why prepositions matter

prepositionsmy friends know a lot about incarnational relationships.  in the trenches at milehigh ministries, they are passionate about all the same stuff i am.   a few weeks ago they facilitated our sunday refuge gathering and shared about the spiritual discipline of incarnational relationships.  the official word in the richard foster books would be “service and submission” but we thought we’d take a little different angle.  to us, in what we are committed to living out together at the refuge, serving & submitting is really about living incarnationally with others.

and in the spiritual discipline of incarnational relationships,  prepositions matter.  

in christian circles, the preposition TO has become the most prevalent.  “i have something i need to give to you.”  i have wisdom i need to impart to you.   “here’s the advice,  biblical truth, kernel of supposed life-changing knowledge i have to give to you”.  the problem with the preposition TO is that it is very paternal & creates oppression.  it is an up-down relationship.  someone is more squared away than the other person and has resource, knowledge, put-together-ness that the other person doesn’t have.  the person on the other end usually ends up somehow feeling like a project and a loser.

the preposition FOR is another easy reflex for most of us.     it’s when we want to do things for a hurting person.   “here, let me makes these calls for you”  “i don’t want you to hurt so let me fix this part for you” “your anxiety is giving me anxiety so let me do what i can to take care of this anxiety for you.”  “let me get what you need right now for you.”  the preposition FOR is extremely maternal and creates co-dependence.  helpers get sucked into helping and also end in a one-up role where they are the ones who need to take care of the person, make things happen for them, or stay in a role where they are always just only “serving” people and it always stays on those terms.   it’s again a one-way relationship, just a little nicer and with more perks for the hurting person.  this of course is the one i am best at.  i am the mother hen, the get-it-done person, the adult child of an alcoholic please-let-me-try-to-make-this-feel-better-for-you person.    that is my natural tendency & i am always aware that this is my reflex.

lots of churches and communities, more than ever, are getting a missional focus. i think that’s beautiful.  i do think a lot of communities realize they’ve been consumerized and are trying to shift back to some of the things jesus talked about.    however, i am going to toss out a challenge here.  i still believe there’s a “serve the poor because we have something to give TO them or do FOR them mentality.”    i know tons of people are doing all kinds of fantabulous things for people without resource.  but i also believe that many of  these relationships are still one-up, one-down kinds of relationships.  many helpers aren’t really into being in relationship WITH “those people” beyond a helping moment.

the preposition WITH changes everything.  it means “i am with you in this moment, will stand alongside not walking ahead of you but alongside you.”  “i am in the same boat, i struggle, too, my struggle may just look different.”  “i want to share life with you, not just take care of you or tell you what to do”  “you have some things i need to learn from, too. let’s learn from each other.”  “i will let you into my life”  “i want to be friends.”

okay, there’s no question:   WITH is way scarier.  it means i let others in and don’t hide behind my do-good-ness.  it means i make myself vulnerable and let others into my life, my experience, my heart instead of just take care of them and keep a safe distance.   the professional, clinical culture has permeated the church and some of us have been taught that is having “bad boundaries.”   we have been taught that good boundaries is helpers help when it works for them and help-ees need to do what help-ers tell them to do and then everyone’s happy, right?  neat, tidy, clean.  i help, i tell, i give.  you receive, you listen, you be thankful.

nope, incarnational relationships means messy, unpredictable, hard, confusing, and sure to tap into your pain, history, fears, and annoying, frustrating places.   i am not saying that WITH relationships can happen with every person. as a pastor, i sometimes need to stay in a role for a particular reason that’s really healthy and good, not just for me, but more for the other person, too.  i also believe there are millions of serving moments that are amazing and important and necessary and i don’t want to minimize how critical “serving” is.

but here’s what i am going to push on:   we default to TO and FOR because they are easier ones to pull off.  they protect us.  they keep us safe.  they keep the focus off of us and onto the other person.  in the end, we don’t need “them”, they just need “us.”    i believe that incarnational relationships, with each other relationships, create true transformation.

TO  is paternal & can create oppression

FOR  is maternal & can create codependence

WITH  is incarnational  & tends to create transformation (on both sides)

there are so many nuances to this conversation, way more than can be in this single blog post, but i will say it has created some great conversation recently.  we have talked about how sometimes we need a mother hen, sometimes we need advice, and that serving and sacrifice is a huge piece of living out our faith.   but we all agreed that when the ground is cultivated with WITH, an incarnational relationship, then the TO and FOR moments aren’t so degrading & one-way.  it’s almost like WITH gives permission for a FOR and a TO now and then; but when it’s only TO and FOR, the WITH can never happen.

i would love to hear some of your responses to these thoughts.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • ” WITH gives permission for a FOR and a TO now and then; but when it’s only TO and FOR, the WITH can never happen. ”
    Brilliant, Kathy. it’s like the E=Mc2 of missional living! 🙂
    Jesus did to’s and for’s, but it was always with. His Withness becomes our witness.

  • Kathy, I think this is a brilliant observation. Only in “with” do we gain real relationship.

  • sage – thanks for doing life with us…

    jonathan – always good to hear your thoughts. i finally put you in my blog reader, somehow i didn’t have it in there and i thought i did. i have really been enjoying catching up on some of your posts….

    phyllis – oh it always makes me happy to see you here…you get it.

  • Interesting thoughts here Kathy….going to have to chew on them awhile!!
    Have you read any of John Perkins books? “Beyond Charity” hits on this a bit…made me think about the motives behind a lot of what I do. http://www.jmpf.org , this is his web site …I think you would like him a lot!!

  • Great post! I love this quote from Darrell Guder from his book “The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness”:

    “Incarnational witness is … a way of describing Christian vocation in terms of Jesus Christ as the messenger, the message, and the model for all who follow after him. To speak of the incarnation missionally is to link who Jesus was, what Jesus did, and how he did it, in one great event that defines all that it means to be Christian.”

  • hey donna, i’ll check it out

    brad – thanks for stopping by. i really l like this part of the quote “to speak of the incarnation missionally is to link who jesus was, what jesus did, and how he did it, in one great event that defines what it means to be a christian.” good stuff…

  • Whoa. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, not being able to put a finger on this move in my heart… When relationship is missing, something seems to go awry. Relationships rely on that 4-letter word, WITH! How beautiful is that??!!

  • tami, good to hear from you here! i hope you will comment more frequently because you have a lot to add to the conversation. i do think “with” is beautiful!

  • Just read this post for the first time (I’ve only recently “discovered’ you) and am struck by the fact that before Christ did anything else, He came as God WITH us …

    • mar, thanks for reading! glad you’re here. the to, for and with language has been really helpful in our community, and yes, i love “emmanuel, God is with us…”


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