Down We Go: Why Prepositions Matter



When it comes to serving Jesus in the trenches, there’s a huge difference between “to,” “for” and “with.”

By Kathy Escobar | Twitter: @kathyescobar

Many people I know are tired of just talking about theology or participating in yet another Bible Study that increases knowledge but not practice. They are hopping off the “upwardly mobile” path that’s focused on bigger, better, and more successful and choosing instead the slow, scary path of descent–into the trenches, the margins of life and faith … the places where Jesus seemed to go.

But where do we start? What does it mean to live out the wild ways of Jesus in practice, not theory? To me, it means cultivating a life of extending love, mercy and compassion, welcoming pain, honoring doubt, diffusing power, practicing equality, pursuing justice, expressing creativity, and celebrating freedom. These eight core practices are explored deeply throughout Down We Go: Living Into the Wild Ways of Jesus.

But first, before diving in, we need to continually consider the importance of three prepositions that matter when it comes to a downwardly mobile life–the difference between “to”, “for” and “with.”

Power Shift

I was first exposed to this idea through my friends at the Center for Transforming Mission ( They are dedicated to equipping grassroots leaders who are journeying with people in hard places around the world. Their work is built upon the premise that authentic transformational relationships cannot be built upon power or inequality. Even though many of us would nod and say “of course!” the reality is that many of the missional models we’ve been taught perpetuate a divide between “us” and “them” that is sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious.

Considering these three prepositions has really shaken up so much of what I believe about living in the trenches with people.

  • The Preposition “To” is Paternal and Creates Oppression

In most Christian and typical mission-oriented circles, the most prevalent preposition has become the word “to.”   The style of the preposition “to” is paternal. This idea is built on principles like:

“I have something I need to give to you.”

“I have wisdom I need to impart to you.”

“Here’s the advice, biblical truth or kernel of life-changing knowledge I have to give to you.” 

The problem with the preposition “to” is that it begins with an “I’m up and you’re down” perspective of power that is patronizing and disempowering. Someone has more resources, knowledge and put-togetherness than the other.  This posture often ends up making the one on the receiving end feel like a project or even a loser.

  • The Preposition “For” is Maternal and Creates Codependence

The preposition “for” is another easy reflex for most of usThe style of the preposition “for” is maternal.  It’s when we want to do things for a hurting person.

“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.”

This is my reflex and the one I continually have to guard against in the work I do. The problem with this kind of approach to others is that it creates codependence. Helpers get sucked into helping and end in a one-up role where we need to take care of the person, make things happen for them, or remain in a position where we are always “serving.” It stays on those terms and remains a one-way relationship.

  • The Preposition “With” is Incarnational and Creates Transformation

The preposition “with” changes everything. It means:

“I am with you in this moment, will stand alongside you, and am not walking ahead of you but alongside you.”

“I am in the same boat; I struggle, too, but 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 you, too. Let’s learn from each other.”

“With” removes imbalanced power from the relationship. It recognizes the fundamental dignity of the person and says, “I am here with you.”  It begins with listening for the deeper story that informs the suffering. It waits patiently for the person to ask for help, if needed, because sometimes people aren’t ready for help–sometimes people just need people to sit “with” as they work it out on their own.


There is no question—”with” is scarier.  It means I let others know me instead of hiding behind doing good works at a protective distance. I make myself vulnerable and let others into my life, experience and heart, instead of just taking care of them to feel like I’m “helping.” Within the professional, clinical culture, as it is customarily taught, these kinds of “with” relationships may look like bad boundaries.

I understand how easy it is to stick with “to” and “for” modes of relationship. They protect us because they keep us in a place of power. They keep the focus off of us and on the other person. In the end, we don’t need “them;” they just need “us.” Even though that’s easier, I believe that with each other” relationships create true transformation and are core to a life of downward mobility where there is no divide between “us and them.” 


I’d love to hear your thoughts:

  • What do you think about the difference between “to, for, and with” relationships?
  • Which one is easiest for you to default toward?


About Kathy:

Kathy Escobar co-pastors The Refuge, an eclectic faith community in North Denver dedicated to those on the margins of life and faith. She blogs regularly about life and faith at and just released a new book called, Down We Go–Living out the Wild Ways of Jesus in Action. She lives in Arvada, Colorado with her husband, Jose, and five kids.


Image credit: Chairs, by Peter Hellebrand

Idelette McVicker
I like soggy cereal and I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women. I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth. My word last year was “roar” and I learned it’s not about my voice rising as much as it is about our collective voices rising in unison to bring down walls of injustice. This year, my own word is “soar.” I have three children and this place–right here, called–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen. Give me sweet chai and I think I’m in heaven. I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 11 years ago. I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us. I blog at and tweet @idelette.
Idelette McVicker

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  1. HIghlighting the preposition “with” reminds me of how Jesus always invited people to “be with him” even as they followed him. Great stuff and great distinction with the prepositions. Thanks!

  2. This was my absolute favourite from the book. I was shocked at how much of what I do in a day is too or for. It’s even helped me shift a lot in my parenting. Of course diaper changes are still too 🙂 but I realized a lot of relational things are, or should be with. It’s changed my nursing practise as well. I feel like where before I saw patients, I now see people that I get to do life with. Often very significant times in their life. Doing things with people becomes an honour. Doing things too and for can be such a chore.

  3. Kathy, you really hit a core for me with this … My formation has been so shaped by “for” and “to”–but I so want to be “with.” This holds such a huge shift … This past summer I got to be with some women as we traveled in Southern and Central Europe. It was a “with” trip … We were “with” women, “with” each other … My mother-in-law is a beautiful example for me of this “with.” I’m so thankful she is so adamant that we don’t go to “give to,” but to “be with.”

    Thank you for giving words to this crucial shaping of a new way of being with each other. I want to echo Sarah: You’re amazing. Thank you for being a voice for change.

    • thank you my dear idelette. i am so grateful that our paths crossed out here and thank you for what you do here on sheloves and in the wider community to bring hope, justice, love, and courage to many. when i first encountered these 3 prepositions through some friends at center for transforming mission (, it illuminated things in whole new ways for me, just how embedded “to” and “for” are into our human nature & how transforming and healing (and scary-in-a-good-way-like-so-many-things-Jesus-calls-us-to-are) “with” really is. i look forward to continuing to learn from each other! xo

  4. Kathy, you always amaze me and inspire me. I look forward to every thing you post! But this is just so revolutionary in our culture that I am dazzled. Yes, yes, yes! So true. I am adjusting my pronouns as we speak…

    • thanks my friend-from-afar. i am so glad we know each other out here and i will look forward to the day when somehow we can sit across the table and eat some good food and share some wild stories. oh the fun we could have. meanwhile, i’m glad that this stirred up some good stuff. we talk about it all the time around here, and i am always well aware how much easier to and for is, when with is the kingdom, alive and well, restoring dignity and freedom in all kinds of ways. love from colorado.

  5. Kelley Johnson Nikondeha says:

    I so agree – we need to be ‘with’ people. We need to embody with-ness in how we connect with others. My husband and I work in Burundi with the Batwa people, and have experienced first hand how hard ‘with’ is, but what goodness it breeds in all of us as we journey together. We have learned so much from our Batwa friends – there is a generous reciprocity as we do community development together. (Yes, it can be messy at times. No denying or minimizing that part! But mess does not diminish goodness!)

    Thanks for sharing / reminding / encouraging us!

    • thanks, kelley. i always love to hear stories where “with-ness” is present & the beauty that emerges despite the costs. sometimes i tend to focus on the costs/hazards/hard parts and forget to share all the amazing-ness that emerges! i think with-ness restores dignity for both parties in all kinds of ways. peace, kathy


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