This is the final in a four-part series on the overused (and often insensitively employed) phrases that plague the Christian lexicon. Though I felt like I was offering some insight into what to do instead of offering these cliches, some asked for more specificity or clarity. So in that spirit, I thought I'd offer a final list of things to do rather than pop off with these phrases that may mean little or nothing to the recipient, or worse, may cause unintended -- but lasting -- harm.
Listen more; talk less.
Yes, there were times in the Gospels when Jesus sermonized, but most of the time, he said much less than people expected. He listened first, and when responding to problems or questions, he often left room in his answer for the listener to wrestle with what was said and to arrive at their own understanding. We Christians don't like to give up such control, though. We want to know that the person gets what we want them to get. But if we're ever to get past the widely held perception that we're a bunch of tone-deaf talking heads, we have to be quiet and pay attention more.
Stop trying to fix everything.
Christians hate loose ends. We want to end every conversation with everyone smiling and assured that everything will be just fine. But that's not always reality, and sometimes, what people need is to grieve, wrestle or reflect rather than feel better and move on. Being a Christian is not about having all the answers at the ready, despite what some evangelism training will tell you. People may even ask for answers, but what we're all looking for, at a deeper level than our search for those answers, is peace. Sometimes that takes time.
See yourself in the "Other."
Somewhere along the way, Christian outreach became more about personal conversion than about empathy and compassion. One of the biggest turn-offs I hear about Christians is that folks see us as trying to make everyone like us. But Jesus himself was moved, affected and -- yes --changed by the people he encountered. And lest we forget: the Greatest Commandment was not to convert people to Christianity; it was love others with all you have an all you are. Part of loving others is actually understanding what they want or need, not just giving them what you think they want or need.
This one sounds self-evident, but I think it needs to be mentioned. Notice I didn't say to tell people "I'm praying for you." I hear from too many people that such a phrase is used passive-aggressively toward them to suggest they're screwed up and need help. If you really believe prayer works, then just do it. And this doesn't need to be some pietistic ritual, with knees bent, eyes closed, head bowed and hands clasped. If that helps you feel closer to God, fine, but it's not a performance. There's not a right or wrong way to "do" prayer. I think it's more about noticing, about recognizing the Divine in all of creation and in one another, in noticing the brokenness in the world and responding to that need. This is what it means to make our whole lives a prayer. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. We Christians could use more of that.
Check out some of the worst Christian cliches...
I've heard this said more times than I care to. I'm not sure where it came from either, but it's definitely not in the Bible. The closest thing I can come up with is "To everything, there is a season," but that's not exactly the same. The fact is that faith, by definition, is not reasonable. If it could be empirically verified with facts or by using the scientific method, it wouldn't be faith. It would be a theory. Also, consider how such a pithy phrase sounds to someone who was raped. Do you really mean to tell them there's a reason that happened? Better to be quiet, listen and if appropriate, mourn alongside them. But don't dismiss grief or tragedy with such a meaningless phrase.
No, I don't, and neither do you. So stop asking such a presumptuous question as this that implies you have some insider knowledge that the rest of us don't. And seriously, if your faith is entirely founded upon the notion of eternal fire insurance, you're not sharing testimony; you're peddling propaganda.
This may or may not be true. Again, we have no real way of knowing. We may believe it, but to speak with such authority about something we don't actually know is arrogant. Plus, focusing on the passing of a loved one minimizes the grief of the people they left behind.
Too often, Christians presume we have something everyone else needs, without even knowing them first. Ask someone about their story, but maybe not the second you meet them. Christian evangelism often is the equivalent of a randy young teenager trying to get in good with his new girlfriend. When your personal agenda is more important than the humanity of the person you're talking to, most people can sense the opportunism from a mile a way.
It's not that we should never invite people to church, but too much of the time, it's the first thing we do when we encounter someone new. My wife, Amy, and I started a new church eight years ago, founded on the principle of "earning the right to invite." Invest in people first. Listen to their stories. Learn their passions, their longings, and share the same about yourself. Then, after you've actually invested in each other, try suggesting something not related to church to help you connect on a spiritual level. If the person really gets to know you and wants to know more about why you live your life the way you do, they'll make a point to find out. Then again, if you come off as just another opinionated, opportunistic Christian, why should they honor your predatory approach with a visit to the church that taught you how to act that way in the first place?
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? This also makes Christianity sound like a purely emotional experience, rather than a lifelong practice that can never entirely be realized. But yeah, asking someone if they're engaged in a lifelong discipline to orient their lives toward Christlike compassion, love and mercy doesn't exactly have the same ring to it.
Again, this is not in the Bible. Anywhere. And for me, it goes against the whole Christlike notion of the suffering servant. People tried to elevate Jesus to the status of Lord, but he rejected it. So why do we keep trying? Plus, the whole idea of a lord is so antiquated, it has no real relevance to our lives today. Be more mindful of your words, and really mean what you say.
This is one of my favorites. We Christians love to look for signs of the end of the world; we practically have an apocalyptic fetish. It's like we can't wait until everything comes to a smoldering halt so we can stand tall with that "I told you so" look on our faces, while the nonbelievers beg for mercy. Yeah, that sounds like an awesome religion you've got going there. Sign me up!
I know, this is an all-time Christian favorite. But even if you buy into the concept of substitutionary atonement (the idea that God set Jesus up as a sacrifice to make good for all the bad stuff we've done), this is a abysmal way to introduce your faith to someone. I didn't ask Jesus to die for me, and if I'm not a Christian, I really have no concept of how that could possibly be a good thing. he whole idea of being washed clean by an innocent man's blood is enough to give any person nightmares, let alone lead them into a deeper conversation about what Christianity is about.
If someone finally is brave enough to walk through the doors of your church, the last thing they want is to be singled out. They probably don't know the songs you're singing or the prayers or responsive readings you're reading. Depending on the translation of the Bible you use, the scripture may not make much sense, and they probably have no idea where the bathroom is. So why add to the discomfort by making them stand so everyone can stare at them? Also, calling someone a visitor already implies they are simply passing through, that they're not a part of things. Instead of "visitor" or "guest," try something less loaded like "newcomer." Better yet, walk up to them, introduce yourself and learn their name.
This is a backhanded way to tell someone you love them, at best. It also ignores the command by Jesus not to focus on the splinter in our neighbors' eyes while a plank remains in our own. Bottom line: we all screw up, and naming others' sin as noteworthy while remaining silent about your own is arrogant.
Another well-meaning but insensitive thing to say. This assumes a lot about what the person you're speaking to believes, and it also ignores the grief they're going through. The person who died is, well, dead. Focus on the needs of the living right in front of you.
Two points on this one. First, unless you're a biblical scholar who knows the historical and cultural contexts of the scriptures and can read them in their original languages, the Bible isn't "clear" about much. Yes, we can pick and choose verses that say one thing or another, but by whom was it originally said, and to whom? Cherry-picking scripture to make a point is called proof-texting, and it's a theological no-no. Second, the Bible can be used to make nearly any point we care to (anyone want to justify slavery?), so let's not use it as a billy club against each other.
I've addressed the theological understandings of hell and judgment in other pieces, but regardless of whether you believe in hell, this is a very unattractive thing to say. First, it implies a power/privilege imbalance (ie, "I'm saved, but I'm guessing you're not based on some assumptions I'm making about you), and it also leaps over the hurdle of personal investment and relationship, straight into the deep waters of personal faith. If you take the time to learn someone's story, you'll like learn plenty about what they think and believe in the process. And who knows? You might actually learn something too, rather than just telling others what they should believe.
What about people with mental illness? What about people in war-torn countries who are tortured to death? What about the millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust? And this also implies that, if really horrible things are happening to you, God "gave" it to you. Is this a test? Am I being punished? Is God just arbitrarily cruel? Just don't say it.
Honestly, I find it hard to believe we are still having this conversation, but here we are. Anyone with a cursory understanding of history understands that we were founded on the principle of religious liberty - not just the liberty to be a Christian - and that many of the founding fathers explicitly were not Christian. Thomas Jefferson, anyone?
If ever there was a top-shelf conversation killer this is it. You're not inviting any opinion, response, thought or the like. You're simply making a claim and telling others to shut up. Also, I've yet to meet someone who takes EVERY WORD of the Bible literally. Everyone qualifies something in it, like the parts about keeping kosher, wearing blended fibers, stoning adulterers, tossing your virgin daughters into the hands of an angry mob...you get the point.
This is a little "joke" some Christians use to assert the superiority of opposite-sex unions over same-sex ones. But here's the thing: if you really believe the first and only two people on the planet at one point were Adam and Eve, who did their kids marry and have babies with? This, my friends, is incest (happened again if you believe Noah's family members were the only survivors of the great flood). This just demonstrates the selective moral blindness many of us Christian have and seriously compromises our credibility about anything else.
Seems to me that, when pressed, Jesus was happy to keep church and state separate. Remember the whole thing about giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and giving to God what is God's? And if we choose to, we can pick and choose anecdotes to support Jesus being a liberal (care for the poor, anti death penalty) or a conservative (challenge government authority, practice sexual purity). Jesus was Jesus, and if it was as simple as pegging him to one of two seriously flawed contemporary forms of government, I can promise you I would not be a Christian.
Almost always, when this phrase is invoked, it has something to do with sex or sexuality. Seldom do folks care to mention that divorce and remarriage is in that list of so-called abominations. Also, there are several words translated in English Bibles as "abomination," many of which don't imply the sort of exceptionalism that such a word makes us think of today. And while we're on the thread of things scripture says God "hates," let's consider this from Proverbs: <blockquote>These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.</blockquote> I'm going to go out on a limb and propose that telling someone that who they are or what they are doing is an abomination to God is tantamount to sowing discord among your brothers and sisters. And this, according to the text above is itself an abomination.
You may believe this with your whole heart, and I'm sure you have the scriptures at the ready to support it. But consider the possibility that either those you're speaking with think differently about this, or if they haven't put much thought into it, that what you're saying feels like an ultimatum or a threat. Yes, there are texts to support a theology of exclusive salvation, but there also are some to support a more universalist notion of salvation (John 1:9: "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."). And think about how such a statement might sound to someone who has lost a loved one who was not a Christian, at least by your standards of what that means. And theologically speaking, it opens up a whole Pandora's Box in answering for the fate of all those who lived before Christ, who never hear about him, and so on.
Like some other cliches, this implies that, when something unexpected (and usually bad) happens to you, God did it to you. I know it's well-meaning, but it's not helpful in some cases. What about someone who feels like the door has closed on them, and there is no other hope in sight? That persona may benefit more from a compassionate ear, a loving heart and a simple "what can I do to help"" much more than some phrase that may or may not have any basis in reality.
Let me be clear: THIS IS NOT IN SCRIPTURE. People treat it like it is, but it's not. Benjamin Franklin penned this in the Farmers' Almanac in 1757. Be very, very careful when quoting something you think is in the Bible. And even if it is, be very careful in how and why you quote it to/at people. People don't need more reasons to resent or resist scripture; let's not add things that aren't even in there.
To me, this comes off as speaking on behalf of God. It seems to me that the better thing to say, if anything is "Is there any good that can come of this?" or "What wisdom can we find in this experience?" but better than this is -- as I've said before -- being quiet, being present and being compassionately loving. Let God speak for God.
This suggests that the person who is the object of whatever misfortune you're referring to is not the recipient of God's grace. The thing is (at least as I understand it) grace isn't grace if it's selectively handed out like party favors. Relating to someone, and even sharing common experiences, or how you could see yourself in their similar situation is one thing. But making it sound like you're not suffering because of God's grace while they are is just unkind.
Talk about setting God up! Who are we to speak to what God will or will not do in others' lives? Sure, if you have a story of personal experience to share, ask for permission to share it. But be aware that someone in the midst of struggle may not be in a place to hear it. But fulfilling promises like this is above our human pay grade. As my dad used to say, don't write checks your butt can't cash.
This actually is a favorite of many progressives. This comes off as pretty arrogant, in my opinion. You're implying others put God in a box, and that your theological perspective is superior because you don't. The problem is, anyone who believes in God puts God in a box. Yes, your box may be different than others' boxes, but unless you share the "mind of God," your understanding of God is some conscripted, dimly illuminated view of what God actually is, at best
First off, the phrase "God-fearing" is a real turn-off to many Christians and non-Christians alike. Though some understand God as a thing to be feared, a lot of folks simply do not relate to that image of God. And if you happen to be using the word "fear" as a synonym for "respect," consider the likelihood that your audience probably hears "fear" as "fear."
This raises a very fundamental problem of Theodicy, which most Christians I've met who say this are not necessarily prepared to address. Theodicy is the dilemma between belief in an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God with the existence of evil and/or suffering in the world. And the other problem is that, if you believe that human beings have free will (a central tenet of most Christian thought), it needs to be recognized that that, in itself, is a concession of control by God. And like other phrases I've mentioned about God's role in daily life, be careful in tossing this one around. Telling someone who was raped, abused, tortured, neglected, etc. that God was in control during that experience likely is enough to incent that person to turn from the concept of God forever.
Quality over quantity.
We have a bad habit of practicing what I call "Air Drop" Christianity. Whether it's a quick in-and-out mission trip, a door-to-door evangelism or a quick handshake on Sunday morning and then we move on, we have a bad habit of sprinkling ourselves here and there as if our faith is a garnish, rather than at the heart of who we are. I've said this before and I'll say it again, I'm sure: INVEST IN PEOPLE. It's hard work, but it's the stuff of life when we have the proper perspective.
Share generously of yourself.
This doesn't mean simply sharing a pre-packaged testimonial story you've told over and over again, or dropping a few dollars in the offering plate or in a homeless person's cup. It means taking emotional risk, making ourselves vulnerable to others in ways that we hope they will feel comfortable being open and vulnerable to us. The way we approach people often times in the context of Christian evangelism assumes an inherent imbalance of power, with us on the side of that power. We know the truth, and you dont; we are saved, and you're not; we are here to rescue you from yourself. But discipleship should be a lifelong and mutual investment. and why should we expect anyone to invest in us or what we believe if we're not willing first to take a chance with them?
Be open to the possibility that you're wrong.
Anyone who tells me that their faith has not evolved over time into something different than how it started makes me really nervous. for some this may only involve a deepening (or hardening) of existing beliefs, but for others, it is a never-ending process of growth, pruning and adding on. Consider the disciples; were they ever wrong? Did they ever change their understanding of what they believed? Of course. So why do we think we should be any different? Also, being open to the possibility that the person you're with could actually teach you something honors their wisdom and experience, wherever they are coming from. Christian or not, every person has a unique story, because no one in the history of the world has ever lived that life except for them. Allow yourself to be moved and even changed by those experiences.
I have found that sometimes all people really want is a simple apology for the hurt inflicted by other Christians. Sure, you may not have done anything personally to that individual, but if you're a Christian, you represent the whole of Christianity to that person. It won't kill you to say "I'm sorry you were pushed away, made to feel like less of a person, judged, condescended to, denied rights in the name of the faith I claim." Name the wrongdoing, validate the hurt, and then sit back and see what happens. More often than not, in my experience, such apologies are met with tears of relief, embraces, generous forgiveness and, perhaps the best of all, fascinating stories.
Own your love.
We Christians love to say things like "God loves you" or "Jesus loves you," but for someone who isn't sure what they believe, or who has been deeply hurt by the faith, this may ring very hollow. Instead, why not say "I love you"? Yes, it's risky, and if you don't actually mean it, don't say it. But if you follow the steps above, it's not hard to find a spark of Christ-like love for the person you're with. Can't muster such a personal offering of love? At least try something like "You are loved," rather than leaving it all to God or Jesus. If we are Jesus' body in the world today, this includes the heart. If only we were as good at being Christ's heart to the world as we are at being his mouth!
Make sure your life reflects your faith.
One of the words I hear most often in describing Christians is "hypocrite." There's a reason for this. One solution to this is to stop making verbal promises your life doesn't live up to. Another is stepping up our game in daily life. St. Francis famously said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." The fact is, if we're really living the live we find revealed in the Gospels, there will be little need for words to explain what it is that we believe.
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