God Has No Hands
By John B. Cobb, Jr.
Perhaps God’s greatest gift to you is to call you to be a responsible partner.
When I was a boy growing up in the Methodist Youth Fellowship, we used to sing a song that began with “God has no hands but our hands.” We did not think that diminished God. But we felt drawn to make our hands available for God’s work. We were partners with God!
The song went on to say: “God has no feet but our feet.” God is lacking not only in hands but in a body. There are many things that can only be done by bodies.
Jesus told a parable about “a good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-30). The story is about a man who is robbed and beaten and left helpless by the side of the road. Jesus was a Jew. So, he said that Jewish leaders passed by ignoring the man’s needs. They were too busy doing the work of the synagogue or temple to help the man. The Jews were contemptuous of Samaritans; so Jesus said that a Samaritan stopped to help and lavishly assisted the man who was helpless. Of course, his point was to remind Jews that just being a Jew was not a great achievement in God’s eyes. What was important was to act lovingly to those in need. A loving Samaritan was a far better servant of God than an unloving Jew.
The point of the parable was not about what we should expect God to do. There is no hint that God might intervene and miraculously help the wounded man. It is not a story about how people prayed for him and that did the job. Jesus and his hearers took for granted that if the man was going to receive help, it would be from another human being. The question was whether anyone would help and, if so, who.
It is not only for taking physical actions that God needs people. God needs us in the work of sharing the good news. In the tenth chapter of Romans, Paul writes about the need for people to hear the gospel in order to believe. Think about verses 13 and 14 and the first part of 15:
For “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?
One could hardly be clearer that God needs partners in the process of converting people to the Christian faith.
All churches that I know act as if they believe this. They organize and raise money so that more people can hear the gospel. Almost everyone acts as if they understood that we have a role, that God needs partners.
Sadly, some have persuaded themselves that in fact God does it all regardless of what we do. This strange idea is based on a word that appears rarely in the Bible: “predestine.” A whole system of thought has been built around this word. And although even those who adhere to it often act as if God needs humans to spread his word, that system of thought often gets in the way. Indeed, it becomes integrated into an entire system of thought that affirms that God determines everything. That is certainly not the system of thought expressed in this or other passages in Paul’s writings.
Some of us think that Paul remains the greatest Christian theologian. We think that Paul thought of our partnering with God rather than of God predestining us and everything. Even the few passages where Paul uses the word “predestine” don’t support the system that has been built on a misreading of it. Let’s look at one verse often used to support the idea that, from the beginning of time, God had chosen who would believe.
The verse is Romans 8:29, “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to conform to the image of his Son.” Clearly it is what God foreknows that enables God to predestine. Of course, God foreknows a lot more than we do, and so he can predestine a lot more than we can. But the Bible does not teach that God foreknows just how people will decide. In the biblical accounts, God is often disappointed and sometimes changes plans.
But even I can say that I know some people who I “foreknow” I can trust no matter what. Based on that knowledge, I can plan some parts of the future. If God knows in advance that some people are so oriented that when they hear the good news they will respond enthusiastically, then God can plan in advance “to confirm them in the image of Jesus.” That makes good sense. It certainly does not justify supposing that God makes all the decisions without the need for human partners. It means, instead, that God can be confident that some people will make good partners and plan accordingly.
Thus far I have expressed my strong conviction as a Christian who takes the New Testament seriously. I am convinced that Jesus and Paul and other early followers of Jesus felt they had an important role to play as partners with God. That is true today when we straighten up our room, or join others in a meal, or protect sources of fresh water, or show friendship to someone who is lonely, or work to save the world from self-destruction. In other words, it applies to everything. We have some responsibility in every act.
This leaves open the question of what God is doing. What is God’s role as partner? Some people think God created the world, set up the governing laws, and then left everything to us. I don’t like that image of partnership, and I don’t find it in the Bible. Especially in the New Testament, we read of God’s gracious presence in our lives. Just before the previous quote from Paul is another one: “We know that in everything God works for good.”
That does not say that God controls everything or that God is the only influence on what happens. It says that God plays a role in everything, and it assures us that God’s role is always to bring about what good is possible. God contributes to every event in our lives. So do we. God works for good.
We can partner with God. But we can also resist God or oppose God. Most of us have some experience of working with God. That gives us a sense of living a meaningful life. We also have the experience of falling short of the full possibilities of partnership, what the New Testament calls “missing the mark.” Sometimes that is translated as “sin.” Yes, we are all “sinners.” To the extent that we partner with God, new possibilities for partnering emerge. To the extent that we fall short, what is possible is reduced.
Much else contributes to every experience besides God and our own decisions. Some of us think that everything that has ever happened has some effect on what happens now. Of course, minor events long ago have trivial effects, while an accident the day before may be the most important factor in what is happening now.
Recognizing that much is determined by the past, and that our own decisions play a decisive role, what does God contribute as our partner? That’s a large and important topic. I’ll just make a few quick stabs.
God works in every cell in our bodies, giving life, and growth, and healing. We can partner with God by taking actions supportive of the life and growth and healing of our bodies. Medical professionals cannot take the place of what we call “natural” forces in our bodies. But they can remove obstacles to their effectiveness.
God calls us in each moment to be a good partner, that is, to decide for that which is best. Sometimes that call expresses a wisdom beyond our knowledge. We need to listen to discern the voice of God amid all the competing voices.
God enables us to act as we are called to act. If we trust God, we can do things that our fears would keep us from even trying. New horizons open before us.
We can experience God’s compassion. That is, God feels our feelings with us. This is the one relationship in which we are fully known, fully understood, fully accepted, and totally loved.
Because we know God loves us even when we resist that love and rebel against it, we can become free from preoccupation with ourselves and truly love others. The center of Jewish teaching is that we love God and neighbor. The experience of being totally accepted and loved makes it possible for us to love God and neighbor.
Jesus called for more. God loves not only us but also those whom we fear and oppose, “our enemies.” Because of God’s strengthening us, we can love our enemies too. That is the greatest and most redemptive possibility.
Questions: What would it be like if those who demonize Trump loved those who idolize him, and vice versa? Can we partner with God in a project like that?
John B. Cobb, Jr. is a retired professor from the Claremont School of Theology. He has promoted “process theology” and believes that good theology challenges all the institutions of society to give up destructive assumptions and reconstruct themselves around love. He lives in Pilgrim Place, a retirement community in Claremont, California.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.