In his Covenant Prayer, John Wesley writes, “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee.” What does it mean to be “laid aside” by God? I have an elderly friend who has become too frail to attend her church, and she laments her inability to “do what I used to do,” when she hosted Bible studies and other events. For her, this is a fate worse than death: to know God and his love for her but to feel useless. Has she been “laid aside” by God?
Scripture has few cases of people being “laid aside.” There are Cain and his offering in Gen 4 and Saul and his rejection in 1 Samuel, but these are really instances of God’s judgment, not of God’s laying anyone aside. In the NT, there is the demon-possessed man who wants to go with Jesus but is told to stay (Mark 5). More intriguing is when the Holy Spirit prevents Paul, Silas, and Timothy from entering Asia or Bithynia. The problem here, however, is that no explanations are given for these refusals. (Although perhaps that is part of the point of the Covenant Prayer, which does not presume to ask God to tell us why we are to be employed or laid aside.)
Church history offers similarly few examples of God laying aside individuals. Presumably there have been a great number of such people; history has passed over them because it is easier to tell the story of what people did than the story of what they did not do. Yet if we are right to pray the Covenant Prayer, or prayers like it, the faithfulness of those who were laid aside is hardly less than that of those whom God employed.
And we are right to pray this way. These lines of the Covenant Prayer echo the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane: “your will be done”; “not what I want, but what you want.” Praying “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee” means submitting ourselves to the will of God. What God wills for us is good for us, even (or perhaps especially) if it is not always what we might will for ourselves. God’s will is perfect, and his will is love for us.
This is where Wesleyan and Methodist Christians become anxious. We are afraid that talking about God’s will leads us into determinism and predestination. We also like to keep ourselves busy, always doing, doing, doing, because of an innate distrust of anything that smacks of quietism. The Covenant Prayer, however, affirms both that we are offered the grace to submit our imperfect will to God’s perfect will and that we may refuse grace by continuing to assert our own will. Grace does not destroy human agency but perfects it.
Contrary to the experience of my elderly friend, being laid aside by God is a gift of life, not a fate worse than death. There are, after all, goods to be obtained in being laid aside by God: the good of Sabbath rest, the good of avoiding a potentially onerous or painful task of ministry, and the good of being reminded that God’s actions, not our own, are salvific. Celebrating these goods (and the faithfulness required to receive them well) requires deemphasizing busyness and productivity as standards of Christian discipleship and ministry.
None of this, of course, means that my friend, or any particular individual, has been laid aside by God. There remain many forces other than the Holy Spirit that prevent us from being active for the sake of Jesus Christ. Discernment is necessary, but it must not begin with the bias that inactivity alone indicates something is wrong. And frustration or feeling useless may be as much a sign of chafing against God’s will as a desire to pursue it.
So far I have been addressing being laid aside by God in the context of an individual’s life, because the Covenant Prayer is deeply personal. What is true for individuals, however, is also true for their communities. Here church history is rather helpful. The past is rife with groups and movements that appear, burn with activity, and then die down. Communities have the potential to demonstrate persevering faithfulness in periods of employment and unemployment that extend beyond the lives of individuals.
Communities and individual disciples should learn to ask, “Are we being laid aside by God? Do we have the faith needed for a term of inactivity? Are we able to take a back seat to others God has called for fuller employment?” Borne out of the Covenant Prayer, these questions are neither lazy nor passive. They are submissive, signs of a healthy resignation to the “pleasure and disposal” of our “glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”