Myths & Cliches of Christian Spirituality I: Utilitarian Spirituality

Oh God–use me.”

I hardly prayed a prayer more often than this one when I was in college.  And it was a prayer I made with great fervor… even desperation.  I wanted to serve as a vessel of God’s divine operations in the world.  More than that, I wanted to be His right hand man, His top go-to guy.

Then a question was posed that knocked the spiritual breath out of me: “Andy, what if God wanted to put you on a shelf for the next 20 years.”

What?  Me, shelved

I could not sensibly respond to the question because it seemed to viciously threaten something within me.  I have since realized what seemed so threatened–my sense of significance…. 

The myth of what I am calling “Utilitarian Spirituality” measures or evaluates spiritual health and maturity on the basis of how we are used by God.  The more God uses me, the more ‘spiritual’ I must be.  So if God is using someone else more than me, then my spirituality is clearly inferior

Think of how hurtful it is to hear someone say, “you are useless.”  That accusation cuts to the core because we live in a society in which people are valued according to their utility.  The athlete is adored when she repeatedly scores, but when she fails to perform better than the teammates she is “benched” (which is another way to say “shelved”).    The employee receives raises and awards based on his usefulness to the corporation’s goals of making a profit.  If that utility diminishes, then be on the watch for the letter of termination or a hastily offered early retirement package. 

This utilitarian assessment of human value has crept into our understanding of spirituality.  The more effective I am as a cog in the wheel of God’s industrial ventures in the world, the more useful I must be.  On the basis of this logic, the pastor who is used by God to bring a powerful message to the congregation on Sunday morning is more ‘spiritual’ than the mother of a newborn who could not even make it to church that morning.  Or the conference speaker through whom God brings hundreds of new believers into the fold is more ‘spiritual’ than the pastor who tends a small flock day in and day out with little quantitative data with which to impress the denominational leaders. 

These examples show how Utilitarian Spirituality can unduly disparage or unduly exalt Christians.  But the worst tragedy of this myth is that it fuels the ludicrous notion that God actually needs us….

It’s like when I wash my wife’s car.  Because when I wash her car, I enlist the help of my two little kids.  With their help, we enthusiastically attack the project with organized, mechanistic teamwork, producing within minutes a transformed automobile sparkling in metallic splendor–and if you believe that, you would be disastrously wrong (except the part about being enthusiastic, which is certainly true).  Washing the car with my kids is a terribly messy experiment in human inconvenience. 

But I sure do have a good time with them. 

In enlisting their help, I am not looking for their contribution, but for their participation.  I do not need them to help me wash that car.  But I enjoy their silly, sweet company while I am doing it.  And God does not need us.  As Paul preached, God “does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25).  God is not nervously looking around for folks to enlist in His work lest get behind on His overwhelming to-do list.  He does not need to enlist us for our contribution.  He utilizes us because He desires our participation.

It is extraordinary that God does employ human agency, and we should certainly strive to be “a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21).  But just how much or little or in what way God uses us does not necessarily dictate just how ‘spiritual’ we are.  After all, though God used heroic examples like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Peter and Paul, He also used Pharaoh, Balaam’s donkey, the pagan king Cyrus, Judas Iscariot, and even Satan.  Usefulness does not necessarily equal godliness does it?