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 who have become complacent. In order to assess the implications of this language on pastoral care it is necessary to address two questions. Firstly, how indispensible is this language to these pastoral tasks? Secondly, what is the impact of the use of this language on pastoral care overall?

Questions of Encouragement
Buber (1965) argues that it is a fundamental need of humans to be confirmed in their selfhood by the recognition of their presence by another self. He argues that it is not in a person’s relation to themselves that growth occurs, but in the relation to the other. Buber writes that “It is from one man to another that the heavenly bread of self-being is passed.” (p.71) I would argue that it is also, even more so, passed from God to human, and that one of the primary pastoral tasks that faces us is to enable people to encounter God’s presence with a reality that confirms their selfhood, grounded in the objective reality of God.

Hopkins (in Hampson 1996) argues that this need is particularly acute for some women. She laments that,

“Women who are psychologically conditioned and socially restricted to passive, self-denying and self-sacrificing roles have been told that they are sinners puffed up with pride. They have been enjoined to picture Christ dying on the cross in their place, to repent of their selfishness and to take up their cross daily.”(p.75)

She presents and concurs with Saiving’s assertion that in actuality the sin of women is not pride, but a lack of self worth, indeed a lack of anything that could coherently be called a self.

A methodology for addressing this pastoral task is proposed by McGrath and McGrath. (1992) The authors begin by identifying a tension between people in churches who feel utterly worthless and the desire to release these people leading to an uncritical appropriation of secular self-worth techniques which take no account of human sinfulness. They suggest that “this sense of personal worthlessness seems to lie at the root of many pastoral difficulties.” (p.ix) They propose that, rather than relying on methodologies which fundamentally rest on a person’s own resources, “Christian confidence rests totally on the cross of Christ.”(p.x)

The authors argue that the cross is an objective basis for a Christian understanding of our own worth. Here the reality of our sinfulness and forgiveness are found. We know ourselves to be both unworthy and made worthy. (p.85ff) They go on to argue that a person’s understanding of their own worth can usefully be explored in the Biblical images of the parental care of God for us. They demonstrate how the elements that make up a healthy self esteem are fulfilled in the parental care of God, in adoption, love, pedigree, family resemblance, and inheritance. (p.103ff)

In order to provide a model in which achievements might be helpfully understood they introduce the image of the yoke, and suggest that in some senses Christians are yoked with God. Thus we achieve things that are impossible for us on our own, but that there is a contribution to the task that we make. “The notion of partnership with God in the service of the gospel is profoundly affirming.” (p.145) This concept is given practical expression by Padilla (2008, p.88) in his proposal of a missiology based on the notion of accompaniment. In this conception of mission, God is seen to be walking with God’s people as they engage in God’s mission in the world.

McGrath and McGrath also assert that a key element of building a healthy Christian community is the valuing of each other in that community. The authors note that “There is, however, a natural human tendency to value high achievers, to the detriment of those who appear to have little to offer.”(p.152) They suggest that Kingdom values should be turning this on its head, and that it is important to make it clear that it is the person that is valued, rather than that just what that person is good at, or the usefulness of that person.
In their consideration of how this could be worked through in pastoral ministry, the key themes that are presented are those of working with people to help them come to an understanding that they are in Christ, through grace, and are of great worth to God. (p.139ff) A scriptural image that might have value in this context is one identified by Macloed, (in McCormack 2008) who addresses the issues of our understanding of the nature of God, and what the implications of this might be for pastoral care. He takes as the primary scriptural image of God’s pastoral care that of shepherd. Tracing through the Psalms, Isaiah, John and Revelation this thread of metaphor is shown to be rich is providing insight into God’s pastoral relationship with God’s people. At no stage does it indicate that the usefulness of those people to God is in consideration. (p.245ff)

Exploring the implications of God’s attributes for pastoral care, Macleod notes the importance of God with us (Matt 28:19-20). He argues that God’s presence in and with us is our strength and encouragement. (p.258) It seems to me that it is only in an I-Thou context, in which one is truly present to the other, that this strength and encouragement can be realised.

At first sight it might seem appropriate to respond to some who feels worthless and useless with the reassurance that God wants to use them. However, this is counterproductive as it reinforces their view that they are only of worth to God if they can be useful. This is especially damaging if there are circumstances which mean that they cannot fulfil the roles which are held to be useful in the church to which they belong. Much more valuable is the response that God loves the person, values them, and is longing to encounter them.

Questions of Discipleship
Fiddes (2000, p.70) argues that one of the tasks facing a pastor who is looking to help people in the path of discipleship has two facets. On the one hand there are prophetic words of protest that must be spoken in defiance of dominating power. On the other hand there is the releasing of those who are willingly subject to domination because they believe that in it they have found safety.

He suggests that there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy dependence, and that healthy dependence can be the dynamic that brings freedom from the unhealthy dependence that is seen in the desire to be dominated. This healthy dependence can be cultivated by encouraging people to take their place in the movement of the dance of perichoresis. On a practical level, this means giving space and time for rites which acknowledge and express a right dependence on the eternal source of all. (p.106)

“Participating in the relationships in God, we experience a sense of dependence upon an uncreated origin as we lean upon a son-like movement of being sent forth from the a father. We take our experience of being a child into the communion of God’s life, and discover a motherly-fatherhood which is not oppressive.”(p.107)

It strikes me that the beauty of this model is that, having developed an appropriate sense of dependence, the disciple is free to follow and released to serve in a way which stands as a prophetic judgement on the power structures of the world. Thus both facets of the pastoral task identified above are accomplished.

The pastoral implications of a compulsion to busyness are explored by Parker et al (2009) The authors suggest that Hornay’s analysis of neurotic attitudes to relationship can helpfully be applied to a person’s relationship with God in order to enable them to understand the dynamics of that relationship more fully. (p.36) This analysis identifies three trends that, taken to extremes, can cause dysfunction in relationships. These three trends are: moving toward, moving against and moving away. (p.37)

Of particular interest in this context is the analysis of the trend to move against God. “In this style of relating the basic anxiety is experienced as powerful and hostile; the characteristic response is to fight back.” (p.39) Examples of this include those who see God as task master, and who serve God not because of love for others but to avoid punishment. An identifying characteristic of this style of relating is to see the relationship with God as a utilitarian one, in which either hard work is used as means of controlling or using God, or the person perceives God as unwilling to use one because of one’s weakness and failing.

The authors suggest that the most appropriate pastoral aim in working with people who relate to God in this way is to help them to come to a place where they recognise that God is not out to get them or to abuse them. (p.41) It is unlikely that a pastoral response which relies on the assertion that “God wants to use you” is going to facilitate this process. Rather, in this context it seems to me that more appropriate would be the suggestion of Breuggeman (1986) that Ezekiel’s portrayal of God’s refusal to be useful can release God’s ministers from busyness. Encouraging someone to own Brueggemann’s assertion that “All of us are too busy being useful.”(p.55) may allow that person to be released into a deeper discipleship characterised by trust in God.

The discipleship question of obedience to God and wholehearted working with and for God is addressed by Webster. (in Vanhoozer, 2003, p.224) This is done in the context of the working out of the purposes of God, understood within a Trinitarian framework which puts relationship at the heart of those purposes. In addressing this question, Webster quotes Calvin “each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord … It is enough to know that the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-being.” (p.230) Webster notes that a deconstructive reading of this may see it is an attempt to assert moral and social structure and control with an ethic of duty and resignation to an imagined will of God. He counters that this is only the case if the call is misunderstood as a call of force, or of domination.

It seems, then, that here we also have a pastoral response to those who have become complacent or who are not living out a radical discipleship. It is seen in the writings of someone with a very high regard for the sovereignty of God. It is the pastoral response of calling. Jesus called his disciples to follow. God calls us to obedience. We call others to walk with us in the strength and direction of the Holy Spirit.

It might seem appropriate to motivate the half hearted with the call to submit fully and allow God to use them. However, this is counterproductive in that it misunderstands the imperative and foundations of true submission. The submission of a used thing is passive. The God revealed in Christ calls us to the active submission of worship and participation in the work of the Kingdom. The tasks prepared in advance for us to do are there, and there is a genuine pastoral task of calling the people of God to the challenge of engaging with them. However, a more creative and fruitful engagement is found in the soul wholly submitted to God in true relationship than in the one consigned to a place in the tool cupboard.

Overall Pastoral Care
Pastoral care is an attitude of heart. It is an expression of the love that we have for other people, flowing from the love that we have been shown by God, in Christ. It may be seen in certain tasks or activities that are undertaken, such as those outlined by Baxter: (1974, p94-110) conversion, advising those convicted of sin, building up, overseeing family life, visiting the sick, reproving, and disciplining. It may be focussed on a goal such as that suggested by Pattison (1993, p.13) of, “the presentation of all people perfect in Christ to God.” However, neither the tasks nor the goal are the essence of pastoral care, which is the expression of God’s love for people.

What then is the impact of “God uses” language on this essence of pastoral care? I would argue that it has a tendency to be counterproductive and even destructive. It has been demonstrated that the language of use belongs to the realm of I-It. It has also been argued that love cannot be expressed in the I-It realm. It follows that the language of “God uses” is likely to inhibit the authentic expression of God’s love. Furthermore, the thought patterns associated with the language of use are patterns which tend to reduce other people, and God, to potential things in our thinking, and reduce our capacity to love them. In contrast, the alternative language of “God encounters”, “God calls”, and “God loves” provide solidly rooted Biblical language that nourishes relationships and people in a way that builds up and promotes fruitfulness.

In examining the pastoral tasks that are addressed in the literature, those of encouragement and discipling, we have identified several alternative models and images that equip for these tasks, without relying on “God uses” language. These include the language of God as parent, God as shepherd, and God as yoke-partner in work. We have also seen how a person’s relationship with God can be modelled as one of participation in the Trinitarian perichoresis, of trust in God, and of obedient response to a calling.

Furthermore, it has been argued that the concepts implicit in “God uses” language are poisonous to the heart of pastoral care, the expression of the love of God for people. Therefore its place in pastoral care should be reduced, it is unneeded and it tends to move people further away from authentic encounters with God and with each other.

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