The God Who Needs

Archibald MacLeish on What God Needs from Us

CJ Green / 7.24.20

You could be forgiven for thinking you are no longer necessary. Since March, a flood of unemployment has judged countless people “non-essential.” But this is not a pandemic-specific phenomenon. In 2018, demographers were describing a “genial indifference” to a category of unemployed people, especially working-age men, who “have become essentially dispensable.” In late 2019, it was reported that roughly 1 in 7 working-age men in the U.S. were unemployed. But work is not the only place where we derive dignity. As Jamil Jivani has argued, “Many men are estranged from their children and are either prevented from parenting or do not feel capable of it.” The children would be better off without them, it is often thought.

Nor is this issue limited to unemployed men. Employed ministers, both men and women, currently cannot conduct crucial services in-person, while therapists feel helpless to guide their clients over Zoom. Many elderly retirees have been blocked from participating in community activities; they are no longer welcome to serve at soup kitchens or visit grandchildren, or, if they are, they must lather up in Purell as if they were a liability. Across all demographics, there is a pervading sense that the world no longer requires you.

Arthur C. Brooks once wrote, “We feel a sense of dignity when our own lives produce value for ourselves and others. Put simply, to feel dignified, one must be needed by others”; and “nothing destroys dignity more than idleness and a sense of superfluousness — the feeling that one is simply not needed.”

Christianity is a natural place to look for a word of hope; that is its primary purpose, to offer hope to a world mired in despair. But most Christians speak only of our need of God, and say very little about God’s need of us. It may be unorthodox, but I can’t help wondering, what kind of “relationship” is this? To need, and need, and need — and not be needed? I also wonder what impact such a doctrine might have on the faith’s most devoted followers.

There is a powerful sermon by Archibald MacLeish that I read years ago, and have never forgotten it. It’s titled “God Has Need of Man” and in the context of today seems more pressing than ever.

MacLeish was a poet, not a pastor — his actual religion was dubious. But leading up to the premiere of his famed play J.B., he pored over the biblical book of Job and delivered this sermon in 1955 in Farmington, Connecticut. He begins by re-orienting Job as something to be read playfully, not with the agony that many of us bring to its pages.

Consider the drama as drama: the play as play. What is the fateful action from which all the rest follows? Is it not God’s action in delivering Job, though innocent, into Satan’s hands? …

But why did God deliver Job into Satan’s hands? Why?

MacLeish takes us back to the book’s earliest scene, when Satan enters the heavenly court and challenges God. Satan argues that the man Job only loves God because his life has been charmed. Make him suffer, and “he will curse Thee to Thy face” (1:9).

And God gives His consent.

Why? For proof? To silence Satan? Obviously. But still, why? Clearly because God believes in Job: because God believes it will be demonstrated that Job loves and fears God because He is God and not because Job is prosperous — that Job will still love God and fear Him in adversity, in misfortune, in the worst misfortunes, in spite of everything.

Which means? Which gives what meaning to this book?

Which means that in the conflict between God and Satan, in the struggle between good and evil, God stakes His supremacy as God upon man’s fortitude and love. Which means, again, that where the nature of man is in question … God has need of man.

Only Job can prove that Job is capable of the love of God, not as a quid pro quo, but for the love’s sake, for God’s sake, in spite of everything — in spite even of injustice, even God’s injustice. Only man can prove that man loves God. …

Man depends on God for all things; God depends on man for one. … [L]ove is the one thing no one, not even God Himself, can command. It is a free gift or it is nothing. And it is most itself, most free, when it is offered in spite of suffering, of injustice, and of death.

What Job teaches us, in MacLeish’s reading, is that “in spite of everything,” God may yet have use for us.

Of course, none of us are Job. We are not “blameless” and “upright.” God would be foolish to stake anything on our “fortitude.” And I admit that love of God comes not very naturally, to me at least — so much the easier to count sufferings and feel bitterly resentful. But can we, as MacLeish requests, play with this idea?

On dreary mornings, it is easy to think that God does not require us, that we are of little importance to the great man in the sky who would be sufficient all by His majestic lonesome. And perhaps He would be.

But that doesn’t fully square with a God who self-identifies as “jealous,” who so desires to be with that He presented Himself in the very form of man. Jesus of Nazareth was the purest expression of God’s need to be involved in the lowly lives of us. By my reading, at least, he did not cast an indifferent eye on even the measliest offering. He was vulnerable to betrayal and was handed over to Satan, to suffer for His people’s ultimate redemption. This God cares. This God needs — even you, as you are, today.

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5 responses to “The God Who Needs”

  1. Daniel says:

    Good article, good reminder of our intrinsic value as image bearers who are loved and valued by God. However, perhaps it is too far to say that we are needed by God, therefore undermining his self sufficiency?

    • CJ Green says:

      Thanks, Daniel. The intrinsic value was what I was trying to get at. I admit “need” is a loaded word. And MacLeish is using it in the way that you are wary of; he ultimately speaks of man “conceiving” God. Again, he was not an orthodox theologian! Still, I liked his perspective as a jumping off point. My own use of “need” is less elemental, more emotional: need, the way a parent needs a child, or a husband needs his wife. Could survive without, but you hate to think of it.

  2. Ian Olson says:

    Absolutely ????, CJ! Yeah, I need a God who is sufficient unto himself to keep me sane through everything, but we all need another word that sends a picture of an indifferent God down a black hole. As Uncle Karl reminded us, the only worthwhile God has elected not to be God without us!

  3. August Smith says:

    Great piece, CJ! Never thought about God’s love for us this way before.

  4. Josh Retterer says:


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