My friend, Robin, alerted me to this great article by Sam Wells in the journal Cresset:
It’s titled “Rethinking Service,” and there are two issues in particular he raises that I think are really important and interesting for both individual Christians and the church today. The first is the question of what the current “problem” is that people are looking to be “saved” from: this speaks to the issue of how the church describes the salvific work of Jesus. Wells argues that instead of mortality being the essential problem of human existence, the fundamental problem is isolation. That means that the “good news” of salvation isn’t first and foremost life after death, it’s life in community and relationship–both now and later. Wells describes it this way: “The heaven that is worth aspiring to is a rejoining of relationship, of community, of partnership, a sense of being in the presence of another in which there is neither a folding of identities that loses their difference nor a sharpening of difference that leads to hostility, but an enjoyment of the other that evokes cherishing and relishing. The theological word for this is communion.”
I think that idea deserves serious reflection by the church and its ministers, because I think the church both explicitly and implicitly continues to promotes the idea of “heaven” as some vague [perhaps disembodied] existence after death–and for many people [including many younger people], that kind of existence is neither interesting nor inviting. Instead, those people are looking for meaning now, connection now, relationships now–relationships that are enduring. Basically, what I am saying is that the church needs to rethink what proclaims about heaven and hell; and think more how the language & images we use for those relates addresses the issue of isolation, rather than mortality. Wells is onto something.
The second issue he raises that is really fascinating is his distinction between two prepositions: “for” and “with.” He talks about how doing things “for” people doesn’t do anything to further relationships: the “doers” throw money and/or time at something or someone, but no one is changed, no one is transformed. Wells writes, “You can do ‘for’ without a conversation, without a real relationship, without a genuine shaping of your life to accommodate and incorporate the other.”
By contrast, “with” is very different. “With” means sharing someone’s situation, participating in her joys and sorrows, opening myself to her perspective and making her a part of my life. “With” means making oneself vulnerable, taking risks. Wells describes it this way. “…being ‘with’ people in poverty and distress even when there is nothing we can do ‘for’ them….being ‘with’ people in grief and sadness and loss even when there is nothing to say…being ‘with’ and listening to and walking with those we find most difficult rather than trying to fob them off with a gift or face-saving gesture.” “With” is much, much harder than “for,” but “with” is the only thing that fosters real relationships–it’s the only thing that gets at the problem of isolation. “For” just doesn’t do the trick.
And, not at all coincidentally, Wells notes that “with” is how God relates to us. Indeed, Wells writes that “‘With’ is the most fundamental thing about God.” Again, he writes, “…God didn’t settle on ‘for’. God said unambiguously, ‘I am with’. Behold, my dwelling is among you. I have moved into the neighborhood. I will be ‘with’ you always. My name is Emmanuel, God ‘with’ us.” God doesn’t address our sin, our grief, our suffering, and even our death from afar, from without, from a distance. Instead, God comes and abides with us and heals us from “aclose,” transforming us from within, taking all of who we are into God’s very being. It doesn’t get much more “with” than that.
I think this description of “with” is an answer that speaks to many people where they are, and makes the church relevant to people’s daily lives in a way that it doesn’t often seem to be. It’s a word worth speaking, sharing, shouting, even. It’s who Jesus is, and who we are called to be: people “with.”
One thought on “God "with," not "for"”
The salvific work of Jesus that happens now is so wonderfully presented I think in liberation theologies, which also portray God acting in relationship with and through humankind. That's where we find hope and salvation. Thanks for this article – it provokes some good thought.