Last week, as I sat in a meeting at church, a pastor who readily describes himself as “more of a doer than a reader” began talking about a book he recently finished: With by Skye Jethani. Naturally, my interest was peaked. It wasn’t so much the book (which I’ve not read) that got my attention, as one of the central ideas. There is an essential difference, my pastor argued, between doing things for God as opposed to doing them with God. There were other insights from the book which he discussed, but this one stuck in my craw.
Words have power, no doubt about it. But it’s often the most innocuous words which can make the biggest difference (for example). In this case, the contrast between “for” and “with” is more striking than I would have expected. If you do something for someone, it’s a service you’re rendering to them, a gift you are giving them, perhaps. “I made dinner for my son, while he played with his trains.” Although I certainly have the wee man in mind, the two of us are doing separate things. Doing something with someone, on the other hand, is participatory. “I made dinner with my son.” Trains don’t enter into the equation because we are engaged with each other, with the task at hand, even though the end result is the same (albeit a tad messier).
There’s an obvious truth here which, because I haven’t given it much thought, is all the more interesting. It is certainly one worth talking about in Christian circles. After all, you don’t have to hang around Christians long before you hear a phrase along the lines of “X is doing Y for God” or, stealing again from my pastor, “We are going to some country for God.” The end results may be admirable in and of themselves, but the attitude with which they are approached can quickly become restrictive. If you are doing something for God, it’s as though you’re handing in a term paper. You completed an assignment on your own and are submitting it for His approval. If the grade, the outcome, is not what you expected, things can get muddy in a hurry. It’s almost a physics-based view of God, isn’t it? (pardon me as I wantonly shift metaphors). If I do this thing, then God will do something good for me. Cause and effect. To a certain extent, I suppose this is what built the great cathedrals of Europe, but I still think it’s misguided. Inherent in this attitude is the belief that we can have some influence or impact on the grand scheme of things, that we can change God’s mind or feeling about us through our actions. In Romans, however, Paul tells this isn’t the case: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He redeemed our souls before anyone did a single good thing “for God.” God didn’t wait for mankind to become good before initiating salvation. He sent Jesus to be with us in this created world so that we would have a way to become good.
Now, if we believe that we can do things with God, then our thinking changes. It’s not about earning merit which comes after the end result, it’s about the experience which comes before. In shifting our focus like this, not only do we create a buffer against unmet expectations, but we enhance our ability and willingness to live life fully. In my library, for example, I feel a natural urge to raise my game when I co-plan a lesson with a really good teacher. That person’s excellence makes me want to be excellent as well. I create better materials, engage better with my students, when I partner with somebody. In the same way, I am more likely to treasure up the memory of cooking with my son rather than for him. If you go on a mission trip with God, if you serve communion with Him, in you go to work with Him, those actions all become more meaningful. By taking the focus off the end result (which is out of your control anyway), you actually make it more likely that things will go well. Focusing on being with God keeps us from being distracted by our own base desires and makes it more likely that we will, in fact, fall into step with His will.
One last thought: Every time Jesus said to some one “Follow me”, He wasn’t hiring servants. He was looking for people to come with Him on His journey towards Calvary.