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Avoiding Christian Clichés

by Christopher C. Warren

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Also See Christian Clichés (Below)  

I'm not sure if it is a blessing or a curse that the great truths of Scripture can fit onto a T-shirt, badge or car sticker. Or more commonly, on a notice-board outside a church. Sometimes when I'm frustrated or busy with the practicalities of life, I appreciate being reminded of the transcendent and comforting truths like Jesus Saves or God is Love.

But also it disturbs me that the Gospel is surrounded by other slogans: adverts, corporate messages and images of a particular brand of cigarette or make of car. Worse still, we tend to allow both to become so familiar, they are almost invisible. What once caught our attention simply becomes part of the landscape.

Also See Merchandising The Gospel   and    From Christ's Church to iChurch

Although it may be uncomfortable for some Christians to admit, the language of Christianity is rife with clichés.

The problem with clichés is that they tend to cheapen the things we want to say. Clichés often presume to be clever, and they claim to communicate, but they usually have no substance. They're like the white-washed tombs Jesus spoke about: they look beautiful on the outside, but inside there's nothing of value.

In the journalism field, clichés are an excuse for lack of thought. Even the most liberal newspaper editors can tell you that clichés are frowned upon.

In the Christian's life, clichés are far more dangerous because they hinder the spread of the Gospel. They can trivialise the most important issues of life. They can numb the zeal of believers, who may cynically conclude the ideas are no bigger than the off-the-cuff slogans that contain them.


The Gift of Language
Language is a miracle and a gift of God. Jesus Himself is called the Word, so it is no surprise that words are what join us to God and to our neighbours. Words are so bound up with what we call "thought" that it is sometimes hard to distinguish the two. French philosopher René Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") needed more than just the thought to prove he existed; he also needed the words.

The gift of language is a treasure that God expects His children to use thoughtfully.

Not far down the list of the Ten Commandments, God warns us against the worst kind of cliché -- using the Lord's Name carelessly or irreverently.

That commandment is more relevant today than ever, when the Name of God is just one more word in a string of expletives that punctuate the scripts and screenplays of popular entertainment. For most people, misusing God's Name is so common that they no longer hear what is being said. Words used like this are cheapened and emptied of meaning.

In the New Testament, Jesus warns us of a somewhat different kind of cliché. When Jesus Christ taught His disciples about prayer (Matt.6:5-15), he said our language should not be marked by "vain repetitions" (NKJV) or, as the New International Version (NIV) puts it: "Do not keep babbling."

To the outsider, Christianity may appear to have its own mantras .. chief among them the Name Jesus. For some, it seems that the name of our Lord is used as a sort of magic wand that cures everything from toothaches to terminal cancer.

(for the record, I do not doubt that God can and does perform miracles small and great. I just don't believe God lent us His Name to be used as a cosmic cure-all).

Also See Healing
Section Includes Is Physical Healing Included In The Atonement, Does God Still Heal? Does God Always Heal? Inner Healing... the work of the Holy Spirit or unbiblical, devilish and dangerous and is God the only one that heals?


Word That Build Walls
Is the solution to build a new vocabulary? Should we avoid the popular nomenclature of Christendom? Not necessarily, especially if our new vocabulary robs us of the rich tapestry of expression found in God's Word, the Bible.

It is ironic that some Christians who sincerely try to avoid the trite language of devalued religion end up creating their own catalogue of clichés. It is a tendency of many groups (or professions) to adopt their own jargon, which emphasises how they are different from everyone else.

In Christian circles, that jargon often emphasises doctrinal differences.

Say you want to avoid the sentimental baggage associated with "sweet Jesus" imagery. I think this is fair. After all, there's alot more to Jesus than a cuddly babe in a manger; He's also the conquering King and a mighty Saviour.

For this reason, some people avoid the more personal name Jesus in favour of the seemingly less maudlin title of Christ. But this can't be a permanent solution, because it robs us of one part of the picture.

Yes, Christ is the conquering King -- but the fact that Jesus was also the babe in the manger is no less important. No aspect of the Christian experience is immune.

Perfectly appropriate and biblical phrases (such as born again) can become devalued if they're used to the exclusion of other perfectly appropriate expressions (such as adopted, converted or saved). When we use only one term to describe a sacred ceremony (such as Lord's Supper), we risk alienating ourselves from others who use different vocabulary to describe essentially the same thing (such as New Testament Passover, Communion, or Eucharist).

One church leader asked me why people in my church had avoided using the phrase "I'm saved" over the years. He asked if we did not believe we become new people when we receive the Holy Spirit.

After a long discussion on forgiveness, our eternal future and the glorification of human bodies at the , we decided that we agreed on almost everything. It was only our vocabulary that divided us.

Christians are told to come out of the world and sometimes that translates into a whole new vocabulary, impenetrable to outsiders.

These days, a large segment of the population is biblically illiterate. They've heard the words grace and salvation, but they have little idea about the deep meaning behind them. [See Section The Christian and Knowledge]

To share the Gospel, Christians must translate the language of religion into the common currency. Sometimes it is a challenge.

    "Power to translate is the test of having really understood one's own meaning," C.S.Lewis wrote. "Our failure to translate may sometimes be due to our ignorance of the vernacular; much more often it exposes the fact that we do not exactly know what we mean."

In his essay, Christian Apologetics, Lewis provided a list of words he believed had little or no meaning to the unchurched -- words like atonement, sacrifice, even church and morality. Of the cross and crucifixion, he wrote: "Centuries of hymnody and religious cant have so exhausted these words that they now very faintly -- if at all -- convey the idea of execution by torture."


Getting Down to Brass Tacks
The way to fight Christian clichés is simple: Every so often we should re-examine the words we use. In the process, we may discover a richness of meaning we didn't realise existed. Or we may find we're simply mimicking catch-phrases we don't really comprehend. That is why we in the New Covenant go to great lengths to explain the meaning of the words we use.

One writer put it this way: "Easy writing makes difficult reading." New Covenant writing may appear heavy and even clumsy sometimes but people do at least agree that more often than not we get our message across clearly.

Religious language that comes too easily may not suffice when it's needed the most. When we toss slogans like "God loves you" at people who are drowning, it is no wonder they aren't saved.

The problem is, words and phrases become habits. We can get so comfortable with words that we eventually lose track of what they mean -- if we ever knew in the first place.

Let's get down to brass tacks for a moment. Unless you have studied nautical history, you may not know that the phrase "getting down to brass tacks" once referred to cleaning a wooden ship's deck to expose the heads of brass nails in the wood. In the same way, phrases like "Jesus saves" or "God is love" have been used so much over the centuries that it is possible to overlook the depth of the meaning they contain.

If you're interested in refreshing your religious vocabulary, you might ask yourself a few questions:

Do I frequently find myself frequently using "catch phrases"? Is my religious understanding and vocabulary stagnant or growing? Do I strive for better communication with believers and unbelievers alike? Do I frequently use "in-speak" or the unique vocabulary of my group? Am I able to use the vocabulary of other church denominations in order to communicate with them?

It's as simple as thinking before we speak. It's as difficult as living the life we talk about. At times, the phrase "God is love" can seem like a cliché -- but a person filled with God's love and demonstrating that loves towards others never grows stale.

Bible1-Bar

Christian Clichés
Jerry Solomon

Conversations and Clichés
Do you ever use clichés? Do you hear them often? No doubt you can answer "Yes" to either question. But have you stopped to consider what they may mean? Christians often use clichés among themselves and even with non-Christians, but there may be a need to give thought to the meanings of these oft- repeated phrases. That is the intent of this essay. We will investigate what is behind the "Christian clichés" that tend to become so much a part of our conversations.

Let's begin by considering a dictionary definition of the word cliché. A cliché is a "trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."{1}

My ministry has put me in touch with Christians all over this country. As I engage in conversation with these Christians, invariably I will hear language about Christian things that has become "stereotyped" and has "lost impact by long overuse." This doesn't mean there isn't truth contained in the clichés. Indeed, often there is truth of great importance for Christian theology and life. The problem is that frequently we use these clichés while thinking we know what we are saying. But do we? Could we explain these phrases if someone were to ask us to define them? My experience is that Christians have difficulty when asked to explain themselves.

Let's listen to the following conversation and hear how a Christian named Tom responds to questions from a non-believer named Sam.

    Tom: Hi, Sam!

    Sam: Hello, Tom. Remember when you were to talking to Jim yesterday?

    Tom: You mean before the sales meeting?

    Sam: Yeah. I hope you aren't offended, but I was listening to your conversation.

    Tom: Oh, that's okay. We weren't having a private conversation. We were just sharing our beliefs.

    Sam: Well, I'm curious about some of the things you discussed.

    Tom: Like what?

    Sam: Like when you said you have Jesus in your heart. Were you referring to the Prophet who lived so long ago? If so, how can you possibly have Him in your heart?

    Tom: Well, yes, I was referring to the Jesus of long ago. But He is alive now, and He has saved me.

    Sam: What do you mean, He's alive now? That's not possible. And what do you mean when you say He saved you? These are weird ideas.

    Tom: I guess they sound weird, but they really aren't. You see, Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and His spirit lives in me.

    Sam: Tom, I don't mean to be rude, but such things sound ludicrous to me. Hey, my phone's ringing and I'm expecting an important call. Maybe we can talk again later.

Sam asked some good questions. They deserved answers. But was Tom able to explain himself? He had a difficult time, didn't he? For example, the phrase, "I have Jesus in my heart" had become a cliché for Tom. He was able to converse with a fellow Christian with the assumption that they understood one another. But it was a different matter when a non-Christian expressed his curiosity about the conversation he had heard the previous day.

I have Jesus in my heart is one of several clichés we will consider. The goal of this article is to motivate Christians to give attention to our conversations and see if you find clichés lurking there.


I Have Jesus in My Heart
Why are you a Christian? How do you answer that question? In my experience many people have responded by stating that they have Jesus in their heart. As important as this response may be, too often it is a cliché that belies its meaning. The Christian who acknowledges the importance of thinking through his beliefs will want to consider its implications for those who hear him. After all, the one who hears has every right to ask what such a statement might mean.

In the third chapter of Paul's Ephesian letter he prayed that his readers would "be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . ." (Eph. 3:16-17, NASB). Galatians 2 contains one of the most powerful expressions of the indwelling Christ in Paul's life. Paul wrote, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me . . ." (Gal. 2:20, NASB). In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul asks, "do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?" (2 Cor. 13:5, NASB). These passages, and many more, serve to show that the New Testament affirms that Jesus indwells His followers. Thus it is important to stress that when someone says I have Jesus in my heart it has biblical merit. A problem arises, though, when we use this expression without attention to its profound message. When this happens we are using a cliché.

So how can we go beyond the cliché in order to describe its significance in our lives? The first point of reference centers on the fact that Christians are Trinitarian, not Unitarian. We believe God exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a difficult doctrine to understand and share, but it must be upheld if one is using the Bible as the guide for beliefs. If God exists in three persons, and one of those persons is Jesus, God the Son, then we can better understand Jesus in my heart by observing that there is a unity between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. For example, in Romans 8 "the indwelling of the Spirit and the indwelling of Christ are the same thing."{2} This doctrine permeates the writings of Paul. He asserted "that Jesus is no mere fact in history, no towering personality of the past, but a living, present Spirit, whose nature is the very nature of God."{3} In addition, we should realize that Paul's favorite expression revolved around the phrase "in Christ." This phrase "(or some cognate expression, such as "in the Lord," "in Him," etc.) occurs 164 times in Paul."{4} Thus we can conclude that Jesus is very much alive in the Christian's life through the Spirit.

The second point of reference concerns the word heart. The Bible refers to the heart of man frequently. "The heart is the focus of mind, feeling, and will; it stands for the whole personality."{5} Jesus is to "take up residence" in our whole personality. So when a Christian says Jesus is in my heart there is a literal implication. Jesus resides supernaturally in the believer through His Spirit. This is an astounding doctrine that indicates a transformed person! May our Lord lead us to continue sharing His presence in our lives by indicating that we understand truly what it means to say I have Jesus in my heart. [Also See Why NOT To Ask Jesus Into Your Heart]

 

I Have Faith
Is a Christian the only person who has faith? Many Christians seem to think so. On many occasions I have played "the devil's advocate" among Christian groups by asking them to describe and defend their beliefs. One of the most frequent responses I get is I have faith. When I hear this I usually retort by saying "So what? Do you think that because you are a Christian you are given sole ownership of the idea?" After this I encourage them to think about the implications of the phrase. It is much more than a cliché.

All people, Christians and non-Christians, even atheists, exercise faith. That is, each day of our lives we apply faith in simple and profound ways. For example, you may take a pill of some kind today. That requires faith that the pill will help you rather than hurt you. If you travel on an airplane, that requires faith that you will arrive safely at your intended destination. Usually you don't even see the pilots until you have landed. These are everyday illustrations of faith. But just what does this word mean?

A major dictionary provides us with intriguing definitions. The first entry states that faith is "confidence or trust in a person or thing." The second entry says faith is "belief which is not based on proof." And then in the eighth entry the dictionary declares faith is "trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ by which man is justified or saved."{6} Obviously the eighth entry comes closest to a Christian understanding of faith. The first entry is also important to a Christian because it includes the idea of trust in a person. But it is the second entry that causes the most problem among Christians. Too many Christians use I have faith to mean they believe in something that is not based on proof. Unfortunately, this is when the phrase becomes a cliché.

For over 100 years, naturalism has been the dominant world view in our culture. Among other things, this world view bows at the altar of modern science to the extent that many believe that nothing can be true until it can be proven scientifically. Many Christians have been highly influenced by this concept. Thus they tend to say I have faith when they can't "prove" their beliefs in a scientific manner. This reaction is not legitimate within a Christian world view. It is important to realize that even an atheistic scientist takes faith into the laboratory. There are facets of his own life that cannot be "proven" scientifically. If he is married, he may say he loves his wife. Can that be proven scientifically?

The key word in discussing faith is in, a small but crucial preposition for all people. Remember, the first dictionary definition we quoted said that faith includes the idea of "trust in a person or thing" (emphasis added). Hebrews 11:1, perhaps the most succinct definition of faith in the Bible, states that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." When we read the rest of chapter 11 we realize that assurance and conviction are words that are alive. They refer to the reality of the living God in the lives of those who put faith in His reality. God was already "proven" to them. He was to be trusted with their very lives.

The same is true for one who claims to be a Christian in our day. When we say we have faith, we should continue by declaring faith in the living God.


I'm Saved!
When you say I'm saved!, have you ever considered what someone may be thinking? People who hear you may have a number of questions. For example, they may ask why you are speaking in present tense. If you are saved now, does that mean you were actually saved at some point in the past? If so, does the present connect with the past in some way? Or they may want to know why you needed to be saved in the first place. Were you drowning and someone rescued you? Maybe they would even like to know if you are saved for something or someone. Proclaiming I'm saved! can be a strange expression if it is not explained. If someone asks for an explanation and we can't respond, we may be guilty of using a cliché. We think we know what we mean, and our fellow Christians may think they know what is meant, but a lack of articulation implies a lack of understanding.  [See Salvation]

Salvation, of course, permeates the Bible. And innumerable volumes have been written about what the Scriptures tell us about this crucial doctrine. For our purposes the clearest emphases are centered on the person of Jesus, the Savior. When we say I'm saved! we imply that Jesus is at the center of salvation.

Before Jesus was born, an angel told Joseph the shocking news that Mary was carrying the center of salvation. "And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21, NASB). Take note of the last portion of this verse. It states that Jesus will save, and that He will save from sins. When Jesus was an infant, Mary and Joseph took Him to the temple for the Jewish rites of redemption of the firstborn, and the purification of his mother. . . ."{7} While there, they were approached by a righteous and devout man named Simeon who took Jesus into his arms and declared to God that he was now ready to die, "For my eyes have seen Thy salvation . . ." (Luke 2:30, NASB). Another amazing declaration! Mary and Joseph's son was being called God's salvation. During His earthly ministry Jesus asserted many things about Himself, including this famous proclamation: "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (John 10:9, NASB). Because Jesus is the door, there is a present reality concerning salvation that applies to those who enter through the door.

Through these and numerous other verses we have a more complete picture of what I'm saved! entails. But there is a crucial question leaping from such passages. If sin creates the need for salvation, then what is it? To put it simply, when the Christian proclaims I'm saved! his hearers should understand that ". . . sin is not only an act of wrongdoing but a state of alienation from God"{8} affecting everyone (Rom. 3:23). This is a crucial concept in contemporary culture that is generally misunderstood and rejected. In addition, such alienation from God cannot be rectified by "rightdoing." It can only be rectified through Jesus' sacrificial payment for sin on the cross. I'm saved because of what Jesus did for me. In an amazing, life-changing way an event of the past brings salvation into the present. Praise God, we have been saved! Now we can live knowing salvation is in the present.


What Would Jesus Do?
What Would Jesus Do? is a question that can be seen and heard virtually everywhere in the evangelical Christian community. "The slogan has appeared on coffee mugs, lapel pins, paperweights, and a host of other knickknacks. There are now devotionals, Bibles, books and CDs based on WWJD."{9} With all of this exposure, does the phrase still have meaning? Or has it become a cliché without proper impact? Or does it carry the correct content in the first place? Let’s consider what the expression tells us.

One of the more positive aspects of What Would Jesus Do? is that it can serve as a simple reminder of the Christian's moral life. Surely each Christian has a perspective of Jesus that includes the moral perfection that permeated His earthly life. There is no greater model to emulate than Jesus. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was "tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15, NASB). The same writer tells us He "offered Himself without blemish to God . . ." (Heb. 9:14, NASB). Jesus was and is the only one who could make such an unblemished offering. So asking What Would Jesus Do?, whether audibly or inaudibly, can awaken us to our need for a moral model.

But can we always know what Jesus would do in all circumstances? Perhaps it would be more accurate to ask What did Jesus do? in certain circumstances. Through a study of the gospels of the New Testament we can learn exactly how Jesus acted and reacted to specific challenges He faced. For example, He was faced with "moral conflicts between obedience toward parents and God (Luke 2), Sabbath regulations and healing (Mark 2), and government and God (Matt. 22)."{10} More importantly, on the cross "he was squeezed between the demands of justice for the innocent (himself) and mercy for mankind (the guilty). This conflict was without question the greatest ever faced by man. . . ."{11} These examples usually have entered our consciousness to the point that they ring in our minds like bells tolling the truth. It is as if we would not have expected Jesus to have done or said anything other than what we know from the gospels.

Were Jesus' disciples ever surprised, if not shocked, by what Jesus did? Of course we know they often were stunned as they watched and heard Jesus do and say unusual things. The words amazed and astonished are found frequently in the Gospels. The story of the rich young ruler, for example, relates the disciples' reaction after hearing Jesus' teaching. He said, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:23, NASB). And the disciples were "amazed" at His words. Jesus continued by stating, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." And they were "even more astonished" and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?" (Mark 10:23-26, NASB).

The actions and words of Jesus and the reactions of the disciples remind us of the deity of Jesus. Think of this in present time. If Jesus physically walked beside you, would you always know what He was about to do? "Jesus is unique in his identity as the incarnate Son of God, and we should not assume that we could do or should do everything he did."{12} Thus, caution is urged when we assume we always know what Jesus would do while we affirm what Jesus did do.


Notes

    The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1967.

    Lewis B. Smedes, Union with Christ, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 114.

    James Stewart, A Man in Christ (New York: Harper & Row, n.d.; reprint ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 154.

    Ibid., 155.

    A. Skevington Wood, "Ephesians," in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Regency, 1978), 51.

    The Random House Dictionary.

    Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 194.

    Donald G. Bloesch, "Sin," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984).

    Albert Hsu, "What Would Jesus Do About ‘WWJD’?", re:generation quarterly (Winter, 1998/99), 6.

    Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 125.

    Ibid.

    Hsu, "What Would Jesus Do About "WWJD", 6.

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