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Ten clichés Christians should never use

03 August 2012

Churchgoers can come up with the most unhelpful phrases, which turn others away from faith, says Christian Piatt

WE CHRISTIANS have a remarkable talent for sticking our feet in our mouths. When searching for words most commonly associated with "Christian", I come up with a list that is not pretty.

I think part of this can be attributed to a handful of phrases that, if stricken from our vocabulary, might make us a little more tolerable. Yes, these things may mean something to you, but, trust me, non-Christians don't share your love for these tried-and-true clichés.

They are not intended to tell you to believe or not believe a certain set of things. Christians have a public-relations problem; that much is self-evident. So, in as much as I can respond to that, I want to offer these clichés as advice on how to change the way we approach people about our faith.

So, in no particular order, here are ten phrases that Christians should avoid. There will be ten more next week, and then, the week after that, ten suggestions of antidotes to such clichés.

1. "Everything happens for a reason." I have heard this said more times than I would care to hear. 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 quite 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 would not be faith; it would be a theory.

Also, consider how such a pithy phrase sounds to someone who has been raped. Do you really mean to tell them that there is a reason that this happened? Better to be quiet, listen, and, if appropriate, mourn alongside them. But don't dismiss grief or tragedy with such a meaningless phrase.

2. "He/she is in a better place." This may or may not be true. 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. Also, to focus on the passing of a loved one minimises the grief of the people he or she has left behind.

3. "Have you asked Jesus into your heart?" 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 realised. But, yes, asking people if they are engaged in a lifelong discipline to orient their lives toward Christ-like compassion, love, and mercy doesn't exactly have the same ring to it.

4. "Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and saviour?" 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? Also, the whole idea of a lord is so antiquated that it has no real relevance to our lives today. Be more mindful of your words, and mean what you say.

5. "Jesus died for your sins." I know, this is an all-time Christian favourite. 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 an 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. The 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.

6. "Love the sinner, hate the sin." 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 neighbours' 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.

7. "The Bible clearly says . . ." There are 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.

8. "God needed another angel in heaven, so called him/her home." This is another well-meaning but insensitive thing to say. This assumes a great deal 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.

9. "Are you saved?" Regardless of whether you believe in hell, this is a very unattractive thing to say. First, it implies a power/privilege imbalance (i.e. "I'm saved, but I'm guessing you're not, based on some assumptions I'm making about you"), and it 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 probably learn plenty about what he or she thinks and believes in the process. And who knows? You might actually learn something, too, rather than just telling others what they should believe.

10. "The Lord never gives someone more than they can handle." 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? This implies that, if really a horrible thing is 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.

Christian Piatt is a writer, editor, speaker, and musician. A different version of this article appears at sojo.net.

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