January 26, 2021

Prepositions Matter

“…the grammarian’s last daughter opened her bag.

“Out came the prepositions: of, to, from, with, at, by, in, under, over, and so on. When she’d put them into the bag, they had seemed like hooks or angles. Now, departing in orderly rows, they reminded her of ants. Granted, they were large ants, each one the size of a woman’s hand, their bodies metallic gray, their eyes like cut and polished hematite. A pair of tongs or pincers protruded from their mouths; their thin legs, moving delicately over the ground, seemed made of iron rods or wire.

“Somehow — it must have been magic — the things they passed over and around became organized. Shacks turned into tidy cottages. Winding paths became streets. The fields were square now. The trees ran in lines along the streets and roads. Terraces appeared on the mountainsides.

“…The land became known as Relation. In addition to genealogists and marriage brokers, it produced diplomats and merchants. These last two groups, through trade and negotiation, gradually unified the five countries of Thingnesse, Change, Subtletie, Varietie, and Relation. The empire they formed was named Cooperation. No place was more solid, more strong, more complex, more energetic, or better organized.”

From “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters,”
by Eleanor Arnason

• • •

Prepositions matter. These “dull little words” of Eleanor Arnason’s story make relationships between other words possible and meaningful. And they make a difference. As one Twitterer quipped, “You can’t get blood from a rock, but you can get blood with one.”

Prepositions matter in the Bible. Consider Ephesians 2:8-10 — “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not from yourselves: it is the gift of God; not from works, so that no man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared that we should walk in them.”

Every preposition in this text is crucial for a proper understanding of salvation and its fruits.

  • “By” establishes the objective cause of salvation — God’s grace.
  • “Through” speaks of the means by which it comes to us — faith. 
  • “From” points to two illegitimate sources of salvation — it does not spring from ourselves or our works.
  • Rather, God created us anew “in” Christ — by uniting us to him. 
  • “For” points to the purpose for which God recreated us — good works.
  • But even these good works ultimately come from God — he prepared them that we may walk “in” them.

In similar fashion, Skye Jethani’s new book, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, teaches us to be careful about our prepositions. They reveal our understanding of what being a Christian is all about. In essence, he argues, it’s all about these simple connecting words.

Skye Jethani suggest four inadequate prepositions that often characterize our view of a Christian life.

  • Life UNDER God. In this posture, we relate to God by means of a simple chain of command. We maintain our relationship with him by figuring out what he wants, and doing it, thus avoiding trouble and earning favor.
  • Life OVER God. This posture of faith replaces God with religious formulas. He gives us the principles, and then we take over and run the show.
  • Life FROM God. People who take this posture value God not for himself but for his blessings and gifts. He exists to dispense his favors to us.
  • Life FOR God. This “most celebrated of religious postures” wants to serve God and do great things for him. He is the Master, and we are his servants, sent to do his work.

While there is a measure of truth in each of these postures, Jethani says, they all ultimately seek to use God as means to some other end. Each is rooted in fear and marked by the desire to control circumstances and outcomes.

Fear and control are the basis for all human religion. …We live in a very dangerous world marked by chaos, ugliness, and scarcity. As we come to recognize the dangers around us, we feel afraid; and in turn we try to mitigate our fear by seeking control. We believe that through control we can protect ourselves from danger and therefore reduce our fears.

All four of the inadequate religious postures above are attempts to control the unpredictable circumstances of life by using God in ways that I hope will alleviate the dangers I fear. Life under God is about controlling God through my obedience so that I will escape punishment and trouble and earn his rewards. Life over God pushes God out of the picture entirely and takes the controls, believing that all I need to do to overcome adversity is stay committed to following the manual he left me. Life from God treats God as a comprehensive catalog from which I order (by faith, of course) the spiritual “gear” that can protect me from life’s troubles. Life for God believes that if I can accomplish enough good in the world, God will bless and preserve me.

These prepositions are inadequate to convey the true nature and fullness of the Christian life.

Supper at Emmaus, Roy de Maistre

However, there is a fifth one that is not — WITH. Life with God. At the core of the meaning of life lies this connecting word, this word that signifies relationship, communion, harmony, love. God himself, as Trinity, is relational in his very essence — “God is love” (1Jn 4:16). And God’s plan for the human beings he created, repeated throughout the biblical record, is: “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (2Cor 6:16)

To make this abundantly clear, at the climax of history, God sent his Son to be Emmanuel, God with us. He did not send a list of rules (life under God). He did not send an instruction and implementation manual (life over God). He did not send a magic lamp containing a genie who would grant all our wishes (life from God). Nor did he send a mailing envelope containing a “Mission Impossible” tape (life for God). He came personally. He visited us. “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.” (John 1:18, NLT)

God, through Jesus, has revealed himself as a Person to be treasured. We relate to him through faith, trusting him as our Shepherd (Ps. 23) who relieves our fears by his presence. We relate to him in hope, believing that our lives have dignity, purpose, meaning, and a future because he loves us and has committed himself to us with promises (Jeremiah 29:11). We relate to him in love, knowing that he has welcomed us in and taken us to himself, that he treasures us as a mother her infant child, as a friend his trusted companion, as a husband his beloved wife. In turn, we treasure him supremely and desire above all else to know him better (Phil. 3:8-11).

With includes an appendix about practices of communing with God, which serves as a simple introduction to spiritual practices such as lectio divina (praying with the Scriptures), praying the hours (praying with the Church), and the discipline of examen (praying with the Holy Spirit). It also has a discussion guide for groups to use to help build their community in relationship with God and one another.

With is written vividly. With marvelous illustrations from the Bible and life, Skye Jethani encourages the kind of spiritual insight and depth that today’s church desperately needs. Because it is written primarily for the context of evangelicalism, With does not include some emphases and practices folks from historic church traditions might expect, such as penance, the sacraments, public worship and the liturgical year. Jethani is acquainted with church history, however, and he has gleaned some wonderful insights from spiritual classics for our benefit.

I continue to be impressed with Skye Jethani. With is well worth your while. May his tribe increase, and may books with this kind of spirit and depth fill the land!


  1. Thanks Chaplin Mike!! This brings back memories I had been trying to forget of High School English. You remember the teaching about prepositions? And the “in the house” etc… (sigh….)

    just kidding 😉

    • David Cornwell says

      Memories for me also from my senior year in HS with Miss Keeney. She taught Grammar. And she used diagramming to teach it. We used diagramming to learn it. On the blackboard were lines, lines under, connecting lines, slanted lines and everything else. A sentence was taken apart bit by bit and dissected like a frog in biology class. I neither liked nor disliked this class. But I did learn.

      Skye Jethani is expertly uses a grammatical technique to teach us. More power to him.

      The other classes that Miss Keeney taught were Speech, English, and English Lit. In many ways she was the foundation of everything else I’ve learned over the years.

      • I also learned grammar by diagramming sentences. I had a teacher, Ms. Sanders, who was a Latin teacher, but since they no longer offered Latin, the school moved her to English. It was a good decision. She taught us English in the same way she had taught Latin. She broke it down into parts of speech, verb conjugations and then taught us to build those parts back up into sentences.

  2. Steve Newell says

    I believe that one cannot read Eph. 2:8-10 without also understanding our spiritual condition that Paul outlines in the first seven serves. First, all people are born spiritually dead in sin. Since a dead person cannot make any decision, we cannot make any decision about our spiritual condition. We are dead to anything of God.

    It is God who, in his mercy, gives us life. Our salvation has nothing at all to do with any decision that we think that we have made. When someone believes that they made a decision for Christ is already saved.

    • So what does “through faith” mean to you? I believe that this is the means by which we respond to God’s gift of salvation.

      • Steve Newell says

        Remember, faith is a gift of God as well. I can only believe because of the gift of faith.

        • I think that interpretation is up for debate Steve. I think the grace is the gift in those verses, not the faith. Someone better versed in Greek weigh in please!

          P.S. Newell is my maiden name, & now one of my middle names.

          • Yes, faith is a gift, but like the jailer we cry “I believe, help my unbelief.” The subject of the verse here is Salvation. It is the gift. Grace (God’s initiative) and Faith (our response) is how we partake of that gift.

            Think of it like a Christmas parent from your parents (A fitting analogy.)

            The offer me a gift (like salvation). It is offered no strings attached (like grace). I accept the gift (like faith).

  3. Greek Prepositions aid:

    [bad link…see below]

  4. Life with
    Life through
    Life in
    Life is God.

  5. Excellent…I haven’t read Skye’s books yet, but have enjoyed his blog from time to time. I’ll have to go to Lifeway and pick this one up….(Just kidding…It would probably be hidden behind the Testamints there….Amazon.com!!!)

  6. I don’t know what happened with that link; it worked on my iPhone. Anyway, here is the blog it came from so you can (hopefully) see the picture (crossing my fingers): http://jasrandal.posterous.com/a-new-way-of-studying-greek-prepositions-if-y

  7. Just remember that prepositions are bad thing to end a sentence with. 🙂

  8. I love Skye’s new book, and so enjoyed hearing him speak when I visited my daughter’s (former) church. However, he quit speaking there due to his other responsibilities. I believe he hits the nail on the head, and these are lessons that we all need to learn and re-learn.

  9. With is a good word! By the time Jethani discovers the value of two other prepositions, in and through (a different understanding of “under”) then his journey into Lutheranism will be complete! 😛

  10. Speaking of prepositions, I’d like to see a dispassionate discussion of the ‘for’ in Acts 2:38 (KJV).

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