I’m strategically positioned in the lobby of my church, wearing a cheery “volunteer” shirt, looking eager to help, and keeping an eye on the heads bobbing all over. A young woman spots me and gently makes her way through the hurried bodies.
“So, how does this work exactly?” she asks quietly.
Classic newcomer. I give her the spiel—how we match women in similar life stages and areas of town at a table, and once everyone is acquainted, they decide if they want to become a small group.
“I’m just not sure I want to stay.” She holds one arm with the other and looks down. “My boyfriend and I just broke up and ...” Crescents pool at the bottom of her eyes. My heart caves and longs to comfort hers.
That’s when the thought sneaks up on me: God is using me right now.
Whenever I hear people say God was “using” them, I imagine hollowed-out bodies. God tells their souls to evacuate the premises and that He’ll take it from here. Their skin, eyes, hair become the Holy Spirit’s disguise, and then the real magic begins.
I’m thinking if God is taking over, surely He’ll make me look like a superstar Christian and get her to join a group. So our conversation continues with this agenda and genuine compassion. I listen to myself explain that I, too, came to church under those circumstances, how the women in my group are true friends now, how I know it’s scary. Meanwhile I’m wondering, Am I doing a good job of listening? What is my face doing right now? Does she feel comforted? Or pushed? Is this me talking, or God?
Our circumstances aren’t that clear-cut, especially when it comes to the work of the Spirit.
She stayed, but later I wondered if she should have. I was so convinced that joining a group of women like herself was the next best step, but maybe the friends she already had would support her best. She had planned to celebrate a birthday with them that night and may have forgone glimpses of God in their care. Perhaps I wanted a role in her story so badly that I mistook my longings for God’s.
And yet the Bible tells me that no plan of God’s can be thwarted (Job 42:2). What then—He works around us? Despite us? It’s difficult to swallow that God doesn’t need our help revealing His love, but it’s just as confusing to think He involves us anyways. If only we knew when to step out of His way and hand off the baton.
I’m learning that this line of thinking is common—even more so among people like myself who face anxiety and depression—but rarely accurate. The black-or-white, all-or-nothing paradigm is actually a defense mechanism (called splitting) that we use to determine trust. A particular item of food is either good or bad for my diet. A person is either safe or unsafe for a romantic relationship. God is either in control of this situation or I am. But often our circumstances aren’t that clear-cut, especially when it comes to the work of the Spirit.
In that case, better than God popping in—working me like an entranced puppet, and then vanishing—is the image of God and me as Play-Doh. He’s blue, I’m yellow, and a toddler in pre-K somewhere has mixed us together. We can’t be separated—not because we can’t tell who’s who but because the bond cannot be undone.
God was present when I listened to the woman in the lobby, and He was present years ago when I learned that love listens, and He was present every moment my mother modeled that in my childhood. God is with me. His blue moves with my yellow, and some days I can see more of Him, some days less. But His holiness is always wrapped up in my mess like a marbled stone; it persists amidst and despite and with me, because He knows my death-ridden frame does not have the final say.
So I don’t know how or how much the Lord is involved in my interactions. Perhaps He adjusts His contributions based on the kind of day I’m having—who knows? But I don’t believe that He is ever absent or that He wants me to step out of the way or even that He wants me to fret about it. I’m hoping to replace God is using me, an echo in our Christian culture, with the truth God is with me—a promise He has been whispering from the start.