I have sneaking suspicion that most human beings have a few voices that ring louder in their ears than others. Setting aside the psychological biases that cause this to be the case, which is no easy thing to do, the fact remains that each of us is influenced by the various voices that we hear, or choose to hear.
Billions, with a B, is spent on advertising that has the chief aim of influencing consumers to purchase a product or elicit an action or response. Cable news shows parade out pundits and experts on every subject from terrorism to vacation book lists, all with a “correct” recommendation of choices to be made. Many of these influences are harmless and matter little in the grand scheme of things, but some influences are actually quite nefarious. All of them are hoping to be a voice of influence, even as the writer of this post I’ll be checking page counts and retweets to see how far my reach is extended. (I didn’t say I was healthy, I’m hopelessly addicted to approval.)
But, I do not want to take what influence that I do have for granted.
As a pastor of a church, someone who attempts to understand and teach the bible, to encourage others to follow the way of Jesus, I am painfully aware of the tension of speaking with authority. For right or for wrong there are individuals who value my opinions and seek my counsel, this is a responsibility that is one of my least favorite components of my job. I regularly feel unqualified to be the leader of a spiritual community, but alas that is exactly what I am.
Some pastors have tried to avoid this tension of wielding influence by never speaking about anything controversial, or by sticking to well known clichés. Others have chosen to appeal to biblical authority, of course this assumes that most people regard the bible as authoritative, which most people do not, or asserting that “my interpretation” is the one that is the best. It is not as simple as saying “The bible says…” and allowing that to be the final word. Certainly the scriptures are helpful and often there is agreement on what the bible says about certain things, but there are clearly places where disagreement far out shadows consensus, with equal amounts of scholarship to support conflicting ideas.
That beings said, the places where you can appeal to the bible are certainly on more solid ground than the colloquialisms that have been given the same weight as the holy texts. It is these later phrases that this post seeks to address, these tweetable snippets of wisdom and fodder for inspirational cat posters, that are at best misused quotes, but are often outright falsities, creating undue burden on the hearer or reinforcing wrong ideas about God or fellow human beings.
My beef with these phrases and ideas is that they are believable. They make us feel good, and when they come from a source that we have given authority to, we are quick to adopt them as gospel truth. Perhaps an example would be helpful as we continue, consider the following:
God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.
God will never give you more than you can handle.
Cute right? The first has all the balance that a solid literary phrase should have. It employs the old reverse-the-phrase-on-its-self-trick. It is way less than 140 characters, it gives hope to the “unequipped” inviting them to believe that God wants to give them the tools they need for the task at hand. It even has some scriptural support, there are lots of places that refer to the spiritual gifts of God to help the saints accomplish good deeds. The second statement is meant to impart hope to those who are dealing with difficulty, expressing solidarity with the struggling. It implies that God is the “giver” of difficulty, but only enough to test your limits.
But what happens when I expose these statements to the following questions?
What happens when God doesn’t equip the called? How quickly does this equipping happen? What happens if I’m not “called?” What if I already have a fair amount of “equipping”, where did that come from? Can I be equipped by anyone other than God? What about cancer or the death of a child? What about crippling depression or anxiety? What about those who have given up? Why does God “give” us any of this difficulty to begin with?
This is about assigning weight and authority to phrases that ought not have authority attached to them. Pastors, teachers, parents, and other authority figures ought to be careful with phrases like this. Simply because a learned person of authority says or more likely tweets something, it does not make it true. The phrase can be a source of encouragement, it can even ring with truth, but it must be evaluated on its own merits. Polarizing absolute statements are the stuff of movements, these firm no-nonsense statements are easier than the more nuanced realities that must be considered. These clichés are lazy, flimsy ways of trying to say things that matter. Often they drive wedges where there should be bridges to commonality.
Another larger problem with the phrases listed above is that they claim to speak for God. As a pastor, there are some who would assume that I speak for God, and sometimes I try to… I’ve given terrible advice and said untrue things in the name of God, it is tricky business separating your opinion from the facts, and furthermore God doesn’t need me to speak for him.
I have frequently reread something that I’ve written or listened back to a talk I have given, only to be horrified that I said something incorrect, of I didn’t explain it clearly enough. Or to discover that I was just wrong. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that our words carry weight, and those of us who exercise some measure of authority need to choose them carefully, and all of us need to evaluate the phrases that we believe and not simply swallow them because someone we respect added them to their twitter account. In a day and age when anyone with internet access can express their opinion and gather an audience to listen to and validate that opinion we must work harder than ever to discern that which is worth listening to.
I do think it is helpful to have some source of authority to appeal to to evaluate the truth of statements and opinions, as a Christian I do appeal to the bible often to help in discerning the truth, but there are quite simply lots of things the bible doesn’t talk about, at least not directly. One of the primary reasons that so many folks have an issue with the bible is that for years Christians have tried to make the scriptures do and say things they were never meant to say and do. The bible is not a science book, or a history book, or even a book at all… The bible is a library of several books and letters, written across the course of several years in various places by various authors. While I believe that the bible is “breathed” and “”inspired” by God, I don’t fully grasp what that means.
Often when we say “this is what the bible says…” what we are really saying is “this is what the bible says, according to my interpretation, as filtered by my family of origin, religious tradition, psychological biases, and current social trends…” That is why the addition of the word “clearly” is laughable to me in the case of biblical authority, it happens all the time, “The bible clearly says…” Yet in spite of all this clarity there is so little conformity to just about any biblical issue, there are so many tribes and denominations and nuances, it seems that clarity is the one thing that we don’t have. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying it’s impossible to determine what the bible says about certain things, only that the chances that any of us have it all figured perfectly is highly unlikely.
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