Sam Howzit

The online dictionary defines 'superlatives' as: 'Of the highest quality or degree' or 'an exaggerated or hyperbolical expression of praise'. It's this second definition which seems to have become more and more relevant for today's society.

I like the Urban Dictionary’s top definition of 'awesome' which unerringly pinpoints the origin of the fashion: 'Something Americans use to describe everything.'

It is my belief that as Christians we need to stop and think about what we say and why we say it.

Are we in danger of being carried along with current catch-words and phrases? Some will wonder whether this really matters. I think it does. 

When did you last hear ‘amazing’, ‘awesome’, ‘absolutely’, ‘glorious’, ‘miraculous’? These words are now a hollow, flattering sound to my ears as they are repeated so endlessly that they have become in themselves almost meaningless.

By their everyday use for the ordinary and the mundane, these words lose the elevated definition they are intended for.

It came to a head last Christmas when the worship leader at the end of a nativity service heaped praise upon Sunday School teachers and children alike. They all, it seemed, had been 'amazing' (and it was a well-rehearsed and polished performance as far as it went). They repeated 'amazing' an amazing(!) number of times and cheer-led the congregation into applause.

It has become a symptom of our western cult of celebrity, the philosophy of ‘everyone a winner’ and no losers, to hear teachers referring to their classes as 'amazing', or even 'awesome' in praise for what has maybe been a good or very good performance, or about a surprising result in sport or other achievement. Even worse is when it is over-egging the ordinary or even the mundane. I have come to the conclusion that the exaggeration is an over-reaction to the past decades when praise was much more measured and meted out sparingly lest we became ‘big-headed’.

Today it seems we’ve developed the art of congratulation in the hope that a constant heaping of high praise on groups and individuals will lead to never-ending higher standards and self-worth. We all feel flattered by approval, and even more so from those who we look up to. But this is where the practice falls down so badly. Where are we to go but down if we have already received the ultimate in compliments? Besides which, if it is undeserved, the praise becomes meaningless and when it is finally recognised as flattery the disillusionment is likely to be all the greater.

Bob Gass, in his Word for Today, writes: '...praise, by its very nature, can be intoxicating...pat a man or woman on the back - and their head starts to swell... (it’s) like perfume; if you consume it, it’ll kill you!'

Where can we find the instruction on affirming words that are reasoned and reasonable and leave room for future aspiration, mercifully without hype? For me it is God’s word, the Bible.

My father instilled in me an appreciation of words from an early age. And my coming to salvation in the early 1960s only sharpened my thirst for the truth and a desire to know the precise meanings of words in scripture.

The Bible's own sparing use of superlatives is exemplified in the stories and parables.

In the parable of the talents, Jesus quotes the master praising the ones who did what was wise and right with 'well done, you good and faithful servant'. He did not say, as in the modern idiom 'Hey, you are amazing!' or to the one who did even better 'Wow, you are truly awesome' accompanied, as it might be today with whooping, shrieking and tumultuous applause!

There was no hype with Jesus. The words used are measured, but no less affirming for that, and leave room for setting and reaching new goals and attainments. Encouragement brings greater comfort than flattery. Even God’s word to Jesus at the transfiguration 'This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased' strikes a note absolutely appropriate for the circumstances.

The ultimate accolades are kept for the triumphant ascent into heaven and the promised triumphant and glorious return. God’s amazing, matchless promise to return for his redeemed people and to judge the world will be Absolutely, Truly Beyond Awesome!

Jude Meritus is the author of Magna Carta R.I.P?

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