Most people know when they are being used. It’s obvious. A friend likes the perks of being around you because you can afford to pay. A family member emotionally manipulates you to get his way. A coworker sticks close because you do better work.
We dislike being used. It feels slimy. We can see through another’s attempt to keep us near, right to the heart of their agenda. But God’s ability to look on a person’s heart far surpasses ours. He can discern that what we often want isn’t him, but what he gives us.
The good news? The gospel is for users like you and me. But first, a story.
Israel Used God
In 1 Samuel 4, the Philistines confronted Israel in battle, so the Israelites used the ark of the covenant as protection. We know their motive was foul because “the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God” (4:4), and this duo was the opposite of God-fearing: “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord” (2:12). As priests, they dealt dishonestly with sacrifices, stealing portions for themselves, and acted immorally with female servants (2:17, 22).
Using God didn’t end well for the Israelites. Their confidence came to a sudden end: Every man fled to his tent, 30,000 soldiers perished, the ark of God was taken, and Hophni and Phinehas died (4:14).
Through this account, God makes clear he will not be used by men.
We Use God
The moral of the story? We dislike the feeling of being used by others, but we are not innocent. We often use God and our neighbors to advance our agendas. We like to walk “by faith”—so long as it leads to reward.
Do any of the following scenarios describe you?
- Do you attend church because you want to feel better about yourself, or as a remedy for your problems?
- Do you leave church dissatisfied when the worship service didn’t fit your preference?
- Do you only pray when you want God to give you something, when you’re feeling unfulfilled?
- When you serve, are you frustrated you don’t get more attention?
- Are you generally disappointed with God unless something good happens to you?
- Do you easily forget to thank him?
- Do you expect God to give you immediate success when sharing the gospel?
- Do you read the Bible solely to live a better life?
- Do you use the Bible to push your own agenda?
- Do you expect God to immediately reward you for doing good?
- Do you avoid talking about sin because it offends you?
In what ways are you attempting to use God? We live in man-centered times, but this is nothing new. From the beginning, sin has bred selfishness. We’ve lost sight of “the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (1 Sam. 4:4). We’ve made ourselves the center of the universe. Adam and Eve first sinned against God because they wanted to be like him (Gen. 3:5). And this desire for self-glory and control persists with us.
But the God who is high and lifted up, our Creator, will not be controlled by his creatures. He holds the depths of the earth in his hand, and the heights of the mountains are his (Ps. 95:4). He looks on us with full knowledge of our sin, and he tests our hearts (Ps. 11:4). The Lord knows all—past, present, future—and orchestrates his purposes for his glory.
This is our God! We exist for him; he does not exist for us. He longs for us to come to him dependent and weak, to recognize our need for his salvation, his hope, his strength. We were created to submit ourselves wholly to him, not the other way around.
What are users to do?
Good News for Users
The gospel is for users. In other words, it’s for us. This is the paradoxical and beautiful reality of who God is, and what he’s achieved for you and me:
- He will not be used by us—yet he freely dies on the cross for us.
- He will not be controlled by us—yet he humbles himself to save us by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ.
- His plans will not be dictated for him—yet Christ submits to the Father’s plan and lays down his life for the self-absorbed.
God knows our self-absorbed hearts—but he also redeems us. Jesus sees our vain ambitions—and yields to the Father’s will to free us from them. The gospel convicts and cleanses users and changes them into worshipers.
Knowing our sin and the generosity of Christ, we repent. We turn to him and confess our attempts to use him for self-centered ends. We confess selfish ambition, narrow-mindedness, worldly understanding, and the foolishness of living as if we are stronger and wiser than he is. We take joy in knowing that we exist for God.
God will not be used—but he gives himself freely to users. He gives new hearts that desire his will, not ours. What a beautiful gospel.