Bless not the instrument: thoughts on glorifying God

Statue of John Wesley (1703-91) on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY
Statue of John Wesley (1703-91) on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY

The life and teachings of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders, have shaped me at a deep level. Sometimes I call John “Saint Wesley” since we in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition are prone to place a halo on his head, overlooking evidence of his all-too-human imperfections. Those responsible in 1791 for etching the words on Wesley’s tombstone must have sensed this ill-advised tendency. Toward the end of the inscription appear these words:

READER if thou art contrain’d to bless the INSTRUMENT,
GIVE GOD THE GLORY.

Rich Little in his essay “5 Overlooked Cultural Sins Threatening the Church” names “celebrity” as one such sin. Little notes:

“There were and are none like him (Jesus Christ). He is so incomparable to the celebrities we celebrate today that to offer a comparison is an affront to his majesty.”

When John Wesley in the 18th century or anyone else in the 21st century takes on the aura of celebrity, are we not “blessing the instrument” rather than giving God the glory?

To say that “the only good in me is the Christ in me” is more than a throw-away slogan. It is a profound theological truth that John Wesley himself promoted as Scriptural. It is no accident that the doctrine of sin looms large in Christian theology. Jesus himself refused to entrust himself to people, because he knew what was in their heart (John 2:24). Like Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Because we know that our default position as human beings post-Fall is to do evil, we cannot give direct credit for good deeds to any individual. To do so would be to “bless the instrument.” Rather, we can only praise God for the powerful working of His grace in the lives of individuals who have surrendered to the impulses of that grace, wherever they are on the spiritual journey.

As Wesleyans, we believe that God the Holy Spirit through prevenient grace (the grace preceding conversion) is always at-work in the world. Not only Christians but people of all faiths (or no faith) are recipients of God’s preceding grace. The old hymn asks God to let our hands move “at the impulse of Thy love” and many do, even if they are not yet conscious of it. A beautiful work of art or a memorable song (like Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band“) is an admirable expression of grace. The poet Cecil Alexander put it this way:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

How will a Wesleyan understanding of grace change how we talk about one another?

Instead of blessing the instrument, we will bless the One who made the instrument. The conversations might sound something like these:

Scenario One

Comment: “Susan, it’s so exciting to see how you’re allowing God to do some amazing things in your life!”

Reply: “Thanks, Mrs. Jones. You’re exactly right. God has been good to me.”

Scenario Two

Comment: “God has given you a gift for singing, Kyle. Keep  letting God use it for His glory!”

Reply: “Thanks, Mr. Thomas. It’s fun singing for the Lord.”

Scenario Three

Comment: “Your work in the children’s department has really turned things around, Brian. I thank God for you.”

Reply: “Do you think so, pastor? I’m glad God has let me be part of a good team.”

On the other hand, if we praise the individual directly as if they are responsible for whatever is good, should we be surprised when sooner or later they develop an attitude of superiority? As the people of God, when we praise the recipient of the gift rather than the Giver, are we not beginning to walk down the fatal path of celebrity? The most that we can do is to praise the individual for allowing God to do admirable things in their lives. Whether that individual is a believer or a non-believer, we believe that any good is a reflection of the grace of God at-work in His creation.

The self-esteem movement was well-intentioned but has served to focus the attention back on the individual, robbing God of the glory due to Him. We are valuable one and all because we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). When we see something beautiful in each other, shall we not direct the praise back to God, the maker of beauty?

I still like John Wesley, but what I really like is that Wesley allowed God to work powerfully in his life. My prayer is that more and more I will let God do the same in mine. To Him be the glory, forever and ever!

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