Christian cliches. We all know them. And we all use them. But are they more than harmless sayings? Nick Page wonders whether there is more danger in them than we think
I can’t remember where I first heard it, but I keep hearing people welcoming God into their services. “God,” they say. “We just want to welcome you in.” Of course, there are variants. Sometimes it’s the Holy Spirit we are welcoming in. Sometimes it’s Jesus. But whichever of the Trinity it is, they are all, apparently, late.
It’s a well-meaning phrase. It’s trying to say that we want to experience God. But it gives an impression of God as being ‘out there’. Or, even worse, that we can invoke God’s presence, like conjuring up some magical spirit. And that simply isn’t true. He wasn’t waiting outside in the car park. He is everywhere. God is the very ground of our being and he is always the one doing the inviting.
But that’s a big and mysterious and, frankly, mind-blowing idea. No wonder we tend to replace it with the idea that he was just waiting to be let into the Zoom call.
Anyway, it illustrates a problem with Christian platitudes. It’s not so much that they are wrong – although quite often they are wrong, not to mention unhelpful, stupid and really, really, annoying – it’s more that they are inadequate. They reduce mystery to a fridge magnet.
They are the antidepressants of the Christian world, prescribed to move us from the shadowy vale of anxiety to the sunlit uplands of certainty. I know, from personal experience, that pills can help. But only in the short term. Take too many of them and it only creates more problems.
So what are those problems? Oh, you know, just little things. Like unhelpful images of God, simplistic views of guidance, ignoring the basic problem of evil, totally ruling out free will and just not being in touch with basic reality. That sort of thing.
Let’s start with perhaps my least favourite platitude…
God won’t give you more than you can bear
I hate this. (Although not as much as the rhyming version: “If God brings you to it, he will bring you through it.”) Again, the cliche means well. It’s trying to say: “You can get through this, with God’s help.” But the problem is, a lot of people don’t get through these things. What about those who fall apart under intolerable pressure? Those driven to despair or self-harm? Isn’t that precisely because it was more than they could bear? Or think of the victims of bombs and terror and war. The refugees drowning at sea. Did God bring them to that? And were they not blessed enough to get through?
That’s the real issue. This saying portrays God as perpetually stress-testing his followers, as a kind of cosmic scientist experimenting on lab rats to see just how much pain they can take. I don’t believe God does that. There may be times when following God brings us, by its very nature, into what the Lord’s Prayer calls “the time of trial” (Luke 11:4, NRSV). But did God cause that? What if we brought it on ourselves? Or if it’s just other people being brutal? We are confronted with the mystery of theodicy, the age-old question of why a good God permits bad things to happen. As far as I know, no one has quite solved that one yet.
What I do know is that human beings are amazingly resilient – even more so with the presence of God to help us. But it’s no comfort to suggest that it is God who is making their life unbearable.
Nor should you advise them to…
Let go and let God
Seriously. What does this even mean? Let go of what? Let God do what? Let go of my responsibilities? Is God going to sort out the car’s MOT and walk the dog? Look, I agree with the general sentiment. We carry a lot of baggage through life that we could well do without. I like that the German word for serenity is Gelassenheit, which means ‘having let go’ or ‘letting go-ness’. But without more detail it’s just another unhelpful cliche for those who are burdened with anxieties that they cannot control. It might be more useful to say: “Let go and let me” – to see what burdens we can take off them. We could show them that there is hope, that there is a future.
Although, talking of hope, don’t say…
When God closes one door, another one opens
It’s the Christian version of: “There are plenty more fish in the sea.” I can remember saying that to a friend years ago when his girlfriend broke up with him, to which he replied: “Yes, but who wants to go out with a herring?” Again, it’s trying to help and it is partially true: there are always new opportunities. And Christians are people who believe in resurrection. But for those who are faced with a crushing disappointment, this is just not a helpful thing to say. And talking of unhelpful, there’s a version of this saying that goes: “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” I have literally no idea what this means. Unless it’s some kind of exhortation to take up breaking and entering as an alternative.
The saying also disguises some very deep questions, mainly around whether God really goes about opening and shutting doors, windows, cat flaps, or any other metaphorical orifice. The issue of guidance is another mystery. I tend to think that free will and our ability to use what wisdom we have been given is just as important as divine guidance.
But divine guidance is not…
Where God guides, God provides
Always beware anyone who reduces complex theology to a rhyming couplet. (The only rhyming theology I will allow is: “Jesus loves me this I know, ’cos the Bible tells me so.” Although even then I’ll want to have a conversation about what we mean by ‘love’, and how the Bible works.) Anyway, this one is usually deployed to mean: “We’ve prayed about this and we’re going ahead, so please supply your direct debit details.”
But what about all those times when perfectly good, viable, heartfelt projects have failed? I have friends who were doing good, sacrificial work in terribly deprived areas but had to stop because of a lack of funding. I don’t believe that God didn’t want that work to happen. Or that they were not ‘in his will’. Much more likely is that they weren’t good at marketing. Or that people just didn’t connect with it emotionally.
Because, as we all know…
The longest journey is the distance between your head and your heart
No, it isn’t. Actually, I would guess it’s either from pole to pole, or alternatively any journey that involves the M25. I actually quite like this one, because it’s true that we do have to emotionally engage with belief and not just hold it theoretically. But in the Bible the seat of the emotions is not the heart, but the bowels. Which makes much more sense, really, because we often speak of being ‘gutted’. So really, the longest journey should be between brain and bowels according to the Bible.
And it’s good to read the Bible because…
A Bible that’s falling apart belongs to someone who isn’t
Not necessarily. It could just have been a really badly made Bible. But that’s not what this means, is it? It means that people who obsessively read the Bible won’t suffer from anxiety or mental health issues. Frankly, given the amount of church leaders I meet who are suffering from appalling stress, I don’t think this is true.
In fact, you could argue that one of the purposes of reading the Bible is to have our life shattered. The Bible is a place to encounter God and sometimes our lives need to collapse in order to be rebuilt. The Bible is many things, but it is not safe. And it is certainly not…
God’s instruction manual
The Bible is not an instruction manual. I mean, I’ve looked and it hasn’t helped me load the dishwasher. Again, I can see what the phrase is trying to do, except that’s not actually how the Bible works. This implies that there is always one, simple way of reading and implementing scripture. As the more extreme, triple-rhymed version goes: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” But scripture needs interpreting and discussing and thinking about. Scripture does that kind of thing itself. In the Bible, even when God said it, not everyone believed it, and nobody thought that it settled it.
Indeed, it’s living with the unsettled, difficult things that shows the limitations of these cliches. When I started on this article I thought I was going to write a breezy, funny 1,500 words on silly phrases that Christians use. (That’s what I thought I was getting as well – Ed.) But I’ve come to see that these phrases really can have a damaging effect. At best they are theological morphine, something to dull the pain. And not just the pain of the listeners: often they are escape routes for us who use them; ways to avoid the difficult work of sitting with people in their confusion or despair. Or even ways to avoid confronting our own doubts and questions.
At worst they reinforce false ideas of God. He is not a mad scientist. Nor is he Santa Claus. And he’s definitely not someone who guides us only by slamming the door in our face. God is love. That may sound cliched. But it’s true.