Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cliches and Religion

This is a reflection about what we do when we say canned phrases but don't think them through. Words and phrases hold meaning, even if we don't intend to say what we say.

Clichés and Religion:
When good intentions go bad, or,
Say what you mean and know what you’re saying

I’ve caught myself using them up to ten times in a conversation. Quick little phrases that are easy to say and received without question because they’ve been used so many times they’ve lost any real meaning. “Beat around the bush.” “I can’t see the forest for the trees.” “It’s a drop in the bucket.” I say them often because they’re easy, quick, and generally accepted without question. Before I use a cliché, though, I have to think about what I really mean.

Words matter.

Most of the time, conversational clichés are relatively harmless if we think about the meaning behind them. However, we have religious clichés as well. Little slogans we say to ourselves and others, and they have a little more weight when we look at what we’re really saying.

To be clear, I honestly believe that when these clichés are used, no harm is meant by the person saying them. Usually we don’t consider the deeper meaning of clichés like these, but when we do, we can hopefully see that we need to pause and consider what we really want to say.


“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

This saying is the most common religious cliché I’ve heard in my life. It’s also the most concerning to me. It implies that God causes our suffering and struggles. This saying does not acknowledge the brokenness of our human world or the forces of the world that defy God. Pushed to the extreme, this saying holds a double standard on free will—that you as a human can handle it, but not that someone besides God did whatever it was that caused struggle. Worst of all, it discounts completely the individuals that the world does overwhelm with more than they can handle; those who take their own life to escape it. We live in a fallen and broken world. God walks with us in struggle and suffering, but does not cause it.

“Heaven needed another angel.”

This one is probably the most harmful saying I’ve encountered. Usually said when a child dies, it has some really awful implications and effects. While it’s often intended to comfort a family, it undermines the grief process by implying that they should be okay or even grateful that their loved one is gone. It also begs the question about all of the other potential angels who are still living on earth. Did heaven not want or need them? Of course not. Again, this saying disregards the brokenness of the world and claims that God is the source of all suffering.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

Revenge. This one is more difficult, because it is in the Bible—four times. Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy talk about judgment and restitution for people who cause severe harm to another individual. The fourth instance is Matthew 5:38-41, where Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

Jesus lived hundreds of years after the Law had been written, and certain sayings had become misinterpreted clichés. This one has morphed to where it can mean something as simple as “If someone hits you, hit them back.” Jesus reminds us that this is not the way or the intent of the Law.


I must restate that I truly believe that when these clichés are used, no harm is meant by the person saying them. In fact, most of the time help or comfort is intended in the midst of a confusing and often impossible situation. Clichés fill a space of silence when there aren’t words for the situation. However, even the best intentions can cause pain and harm. Some things can be worse than nothing. Sometimes a silent, comforting presence will be the best we can offer.

Clichés are nothing new. Jesus dealt with them in his life and teaching (as can be seen in the last cliché). The Apostle Paul had trouble with people using religious slogans, too. In his letter of I Corinthians, Paul quotes the phrase “All things are lawful” several times, but refutes it each time for this Corinthian Christian community. For example, I Corinthians 10:23 reads, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.”

Words matter. Are all religious sayings harmful? Hopefully not. However, we do need to really consider what we’re saying when we use them. “We are both saint and sinner” is a common saying. It acknowledges human nature, but it's an explanation, not an excuse, for when we mess up. “We are saved by grace through faith,” but we are not to cheapen that gift and our identity by forgetting about the needs of the world and just doing whatever we want.

Words matter. We communicate what we believe with our words and actions, and we need to care for that gift of communication. We need to be aware of what we’re saying and how we say it. It matters.