clearly summarised in the author’s assertion that “The sovereignty of God refers to his right and power to do what he please with whomever he chooses.” (p.71)

The only proper response to this Sovereign is to surrender fully. In a lengthy exposition of the fall and restoration of Simon Peter as an exemplar, Kendall relates a situation from his own experience where he had to preach at a time that he was very aware of his own sinfulness “God was able to take over and he did … I have tried ever since not to depend on my spiritual sense of preparation, unless by that one means a feeling of absolute powerlessness and emptiness of self.” (p.200)

There is evidence that there is ambivalence about “use” language when persons are involved. In a discussion of the dangers of wealth Kendall writes “People don’t need too much encouragement to use God to try to get what they want.” (p.77) and “It is trying to ‘use’ God – he is but a stepping stone to wealth.” (p.77) Again there is no discussion of why it is inappropriate for people to use God, when it is acceptable for God to use people, however the employment of quote marks around use in the second example suggests subliminal acknowledgment that this is ambivalent language.

The frequency of “God uses” language, and the relative lack of parallels in this work seem to suggest that it would be difficult to recast it all without this language. This impression is reinforced by the strength of the theology of Sovereignty that is expressed using this language.

Amess – Can God Use me?
Amess (2000) writes to encourage those who feel that God cannot use them because of a lack of training, family background, or failure. The recurring theme in Amess’ purpose is that of encouragement. It is important to note that this book has arisen out of pastoral ministry in which people have come to him and said that they feel that they cannot be “used by God.” (p.5) However, the question remains whether this is because that is the only language that their theological tradition equips them with, and whether part of the answer to their felt need might be to challenge the language.

The vast majority of parallels used in this work carry the meaning of call and being chosen. They convey a positive sense of God inviting people to work alongside God to bring the Kingdom in. The methodology of showing how God called and worked with Biblical characters, despite their flaws, is used here also. Again there is no evidence for the Bible describing any of them as used by God.

The theme of sanctification as ongoing moulding to make God’s people more fit for service also appears in this text. Alongside this, there is an emphasis on who we are in our individual nature as being important to God. “God called Moses and Paul because it was them that he wanted to use – as they were, as he could make them, not to be a pseudo someone else.” (p.67)

It is in this book that we find the only explicit attempt in all the texts to deal with the potential ambivalence of “God uses” language.

“To be used by God is not like being ‘used’ by people, which so often means being manipulated by others for their own selfish purposes. Being used by God means significance and opportunity in the family of God. It means having a reason to be alive and something to achieve while we yet live. It means being changed from one degree of glory to another until one day we stand perfect before Christ. And then we will be used in praising him, the one who took hold of such unlikely people as you and me and made something wonderful out of us.“ (p.163)

Whilst it is encouraging to note that the potential problem has been recognised, this seems to me to dismiss it as inconsequential rather than address it as substantive.

I think that more useful in this regard is Amess’ conclusion of his discussion of Elijah’s depression after Carmel with a personal testimony that what he needs when he is in the grips of depression is to have God present with him and speaking to him. “…God himself, quietly speaking to me by name in terms of love, hope and future.” (p.126) It strikes me as significant that this does not involve more things to do as God’s tool, or how he can still be used by God, but is rooted in God’s authentic, personal presence.

In conjunction with this insight, the relatively low frequency of “God uses” language suggests that there is very little in this book that could not be expressed without it.

All of these works feature a call to deeper Christian discipleship. There is a wide range of parallel language used across these works that reveal that the majority of meaning of “God uses” language is captured in the concepts of being chosen and called to service and ministry. The only aspect of “God uses” language that is not expressed in the parallels is that of complete surrender to God. This is linked with the key theological concept that is intrinsically bound up with “God uses” language, that of the sovereignty of God, expressed in strongly deterministic terms. Despite a wide cast list of Biblical characters, there is no evidence offered that the Bible refers to any of them being used by God. There is some indirect evidence that “God uses” language might be ambivalent, but this is not addressed adequately.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *