"I DON'T PUT GOD IN A BOX." Illustration by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners with image from Shutterstock.
The response to this series of articles has been pretty overwhelming, and generally, very positive. For the handful of folks who label me an apostate, atheist, anti-Christian or what have you for stepping on some rhetorical toes, it’s fine if you feel the need to cast stones. But do bear in mind that, when you do, you are living into a stereotype of Christians as knee-jerk reactionary, judgmental people. Something to consider.
And for the hundreds who have written with thanks for helping them feel their pain, alienation, confusion or resistance is heard and understood, thank you.
In that spirit, I have compiled a third (and most likely, final) list of Cliches to avoid because, frankly, there were still so many worth noting that have yet to be addressed. Thanks to those who have submitted suggestions for additional lists. And because I’ve had some emails and comments asking for more clarity on what to do or say instead of leaning on these cliches, I’ll offer a closing piece for this series tomorrow about what I’d suggest Christians focus on instead of well-worn rhetorical scripts.
Enough prologue. Here are the final nine cliches to strike from the Christian lexicon if we’re interested in reaching people on a deeper, more personal level.
- Christianity is the only way to God/Heaven. 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.
- When God closes a door, He opens a window. 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.
- God helps those who help themselves. 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.
- Perhaps God is (causing something negative) to get your attention/It is God’s way of telling you it is time for (fill in the blank). 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.
- There, but for the grace of God, go I. 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.
- If you just have enough faith (fill in the blank) will happen for you. 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.
- I don’t put God in a box. 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.
- (Insert name) is a good, God-fearing Christian. 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.”
- God is in control. 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.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible " and "Banned Questions About Jesus ." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date ."
See Also: Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use and Ten More Cliches Christians Should Avoid