I found it particularly amusing when, during my time in seminary, I was asked to write an analysis on Augustine. It seemed a little presumptuous to think I could analyze anything written by Augustine, even after an undergraduate from Calvin College and a nearly complete Master of Divinity. A more fitting response was to simply sit at his feet and listen. While I sat, Augustine in the end analyzed me.
I have vivid memories of being a young teenager sitting in my bedroom listening to music or curling my hair (yes, it was the 80’s) and praying, “Lord, please use me.” I have often reflected on that simple prayer. Reading Augustine brought me back once again to ponder. What did I mean? What was the longing in my soul beneath the words. Would I be able to recognize an answer to that prayer when one came?
Augustine in On Christian Teaching writes, “God does not enjoy us, but uses us. If he neither enjoys nor uses us, then I fail to see how he can love us at all. But he does not use us in the way that we use things; for we relate the things which we use to the aim of enjoying God’s goodness, whereas God relates his use of us to his own goodness.” Is this getting at what I meant? I suppose in my limited understand I was appealing to God’s goodness. A goodness that would not overlook me. A goodness that would value whatever contribution I could make. A goodness that would let me participate in his work.
I grew up in a family of professional ministers. My grandfather was a dominee, my uncle a preacher and my dad a pastor – each one of them Ministers of the Word reflecting their personal strengths. Having a solid biblical and theological foundation, I believed I could glorify God through whatever work I chose. And yet, I wasn’t content with the sort of general encouragement of 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” I wanted to be chosen for something special, but being female in the Christian Reformed Church in the mid-80’s limited my perspective of what role I could play. There wasn’t a paradigm for me. The role of school teacher or missionary didn’t appeal to me. And so I was left praying a simple and vague prayer, “Lord, please use me.”
Over the years I wondered if the desire to be used by God fell short of his desire for me. When the prodigal son returns and surrenders himself to be a laborer on the estate, is he in some way saying use me? Use me to your advantage. Put me to work. And yet the father would have none of it. The father reinstates him as his son, not as a laborer. Even though the father has every right to request that the son earn his keep. To be a laborer in God’s estate is a desired position, and I believe God would be a good master. But Jesus says to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
Perhaps Augustine’s distinction of use is also depicted in the PBS television series Downton Abbey. If you weren’t born a member of the aristocratic Crawley family, the best position you could aspire to is a life of service to Lord Grantham. Is that what it means to be used by God? Not at all. Augustine writes, “the kind of use attributed to God, that by which he uses us, is related not to his own advantage, but solely to his goodness.” We are not servants. We are children. To simply see ourselves as servants fails to acknowledge the identity we have through Jesus. God adopts us as his children. We share in Christ’s sonship. We don’t take our supper in the kitchen after the family eats their dinner in the dining room. We are invited to pull up a chair.
God’s goodness invites me to participate in his work. United with Christ I am a co-laborer with him. God doesn’t need to include me. God doesn’t need me to fulfill his purposes in his Kingdom. But his goodness lets me. “God shows compassion to us because of his own kindness, and we in turn show it to one another because of his kindness: in other words, he pities us so that we may enjoy him, and we in our turn pity one another so that we may enjoy him.” We are called to serve, not because we are servants. We are called to serve because we are united with Christ in his service to those he loves.
The culmination of my education at Calvin Seminary has allowed me to see the goodness of God in his answer to my simple prayer as a child, “Lord, please use me.” It also has breathed new life into it, “Lord, please use me.”
by Elaine May