I think it was Martin Luther who popularized the phrase, God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines. It’s a cleaver phrase that communicates the notion that God works through imperfect people to accomplish His perfect will. Though I believe God calls us to be transformed in our thoughts, words, and actions (Rom 12:1-2), and to strive for spiritual and moral purity (1 Pet 1:15-16), the reality is that He does not wait for us to be perfect before He uses us. In fact, if God were to say to His children, “Let those who are without sin serve me”, there would be none. Though Christians are not perfect, we can be humble and obedient, and when willing to do God’s will, He can and will work through us as conduits of truth, grace, and love. Below are a few examples of God working through imperfect believers whom He used to advance His truth and plans in the world.
- Abraham was called into a special relationship with God (Gen 12:1-3), but twice lied and jeopardized the safety of his wife, Sarah (Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-11). Yet, God worked through Abraham to produce the nation of Israel, who in turn gave us the Scriptures, and Jesus, the Messiah (Matt 1:1, 17).
- Tamar played a prostitute in order to sleep with Judah, her father-in-law (Gen 38:13-14), and Judah had sex with her, thinking she was a harlot (Gen 38:15-18). In spite of their conniving, God worked through their offspring to bring forth Messiah, the Savior of the world (Matt 1:3).
- Moses killed a man (Ex 2:11-14), argued with the Lord when called into ministry (Ex 4:1-13), which angered the Lord (Ex 4:14), and later disobeyed the Lord’s directive (Num 20:6-11), and suffered divine discipline (Num 20:12). On one occasion, Moses became so overwhelmed with the pressures of leadership, that he asked God to kill him (Num 11:11-15). Yet, God worked through this imperfect man to lead His people out of Egyptian captivity (Ex 3:9-10; Hos 12:13), and to write holy Scripture (the Pentateuch).
- Samson was a man with problems, as he’d slept with several women (Judg 16:1, 4), and lied to his parents (Judg 14:5-9). Yet, three times we are told “The Spirit of the LORD came upon him” (Judg 14:6, 19; 15:14), and that God worked through Samson as “he judged Israel twenty years ” (Judg 16:31).
- King David had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband, Uriah (2 Sam 11:1-17), followed Satan’s temptation and “sinned greatly” by taking an unauthorized census in Israel (1 Ch 21:1, 8), and even practiced the sin of polygamy contrary to the Law of Moses (Deut 17:17). Yet, God used David to lead the nation of Israel, write Scripture (he wrote 73 psalms), and receive the honor of being called a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14; cf. Acts 13:22).
- Solomon practiced polygamy and “had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (1 Ki 11:3a), and this in spite of God’s clear directive for the king of Israel, that he “shall not multiply wives for himself” (Deut 17:17). Yet, in spite of Solomon’s failures, God worked through him to build the Jewish temple (1 Ki 5:5; 6:37-38), and write Scripture (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon).
- Jonah had some problems with God’s grace and mercy being extended to others whom he felt deserved the Lord’s wrath (Jonah 4:1-2). Jonah even disobeyed the Lord and fled His calling (Jonah 1:1-3). Yet, the Lord humbled His prophet (Jonah 1:4-2:10), who eventually obeyed and preached His Word to the Ninevites (Jonah 3:1-4). The result was that many thousands “believed in God” (Jonah 3:5), turned from their sinful ways (Jonah 3:6-9), and were spared from the Lord’s wrath (Jonah 3:10).
- Elijah, after a great spiritual victory over the false prophets of Baal (1 Ki 18:1-40), became mentally overwhelmed when threatened by Jezebel (1 Ki 19:1-2), and became “afraid and arose and ran for his life” (1 Ki 19:3). Elijah ran into the wilderness and “requested for himself that he might die” (1 Ki 19:4). But God extended grace, fed him, gave him time to rest (1 Ki 19:5-7), and waited for Elijah to complete a forty-day journey to Mount Horeb (1 Ki 19:8). Afterward, God recommissioned His prophet to return to Israel and appoint his successor (1 Ki 19:15-21).
- Jeremiah was a prophet of the Lord who, during his time of ministry, felt overwhelmed by the pressures he’d been facing (Jer 20:8-10), and became severely depressed and entertained suicidal ideations (Jer 20:15-18). Yet, God worked through Jeremiah to communicate His Word to His people (Jer 1:4-10), which he faithfully executed for decades, in spite of the negative volition of others (Jer 25:3).
- The apostles James and John—also known as the Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17)—suggested to Jesus that a Samaritan city be destroyed by fire (Luke 9:51-54), but Jesus “turned and rebuked them” for their wrong attitude (Luke 9:55). Yet, these men were granted permission to preach Jesus’ message to others (Matt 10:1-8), and to see the glorified Lord on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-2).
- Peter was a man who seemed impulsive at times and said some really dumb things. On one occasion, Peter rebuked the Lord and tried to stop Jesus from going to the cross (Matt 16:21-23), and later publicly denied Him three times (Matt 26:69-75), and even “began to curse and swear”, telling others, “I do not know the man” (Matt 26:74). Yet, God showed him grace and used this imperfect person over and over to lead others to faith in Christ (read Acts 2-12) and to help Christians advance to spiritual maturity (1 & 2 Peter).
- The apostle John, while receiving divine revelation, was twice rebuked for worshipping an angel (Rev 19:10; 22:8-9); yet, he was used by the Lord to write Scripture (the Gospel of John, 1, 2, 3 John, and Revelation), and to share the gospel of grace that others might be saved (John 20:30-31).
When I think about my own sinfulness and shortcomings (which are constantly before me), I’m daily reminded of God’s grace towards me, and that He continues to use crooked sticks to draw straight lines. I think there’s merit to the Latin phrase, simul iustus et peccator, which translated means we are simultaneously just and sinners. Both are true. Always. We are justified in the sight of God because Christ has borne our sin on the cross (Mark 10:45), judicially forgiven us all our sins (Eph 1:7; Heb 10:10-14), gifted us with His own righteousness (Rom 5:17; Phil 3:9), and eternal life (John 10:28). God calls us to leave behind the values and practices of this world (Rom 12:1-2), and to advance to spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1; 1 Pet 2:2), that we might live holy lives (1 Pet 1:15-16). Yet, we still possess a sinful nature (Rom 7:18-23; 1 John 1:8), commit acts of sin (Eccl 7:20; 1 John 1:10), and need to confess our sin daily to the Lord (1 John 1:9). As a Christian, I know it’s never God’s will that we sin, but when we sin, it’s always His will that we handle it in a biblical manner by honest confession, in order that we might be forgiven (in a familial sense) and restored to fellowship with Him. This is why confession is so important to the growing Christian; for “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Once we’re restored to fellowship, it’s God’s will that we “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Col 1:10), and to “walk as children of Light” (Eph 5:8).
The Lord is able to use believers who are humble (1 Pet 5:5), who study His Word (Psa 1:2; 2 Tim 2:15, 1 Pet 2:2), and live by faith (Heb 10:38; Jam 1:22). Christians who advance spiritually will become more and more righteous, which means we will sin less and less; however, it never means we will attain sinless perfection in this lifetime. Jesus, in His humanity, was the only Person to ever live a spiritually and morally perfect life in this world, as Scripture reveals He “committed no sin” (1 Pet 2:22), “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), was “without sin” (Heb 4:15), and in whom “there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Apart from the Lord Jesus, there are no perfect people in this world. All humanity, even the saved, are not perfectly righteous in character and conduct, nor ever will be in this life, “for there is no one who does not sin” (1 Ki 8:46), and “there is not a righteous person on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl 7:20; cf. Prov 20:9; Rom 3:23; 1 John 1:8, 10). We don’t have to be perfect to be used by the Lord. However, when called in the moment, we need to be humble and obedient to do His will.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- Restoring Fellowship with God
- When a Believer Perpetually Sins
- Divine Discipline for the Christian
- The Lord is Slow to Anger
- Great and Least in the Kingdom of Heaven
- Bible Studies for Christian Growth
- Advancing to Spiritual Maturity
- A Role Model for Believers
- Walking with God
- Enjoying the Spiritual Life
- Biblical Self-Talk
- Knowing and Doing the Will of God
- The High Calling of God’s Servant
- The Life of Faith
- The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
 From Scripture we know the names of eight of David’s wives: Michal (1 Sam 18:27), Abigail (1 Sam 25:39-42), Ahinoam (1 Sam 25:43), Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24), Maacah, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah (2 Sam 3:2-5). And he had other wives and concubines that are not named, as Scripture reveals, “David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron” (2 Sam 5:13a).