Who vs. What

My third grade teacher had us follow current events in the newspaper and report on what we read asking, “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?” Then we had to use our critical thinking skills to ask a relevant follow-up question. The 5 W’s and 1 H is helpful in sizing up any real life situation, but I didn’t expect it to crop up recently in the way it did at church. We’re going through the New City Catechism and the second question is, What is God? You read that correctly. It’s not who is God, but what. It was explained, it’s all too easy when we pose a question beginning with “who?” to think of someone just like you or me, a human being. But God is beyond our finite minds. In short, God is creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in His power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through Him and by His will. When I realize how great the chasm is between this Person who is God and myself, it leads to an appropriate fear and awe.

In a radio broadcast this week, Pastor Alistair Begg spoke in a similar vein. In Take Dead Aim, Part 1:

Now, what I’d like to do is summarize the first two verses by giving you three words to hang my thoughts on. The first word is “servants”—“servants.” “Paul and Timothy, who are you? What are you? Tell me about yourself.” “We’re servants of Christ Jesus.” In other words, no long autobiographical introduction; no trumpeting of his creditable past or his peculiarities in the present; just simply, “Hey, it’s Paul and Timothy, the servants of Christ Jesus.”

This is characteristic of Paul; it’s characteristic of all who truly are laid hold of by God and are malleated by, moved by his Spirit. When he writes to the Corinthians he says—with their squabbling about “Well, I like Apollos, I like Paul, I like Peter when he preaches; Peter’s this, Paul’s this, Apollos says that”[4]—he goes, “Listen, listen, please! What, after all, is Apollos? What, after all, is Paul?”[5] He doesn’t use the masculine; he uses the neuter. He doesn’t ask who; he asks what. See, we’re preoccupied with who: “Who’s coming, and who’ll be there, and who is he?” Paul says, “What am I? I’m a servant.”

In other words, Paul’s calling, not his personal connections or accomplishments, is a primary identifier.

Who we are as individuals obviously matters, but framing a situation according to God-given roles can be helpful in some instances. It’s helpful in the sense that if I apply “what,” not “who,” type of thinking to how I ought to respond to authority in my life, then obedience is dependent upon Biblical principles and not feelings. For example, “Is this person my supervisor?” Then, “Follow her instructions.” Or, “Are these my parents?” Then, “Honor them.” “Is He God?” “Worship Him.”

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