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I used to believe something.
I used to believe that the pain or suffering I experienced was allowed by God for the primary reason of helping others in similar circumstances.
I used to believe God wanted to create opportunities for his love and mercy and grace to be on display therefore, sometimes, one of His children had to be made into an example. And if you happened to be one of those children, going through a difficult time, rejoice! because "God is using you!"
Except, think of this: I don't treat my own children that way. Can you imagine if I withheld help from my son when he is struggling to learn algebra so that his sisters can learn a lesson about the value of studying?
That doesn't seem right.
Granted, I can admit that God probably doesn't parent like me, yet my sensibilities just won't let me get past the notion; does God really use people?
Recently, as our 12+ years in ministry was coming to an end I had a personal crisis of faith. Essentially much of what I had constructed about God came crumbling down as my present experiences failed to match my previous beliefs.
It was a very dark, confusing and lonely time.
While in the midst of that journey, a well meaning loved one said to me, "Take heart! Watch and see! God is using you and someday you'll be able to help others!"
While I have no doubt these words were meant to be an encouragement to me, the truth is that upon hearing that I became very, very angry.
If my dark times could help save someone grief during their hard times, did that mean God loved someone else more then me? How could He do that? And if He does operate that way, where was my person? Where was someone to walk beside me? How come He didn't send someone to lessen my pain with their stories of God's goodness?
Huh? Huh? Huh?
Just the other day, a dear friend of mine revealed over a cup of coffee that she's not so sure about God anymore. As the tears spilled down her cheeks she spoke of her fears: afraid her church community will reject her, afraid she'll lose her faith-based employment, afraid that she's alone.
As I listened, I nodded and I knew just as surely as my name is Stephanie that the story of my experience walking through similar questions would bring hope to my friend.
But wait! Don't I reject the notion that God uses me?
Yet didn't my pain provide a nugget of comfort my friend?
While it may appear so listen closely....
Pain exists. Period.
And I have a will. I, you, we, probably have more agency in our lives that we exercise.
It's true, I don't believe God inserted troubling times in me for the benefit of someone else. I'd like to think He loves me too much to use me. I'm not a puppet in some universal production of grace.
And the more I think about this I don't see that using people is even really in His nature. In fact, His very name, Emmanuel, means God with us. Not God uses us or God forces us.
God with us.
I'm not something to be used.
I'm a soul.
I'm on a journey and He promises to be with me.
And He promises to be with my friend.
As the very words of my journey tumbled from my lips that day, I was painstakingly aware that, by all appearances, it seemed as if my story was for her benefit.
Yet I am certain I had not been used.
How? Instead - and this is the best way I can describe it - I had an offering.
I chose to offer her my story.
As the two of us sat there, broken and vulnerable, sharing things we've never even dared speak aloud, I knew Emmanuel was with us.
In that moment, sharing my story with her, didn't feel like it had a predetermined purpose. Instead it felt like the most precious, sacrificial offering I could give. I humbly and nervously identified with her pain, shared my own and was utterly aware that no one did this to me - I gave it away.
It was my choice what I did with my story. It has been my choice all along. What kind of character will I be? How many hurdles can I overcome? And what, if anything, will I do when I meet other sojourners finding their way?
The choice is mine. This is my journey. The pages are being written. That's why it's my quest to write a better story.
p.s. thanks to Sarah Bessey who's piece "In Which God Does Not Want to Use Me" and Dave Henson's piece on Patheos "I am Not a Drug: Why God Isn't in the Business of Using People" for their thoughts on this same subject. This particular idea had been churning in my head for awhile. Reading their thoughts gave me the bravery needed to put my fingers to the keyboard.
What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear ... Does God use people? Have you been used by God? Was it a good experience?