Clichés aren’t the worst sin

July 11, 2012

Speaking of clichés…

I had high hopes for this HuffPost blog post by Christian Piatt entitled “10 Cliches Christians Should Avoid.” Having read the post, however, I would tell Mr. Piatt that being sanctimonious is a greater sin than using a cliché. I’m sure he imagines that his post will win the sympathies of the atheist trolls who hang out at HuffPost’s Christianity section. I don’t have to read the comments section—2,688 comments and counting—to know how badly he failed.

By all means, I agree that most of them are clichés, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily untrue. I’ll quickly review them:

1. “Everything happens for a reason.” Yep, this is the worst one on the list, for sure. Only the most hard-nosed Calvinist buys into the idea that everything happens, directly or indirectly, for God’s glory. They say this, I think, because they imagine that if history doesn’t unfold in exactly this manner, down to its minutest and most absurd detail, then God’s will will not ultimately be done. So, by this logic, when something unspeakably evil happens—like rape, for instance—it could not be any other way: it must serve God’s purposes, and who are we to question it?

Yes, this theology grosses me out. But the vast majority of people who use this cliché aren’t thinking in these terms. They’re trying to find comfort when something bad happens. In my role as pastor, I’ve heard people in the throes of grief say this of a loved one who died tragically. In that moment, I’m not going to say anything to “correct” their theology or tell them they’re wrong. Besides, what they’re usually trying to say is that God hasn’t abandoned them, even in the midst of their suffering. And that’s certainly true.

But Piatt is being disingenuous when he says that he’s “not sure” where people get this idea. Romans 8:28, for starters: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” As I’ve said many times before, this doesn’t mean that “all things are good,” merely that “in all things,” God works for the good. That’s a remarkable statement of God’s sovereignty in and of itself, without getting all five-point-Calvinist about it.

In my experience as a Methodist pastor, my people could stand to be reminded that God is sovereign, that Jesus is reigning now, and that our lives, our world, and our future rest safely in God’s hands. If these words are clichés, tough! They’re still true.

2. “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend the rest of eternity?” Piatt says that none of us knows, and we shouldn’t be presumptuous about it. I think Piatt means to be humble in saying this. We take it on faith that we’re saved, which isn’t exactly the same thing as knowing, for example, that it’s raining outside. Besides, since when is presumptuousness a good trait?

Still, I disagree that there’s anything wrong with asking this. We who have placed our faith in Jesus are allowed to presume upon the saving grace that was extended to us. Do you need some proof-texts? John 14:6, Romans 8:16, Philippians 1:21, 2 Timothy 1:12, just to name a few.

One distinctively Wesleyan emphasis, in fact, is assurance, the idea that we can know for sure that we will be saved. That’s the meaning of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. So Piatt is barking up the wrong tree with me on this one.

3. “He/she is in a better place.” Like #1, it’s neither something I would say to a grieving person nor “correct” when I hear someone say it. Underneath this statement is a reassuring expression of faith that our loved one is resting safely with God—consciously (for those who believe in an intermediate state between death and resurrection) or unconsciously (for those who believe in a “soul sleep,” that the next moment of consciousness after death is resurrection). Orthodox Christians go in either direction, although the consensus belief is in the intermediate state.

4. “Can I share a little bit about my faith with you?” and 5. “You should come to church with me on Sunday.” Here, Mr. Piatt is speaking to that insidious problem of contemporary Christians in America being too evangelistic. To which I ask, What alternate universe is he living in? If only American Christians would share their faith more! If only they would invite friends and neighbors to church! Did Jesus have a “personal agenda” when he went around Galilee sharing the gospel—and often with complete strangers? From Piatt’s point of view, you’re only allowed to mention Christianity after you’ve invested hours—days, months, years—getting to know a person. Never mind all the counterexamples in the Book of Acts! What did Philip think he was doing with that Ethiopian eunuch? He’d only just met the guy!

6. “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?” Once again, Piatt is disingenuous. He writes: “As many times as I’ve heard this, I still don’t really know what it means. Why my heart? Why not my liver or kidneys?” Really? Do I need to explain what a figure of speech is? When Paul writes, in Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” why doesn’t Paul write about believing in our “liver or kidneys”?

It’s true that the Bible doesn’t have people “asking Jesus into their hearts,” but it does have them asking Jesus for healing, forgiveness, and salvation. It also describes the Holy Spirit—which makes Jesus present to us (see John 14-17)—coming into our lives, the center of which is represented by something we often call our “hearts.”

7. “Do you accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?” Piatt writes that “this is not in the Bible. Anywhere.” Like #6, it may not be in the Bible in these exact words, but the meaning is there. First, contrary to Piatt’s words, Jesus uses “Lord” language for himself and accepts when others use it of him. (Not to mention that the epistles are replete with Lord language.) Jesus redefines the meaning of it, for example, when he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. This Lord language has theological and political meaning. To proclaim, as the early church did, that “Jesus is Lord” meant that Caesar was not. It’s not for nothing that the first Christian creed was “Jesus is Lord.” And it’s not for nothing that this sort of language got Christians killed.

As far as “accepting” Jesus as Lord and Savior, does Piatt deny that being a Christian implies a conscious decision? That it’s not something that just happens to us, for example, when we’re baptized as infants? That we must at some point make the faith our own?

Of course, being a follower of Jesus isn’t merely personal. We are meant to be Christians together, in a community and for the world, but it is at least personal. If being a Christian doesn’t radically alter our lives in a personal way, we’re not doing it right.

8. “This could be the end of days.” I agree with Piatt that too many Christians have an apocalyptic fetish, although I haven’t heard this said very much. Does it qualify as a cliché?

9. “Jesus died for your sins.” I’ve written enough about my endorsement of penal substitution. Many contemporary Christians reject it because of its caricatures, not the way substitutionary atonement is classically construed. Needless to say, it’s not “cosmic child abuse.” Regardless, I’m not aware of any Atonement theory that doesn’t boil down to “Jesus died for my sins.” Even if the Moral Influence theory of Atonement floats your boat—that Jesus’ death on the cross is the most profound example of love, which proves God’s love for us and inspires us to love God in return—you agree that Jesus is on the cross to begin with on account of humanity’s sin, right?

10. “Will all our visitors please stand?” Maybe it’s a cliché to say that this is a cliché! I haven’t been in a church since 1975 that singled out visitors in any meaningful way. Does this ever happen today? And even if visitors are singled out in some way, are they really so allergic to being identified as such? Is every visitor really such shrinking violet? After being singled out, they might appreciate being welcomed and made to feel at home by church members. If they’re not singled out, it’s sometimes hard to know who’s a visitor and who isn’t.

2 Responses to “Clichés aren’t the worst sin”

  1. Chiefkpr Says:

    Thanks for your postings! I have enjoyed them and look forward to seeing what’s on your mind. I hope sometime soon to make it to Alpharetta to see your service.

    I’ve recently seen and been perplexed by a similar response to yours about Myth #6 “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?”. I’ve always loved Robert Munger’s “My Heart Christ’s Home” and have found that the imagery is a wonderful way to look at our relationship with Christ.

    Munger introduces his concept with Ephesians 3:17a, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”. Paul’s prayer seems to encourage a literal invitation for Christ to enter our hearts!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Thank you so much for the kinds words. I hope you can make it to Alpharetta some time. You are more than welcome! And, yes, inviting Jesus into our hearts is a beautiful image of what it means to become a Christian. The Ephesians quote is spot-on.


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