I have the privilege of knowing a great community of Jesus-followers from all sorts of backgrounds and walks of life. So when I post something on Facebook to open up discussion, I get responses from religious conservatives, post-evangelicals, recovering legalists, ministry people, Bible college grads, and Christian writers. I love watching these conversations unfold as my friends and acquaintances hash out the details of some particular point of view.
This is what happened last night, when I shared Christian Piatt’s latest blog post “Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use”. Some people, in the comments of his blog, dismissed him as an atheist and a heretic. But that doesn’t lead to a very interesting conversation, does it? This morning whilst pushing weights at the gym I got to thinking about this some more, and decided that I had a few too many words for a Facebook comment. So, here goes:
1. “Everything Happens for a Reason”
The reason bad things happen is because we live in a broken world. Sin has infected all of us and it causes us to hurt ourselves and each other. In the Bible there’s a story about a man who lost everything he loved, and how his friends tried to comfort him in his grief. Unfortunately, rather than sitting in silent solidarity with him, they tried to give him all sorts of answers to the problems he was facing. Job’s response to them was, “I’ve heard all this before. You guys are horrible friends. You just make me feel worse.” (see Job 16). The thing about “answers” is, everybody already knows them. Also, everything DOES happen for a reason – but that’s not really comforting. I agree with Christian on this one: “Better to be quiet, listen and if appropriate, mourn alongside them.” (See Romans 12:15)
2. “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend the rest of eternity?”
The author argues that it is presumptuous to imply that Christians have “insider knowledge” about eternity that others don’t. The details of where, how, and when Heaven and Hell exist are issues of a fascinating and perpetual discussion amongst Christians. While we may not know all the details (Is “Paradise” the same as heaven? Are the streets literal gold? Does Peter really guard the gates like a white-robed bouncer?) the Bible does show us the way to an eternity with God. And though we may not understand all the details of “where”, we can know Who we will be with for eternity. That’s not presumptuous; that’s faith.
I really appreciate what Christian said about how “if your faith is entirely founded upon the notion of eternal fire insurance, you’re not sharing testimony.” There’s so much more to the Gospel about just avoiding hell. Jesus didn’t just come to save us from hell, he came to save us from our sins. The Kingdom of God is not about flying about on clouds whilst playing golden harps; it’s about being reconciled to God and to each other. When we reduce the message of Jesus to “Don’t Go To Hell”, I think we miss the point. I’ve read through the New Testament a few times now, and I never see Jesus start a conversation with a Heaven/Hell choice. With some it was about their broken relationships, with others it was about their physical sickness. Jesus was all about redemption and reconciliation. Heaven and Hell are an eternal reflection and continuation of that relationship.
3. “He/she is in a better place.”
Again, Christian says here that we have no real way of knowing. I understand where he’s coming from, but I think it’s an over-generalization. The Bible talks about ways that we can know if we are followers of Christ (His Spirit bearing witness, confession of Him as Lord, evidence of love, etc.) But also, we can be wrong. When I was younger, I was quite a little legalist. I literally thought that the definition of a reprobate was “someone who smokes cigarettes and drinks beer”. My 9-year-old self would have assumed that such a person was going to Hell when he died. Even as a teenager, I had a hard time understanding that a “alcoholic Christian” or a “gay Christian” could be a real thing that existed. My point is, my understanding of Christianity was very narrow. Only God can know the heart. And only God knows who is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. What this cliche hints at is a much larger, beautiful hope. And this is that Christ died to bring us to God, and that death no longer holds the ultimate power over us.
4. “Can I share a little bit about my faith with you?”
I think Christian is talking about approaching a stranger (or casual acquaintance) and trying to score a quick conversion here. I understand that, because I’ve done that before. I’ve tried to “share the Gospel” with random strangers on the sidewalk (once even at a gas pump) in hopes of quickly guiding them through a five-step conversion model and ultimately reporting back to my church that I had “led someone to Christ”. As the author said, I had no respect for those people’s humanity, only for my own agenda. As Christians, it is His love that motivates us to tell our neighbors about Jesus (see 2 Cor. 5). If it’s guilt, or a desire to impress our fellow church people, then it’s wrong.
However, this doesn’t mean we should never “share a little bit of our faith” with people we meet. I have been in situations (including the classic “sharing your faith on an airplane” scenario) where I stepped outside my comfort zone to talk to people about Jesus and ended up having a genuine and sincere conversation about Him. I know that sometimes I live under the false assumption that nobody wants to talk about religion, and because of that I keep my mouth shut about Jesus. But many people (co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers included) have been really interested in talking about the Gospel with me and were very open and respectful when I’ve told them about Jesus. Don’t be opportunistic or arrogant about your faith. But more importantly, don’t be ashamed of the Gospel.
One of my best friends in the whole world knows Jesus today because he had a buddy that wouldn’t stop pestering him to come to church. So there’s that. But his buddy had “earned the right” to invite my friend to church through investing in his life and building a relationship with him. He wasn’t trying to score a quick conversion to look good, he sincerely cared.
I think that this one is really a cultural issue. Here in the South, the church as an institution seems to be respected by just about everybody. However, I know that’s not true everywhere. I once shot some interviews with random students on the streets of Minneapolis who viewed the church as narrow-minded, religious, and judgmental. One guy I met said he’s never set foot in a church because he’s gay and he didn’t think he’d be welcome. To invite someone from that culture to visit church, without any relationship, might stir up their own emotional baggage about “religion”. The thing about Jesus is that He met people where they were at. Sometimes it was at a synagogue, sometimes it was at the lake, and sometimes it was just walking down a dusty road.
6. “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?”
Yes, Mr. Piatt, I HAVE asked Jesus into my heart. I’ve seen lives changed because people “asked Jesus into their heart.” For them (as it was for me 15 years ago), it’s a first step on a long journey of walking with Jesus. When I knelt with my Mom by our living room couch and “asked Jesus into my heart”, I had no idea what it meant or what I was doing. Everybody’s got to start somewhere.
I agree with Christian that the phrase doesn’t really capture the entirety of the Christian experience. But, as he said, “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.”
7. “Do you accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?”
Piatt argues that this phrase is not in the Bible anywhere. I don’t know whether or not this is true. I do know that the idea of following Jesus is in the Bible, as is the idea of surrendering our lives to God. So the concept is important, regardless of the words that we use to express it. I think the weakness of this phrase is in the idea that “accepting Jesus as personal lord and savior” is a one-time decision that happens in a moment and then just carries itself through our lives. It’s not. Letting Jesus be in charge of your life is a daily decision, a journey. Like a marriage, it’s starts with words, but continues with actions in the years that follow.
He also writes, “the whole idea of a lord is so antiquated, it has no real relevance to our lives today.” Whether this is truly his theology or just a poorly worded phrase, I don’t know. I think the idea of “Jesus as Lord” is very important to us today. However, the word “Lord”, which was quite common in His day, isn’t really used in contemporary conversation outside of religious contexts. So I think it’s more difficult for us to appreciate it’s meaning than it was for those of Jesus’ day. The most important thing about calling Jesus “Lord” (as Tim pointed out on Facebook) is that our lives reflect His Kingdom (see Matthew 7).
8. “This could be the end of days.”
The thing about this phrase is that Christians have been saying it ever since Jesus flew up into the clouds two thousand years ago. So yes, this could be the end of days. Or maybe it’s not. The beautiful thing about the Kingdom of Heaven is that it’s not something in the future that we have to wait for, it’s already been inaugurated with the resurrection of Jesus. He told His followers not to be looking for “signs of the times” in anticipation of the Kingdom, because it’s not here or there, it’s in our midst. (See Luke 17:21)
9. “Jesus died for your sins.”
Christian argues that this is an “abysmal way to introduce your faith to someone.” What I think he neglects here is the power of Holy Spirit to convict of sin. True, if you were to engage someone at a purely intellectual level and begin with introducing Christianity as “Christ died for your sins”, it could be puzzling and off-putting. However, to someone convicted of their sin by the Holy Spirit, this is the best news they could hear. Jesus said His followers were supposed to eat His flesh an drink His blood. Sometimes the Gospel IS strange, even foolish. (I Cor. 1:18). The way I see it, this isn’t really a cliche because it’s straight out of the New Testament: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (I Peter 3:18) Don’t let your fear of sounding strange keep you from telling somebody about Jesus. The Gospel is not primarily a system of belief, it’s a miraculous and spiritual life change. Don’t limit Jesus.
10. “Will all our visitors please stand?”
This one, like #5, is pretty dependent on culture. I’ve been a visitor before in church, and stood up. No big deal. The author assumes that the person in the church might not really understand what’s going on or “get” the songs and Scriptures. But maybe they do, and so it’s cool. Whatever. This isn’t really a cliche, it’s more of a goofy little Evangelical quirk. I think it’s relatively harmless.
As Aaron said on Facebook, it’s pretty cliche to point out Christian cliches. So, count that as one strike against Mr. Piatt. Others said that he was trying to hard to be shocking. That may be true, but here we are having this great discussion, so that’s got to count for something. A different Aaron noted that cliches aren’t exactly a uniquely Christian phenomenon, and that it’s simply good communication practice to avoid them whenever possible. The thing about cliches is that they are often a poor way to communicate an important idea (as I wrote about “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.“)
I’m part of a Christian ministry whose mission is to share the Gospel with people who don’t know Jesus using non-religious language. That’s even harder than it sounds, because those of us that have been attending church since before we were born often think and talk in Bible terms (in my case, old-school King James Version). The important thing about examining cliche’s is to pause and think about what we believe, what we say, and why. Let’s continue to talk about our faith, and the words we use to express it. Let’s keep returning to the Bible to understand more about the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.
Most of all, let’s keep talking about Jesus.