A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to define piety and holiness, without using egatives about what it isn’t and without resorting to obvious behavioral descriptions such as dress, drugs, music, etc. The conversation that followed was quite interesting. Several of us tried to oblige him, finding it much more difficult than we’d anticipated.
That got me thinking about how we express the gospel. To people around us. To new believers. To our children. To members in our church.
Blame it on our humanity, but we often fail miserably at describing God and His desires for us. Too often we depend on the details of what God isn’t and what He wants us not to be, instead of focusing on the incredible beauty and power of what He is and what He wants us to become. Just like people of any faith, we tend to embrace a religious vocabulary that is almost (if not completely) divorced from the way we speak in “real life.” We rely on big phrases and fancy words, tossing around jargon that loses its meaning in the retelling.
Language students have a word for this tendency. Euphemism: Substituting an inoffensive word or phrase for one that would be harsh or embarrassing.1 In English, it means that you might say “he passed away” instead of clearly saying “he’s dead.” While in literature there may be good reasons for these types of phrases, I’m convinced that in faith, we may actually be hurting the gospel.
The thing is, we distance ourselves from the realness of faith and belief when we talk in religious jargon. It can be a way to sound holy while keeping God at arm’s length from ourselves. But faith is real. God is real. And when we talk about belief and Scripture and doctrine and Jesus in pat phrases, we are doing ourselves and our children a disservice.
As a pastor’s wife, I hear so many people talk about their relationship with God this way: “When I came into the message. . . .” “When I accepted the truth. . . .” But what do they really mean?
When I met Jesus. That’s what they mean. When I got to know Christ and He totally changed my life. So why don’t we say what we mean? Why do we cover it over with metaphors?
Why do we distance ourselves from the power of the gospel in the words we use? What are we afraid of? Could it be that our choice of words tells something about our fear of surrender? What is so scary about just saying what we mean? Simple. True. Naked. Profound in its genuine power.
A friend of mine works as the director of children’s ministry in his conference. A mother asked him once, “How do I teach the Bible to my autistic son in a way that he can understand? Non-literal phrases like ‘Jesus in my heart’ terrify him because he visualizes them as being real!”
I’ve often wondered the same thing when having worship with my two toddlers. How do I teach them about Jesus in ways that they can understand? How can I help them grasp the incredible gospel truths so that their little lives are transformed? How do I help them fall in love with Jesus, rather than just going through the motions?
Back to euphemisms. We use pretty phrases to cover over something from which we don’t want to feel the full power. It’s so much harsher and more final to say that someone is dead than to say that they have “passed.” So we make things a little less uncomfortable, and we keep ourselves emotionally safe, when we replace the real words with something palatable.
We do the same thing, whether we realize it or not, when we trade religious jargon for everyday expressions. There’s something deep and visceral about making ourselves talk about Jesus and salvation in simple, raw, honest words. We can’t hide from their power anymore. We can’t distance ourselves and pretend piety if we’re speaking in realities.
Real gospel words bring us down from our ivory towers of intellectualized faith; they jolt us back to the present instead of letting us live in past spiritual highs. They crash us back into the world we live in, preventing us from faking our Christian journey. Real words strip the facade from our faith, leaving us nothing to hide behind. Either we are genuine, or we’re not.
Sweet, simple gospel—it’s scary. Powerful. Raw. Emotional. Biblical. It leaves no room for us to project ourselves in front of Jesus. Because it’s all about Christ. Not about me. Not about how great I am. Not about who taught me what. Not even about how pious I sound.
When Jesus came to live here with us, he stripped away the pretentiousness that had become commonplace among the Pharisees. Jesus told stories. He made conversation. He put God’s truths into plain language that even little kids could comprehend.
That’s the kind of gospel we need to share. Forget about the insider vocabulary that is incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t know Jesus. Let’s take time to listen to ourselves when we talk and then try to restate our points in straightforward clarity.
That’s also the kind of gospel we need to hear for ourselves. So powerful in its simplicity that we can’t escape. Where there’s no wiggle room for us to create comfortable distance through pretty phrases.
Because the story of Jesus isn’t meant to be comfortable. It’s meant to turn us inside out and make us different. It’s that simple. It’s that sweet.
It’s good news.