In my last post, I shared some lessons that I learned through 7 months of uncertain unemployment. Of course, the truth is: I’m still learning. And the lessons continue. Here’s one more that I don’t want to slip through the cracks, unnoticed.
And this lesson starts with this simple idea: Be careful of pious phrases. We church people are really good at church lingo and spiritual slogans. Sometimes these phrases are true, and deeply so. But sometimes we speak words we want to be true, we hope are true, but they’re not — at least not in the way that we think.
So, sometimes we say things like: Don’t worry. Just trust God. Pray harder.
Are these words true? Of course. Nobody wants to worry. We all need to trust God more. And who among us thinks our prayer life is ever good enough?
Speaking phrases like this, while true, are usually not helpful. They can often have the opposite effect of what’s intended — instead of helping people connect more with God, they may in fact make them feel as if they are the reason for their struggles. If only I had more faith, or prayed more diligently, I wouldn’t be in this situation.
No. No. No. That’s not how life works. We don’t pray ourselves out of bad stuff, and into good stuff. Instead, we learn to trust God IN the difficult circumstances; oftentimes it’s the hard stretches of life that stretch us beyond pious platitudes, into surrender. A surrender that recognizes that, more than quick fixes and simplistic answers, we need to simply hold onto God right where are. And sometimes it’s a steel cable that seems to bind us to God; and other times, it feels like a thread.
In fact, maybe what God wants most for us during times of duress isn’t clear; maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that He wants us to cling to Him, to trust Him in the darkness, and just take the next step.
Which leads to a couple of other phrases I find of questionable help: God’s got a plan. It will all work out in the end.
Just the other day, I heard about a person in prison for his faith in a country known for its opposition to Christianity. Separated from his family, he has faced 361 days a year in solitary confinement. Now, imagine that on one of the 4 days a year he is given an opportunity to talk with people, you are one of the ones who gets to visit with him. What are you going to say? God’s got a plan? It will all work out in the end?
What if he never gets released from prison; never gets to see his family again? Is that God’s plan? Is that how it all works out in the end?
Now, on the one hand, we have faith that God is working through even the worst of circumstances. And we know that things will work out in the end — even if the end is the End of All Things. But lots of bad stuff happens in this life, and some of it doesn’t get fixed in this life. God will work out all things in the end; we have this promise. But it might be that, in this life, His plan is not to open all the doors we want opened; to make smooth all our paths; to make clear every step we take. In fact, as I heard John Ortberg say recently: sometimes God’s plan is that we use the freedom he has given us to make a choice. It might not be the best choice; it may not take us down the path we hoped it would. But, as Ortberg points out, God is more concerned with our character than our circumstances. And His plan might be less about walking through the “right door,” than it is about the kind of person we are becoming as we make the choices that take us through the doors we decide to walk through.
But overall, my concern isn’t so much with what well-meaning people say; it’s why. And often, I think we toss around pious phrases to people because we don’t know what else to say. In fact, I think that oftentimes we speak a spiritual cliche — like, at a funeral home: She’s in a better place — because we are trying to remind ourselves that this is true. Standing next to the casket with a mom who has to bury her child, we don’t know what to say because there is no way to explain this.
So I wonder if what we are doing when we offer a religious cliche is, in fact, speaking to ourselves. Running into a friend whose husband just walked out, we have no answers. So we give voice to what WE need to hear. It’ll be okay. God’s in control. All things work for good, after all. Speaking these words to our friend, we are in fact also seeking to console ourselves; to make sense of the senseless. To try to hold onto truth when the world is falling apart.
But when we stop trying to speak to ourselves, or come up with the perfect words to speak to our friend in need, we might find this deeper truth: what people need in times of need are not words, but someone to walk with them. Not pious phrases, but presence. Because, it’s easier to drop by and say something spiritual than it is to come alongside and do something practical. It’s easier to speak a cliche than it is to walk with them through the uncertainty.
As I think about the season of life I just went through, the people who were the most helpful were the ones who didn’t have all the answers — but were there for me, anyway. There were times they didn’t know what to say — but they stayed there for me, anyway. The reminded me of biblical truth, by words, yes; but even more by what they did. They showed me God is faithful by their faithfulness.
There was an episode of “CSI: New York” about 10 years ago where one of the detectives, Mac Taylor, befriends a neighborhood kid. The two are walking home from a community event when Mac notices a thief escaping the scene of a crime. He tells Ruben, the 10-year-old boy, to go straight home. The detective begins to chase the criminal, but doesn’t catch him.
Later, Mac is at the crime lab, and he sees Ruben’s dead body; he had been killed by the escaping thief. As he walks away, one of the female cops come up to Mac, looking for advice. What do I say?, she asks. I’m not good at this kind of thing. To which Mac Taylor responds, Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing.
Here’s the truth: None of us is good at that kind of thing. But not having the right words to say is, I believe, one of the first steps in acknowledging that words don’t change the reality that life can sometimes be downright crappy. Recognizing that doesn’t mean that our faith is weak or shallow; it doesn’t mean that God isn’t real and present. It simply grabs hold of the fact that maybe, when we stop talking, we give ourselves, and those walking through the Valley, an opportunity beyond hearing truth — to experiencing it.
For when we were in our deepest valley, when we as creation were in our greatest need, God Himself moved beyond words, to presence. God moved beyond giving Law, to showing Love. For when we had no answer, God answered most clearly, showed Himself most powerfully, by walking with us, becoming one of us — for the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.