Should Christians ever use harsh language? Yes, although we should be wise about when and how. Here are four principles to guide us.
My oldest daughter is very clever and creative. When she was six, she would often have conversations with her stuffed cat, Hershey. Eventually, she developed what she called “kitty language,” even writing down a series of symbols in one of her notebooks. It was cute… but it was also entirely incomprehensible.
Sometimes, we Christians seem like that to outsiders. We have our own special language, much of it derived from what we find in the Bible (though some of it comes from… well, I have no idea where). But there’s a problem: most people today don’t have any clue what’s in the Bible. Reading The Heart of Evangelism reminded me of this. Jerram Barrs writes:
The words that we hear every Sunday in most of our churches and that we use in our prayers are no longer part of the everyday language of our society. People simply do not talk about justification or sanctification, nor about redemption, salvation, or sin. Language that is precious to the Christian is an unfamiliar dialect to most people around us. This means that church as usual and sermons that don’t acknowledge this problem are difficult for our contemporaries to relate to, just as computer language is incomprehensible to many of us! (139)
When considering how to share Christ with others, this is incredibly important: We can’t assume pre-existing knowledge if we want to communicate the gospel clearly. There are some words that we can probably avoid using, to be sure, but what I never want to do is avoid a word like “sin,” for example. Instead, I want to explain it in a way that makes sense. That sin isn’t simply the “bad things” we do, but a problem within our being—a compulsion to pursue anything other than God as most desirable, and to reject him though he has made his existence plain to us through many means.
A lot to take in? Sure. But we have to help people see that there’s a lot packed into a tiny word like “sin,” if we want them to understand the problem they face. But when we fail to consider our context—when we fail to really acknowledge the biblical illiteracy of our culture (and, sadly, our churches)—we risk our words being seen as incomprehensible as my daughter’s made-up play language. And that just will not do.
What kind of pronouns should we use when we talk about God?
We typically default to the masculine “He,” but should we?
Is there anything wrong with referring to God as “she”?
While the answer might seem obvious, it is worth considering. After all, as Christians, we want to speak of God in a way that is pleasing to Him. So, here are a few things to keep in mind when considering how to to talk when we talk about God:
1. God is not a man but is spirit (Numbers 23:19a; John 4:24). Simply, human gender does not apply to God. God is neither male nor female. God is spirit and we are wise to remember this, even as we hold to the necessary tension of things like the eternal sonship of Jesus as the second member of the Trinity.[1. See the Chalcedonian Creed]
2. God uses masculine and feminine terms and attributes when describing Himself. God is likened to a “dread warrior” (Jer. 20:11) and a faithful and long-suffering husband (Hosea—all of it!), a “mighty man” and a “woman in labor” (Isaiah 42:13-14). Wisdom is personified in female form (Proverbs 1:20-21). Jesus even emphasizes the feminine when He laments over Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:27; Luke 13:34) Without being too reductionistic, God is quite comfortable referring to Himself using or inspiring the use of both feminine and masculine characteristics, even if it makes some of us uncomfortable.[2. Incidentally, my friend Derek Rishmawy offers a helpful look at the “motherliness” of God here.]
3. God reveals Himself as “our Father.” But regardless of God’s comfort with taking on feminine attributes, how does God reveal Himself? As our Father. When Jesus teaches us to pray, He tell us to pray like this, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). Seven times in Matthew and Luke, Jesus calls God our “heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:48; 6:14; 6:26; 6:32; 15:13; 18:35; Luke 11:13), and another 17 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke “our Father in heaven” or “our Father who is in heaven.” This is something that’s continued into the epistles, with God being called “Father” at least nine times by Paul and Peter.
This should tell us something very important: While God is very comfortable attributing feminine characteristics to Himself, when He does so, it is typically in the form of a simile—God’s love and longing for His people is like that of a mother hen’s for her chicks. His anguish over sin is like that of a woman in labor. But when God chooses to reveal Himself, and when He gives us context for our relationship with Him, He does so in the masculine—as Father.
So, how should we talk when we talk about God? We should talk about Him the way God Himself does. Embrace both masculine and feminine characteristics as He does, but pay close attention to how God speaks of Himself. He is our Father, and He wants to be referred to as such. Let’s make sure we honor His wishes.
There once was a man named Seth. Seth was a popular author, especially among creative and “non-traditional” leadership types. He wrote with an unusual buzzwordiness while sharing many truths and many half-truths about tribes, lynchpins and meatballs on top of sundaes.
He wrote of our desperate need for people unafraid to challenge the establishment and chart their own course for the good of the many.
He called them “heretics.” But we should not.
This week I was reading a very good book on social media that embraced Seth’s “heretic” ideal. Not theological heresy, the author stressed, but ideological—being willing to push the boundaries of comfort in order to reach as many as possible.
But I’ve got to be honest, whenever I see Christian authors use the term “heretic” in this way, I get a little nervous. It’s not because I disagree with the sentiment (I generally don’t)—it’s the danger of cheapening the word “heretic.”
Imagine you’re in a room with no windows and only one door, which is at the farthest point from you. The door opens a little bit and someone throws a grenade in, which promptly explodes (as it is intended to do). This is what calling someone a heretic is like. Or at least, it should be. Churches have split over heresy. Ministries have been destroyed because of it. It’s a big word, and just like a grenade, once you pull the pin, there’s no going back.
So why do we treat it so flippantly?
Why, following along with a popular book, are we redefining a word that carries such weight and power—transforming a profanity into a virtue? Truthfully, I don’t believe it’s of malicious intent. I think it’s simply that we’re careless with words. We don’t give them enough weight; we don’t consider carefully what they mean.
Seth used the word “heretic” intentionally. He knew the power it holds, otherwise he wouldn’t have used it. We, on the other hand, have simply poured ourselves a nice, tall glass of his Kool-Aid.
When we assign foreign meanings to familiar words, we wind up cheapening the concepts they represent as a result. When it comes to a word like “heretic,” we must avoid this at all costs. And this is but one example. We’ve transformed tolerance into something wholly intolerant. We’ve desecrated love, turning it into a mere feeling flitting about with no depth or power. So love becomes preference, disagreement becomes prejudice, truth becomes error… Careless words cheapen powerful truths.
A conversation with a good friend got me thinking about this message from the 2008 Desiring God National Conference.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
The mature person is able to “bridle” his tongue. The person who can do this is master of the whole body. The spiritual masters of the past understood this to have a double reference. The control of the tongue has both negative and positive aspects. It involves the ability to restrain the tongue in silence. But it also means being able to control it in gracious speech when that is required. Sanctification in any area of our lives always expresses this double dimension—a putting off and a putting on, as it were. Speech and silence, appropriately expressed, are together the mark of the mature.
Sinclair Ferguson, “The Bit, The Bridle and the Blessing,” The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, page 48
The tongue is “set among our members, staining the whole body.” How careful you are as you put on a dress for a wedding, especially if it is your own. How nervous about that new silk tie during dinner. The spot need only be a small one, but it ruins everything. So it is with the tongue and its words. No matter what graces you may have developed, if you have not gained tongue mastery, you can besmirch them all by an unguarded and ill-disciplined comment. Graces are fragile; therefore guard your tongue lest it destroy them.
Sinclair Ferguson, “The Bit, The Bridle and the Blessing,” The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, page 51
Reading through the first several chapters of Jeremiah, I am struck by the harshness of Jeremiah’s preaching. Throughout the book, there is a palpable hatred of sin, that is expressed with incredibly strong language.
Before I continue, if you are offended by such language, you may not want to read this post (perhaps this light-hearted one instead?), as I’ve pulled together some of the more intense examples from the early chapters of the book of Jeremiah.
Within the book’s first five chapters, we see the following extremely intense words preached by Jeremiah:Read More about The Persevering Prophet: Harsh Language