Translating Christian Cliches: What People Say v. What They (Might) Mean

Don’t read me wrong: I’m not saying that if you have said some of the things that appear in the right-hand column, you clearly meant what is made explicit in the left-hand column. Not at all. But as my friend Karen Swallow Prior wrote a few years ago:

“The trouble with prefabricated words is that they don’t require or encourage much thinking. Yes, clichés contain truth; that’s why they are used so much. But familiarity can turn even truthful words into vain repetitions.”

That, and sometimes it’s just really tempting to use spiritual-sounding language to either:

a. Avoid taking responsibility for what you actually think and feel by passing that off to God


b. Discourage the other person from disagreeing with you by tacitly implying that God is on your side.

My dad came up with this first one, which may be the worst one:

#1: “I love you (or them) in the Lord.

Meaning1My friend Marlena wrote about Christian dating myths, and quick polling of young men indicates that #2 is used frequently enough (probably in accordance with a. above: avoiding responsibility for your own feelings):

Meaning2Oh, and #3. Number three is probably used just as frequently in secular or other religious contexts outside Christendom, falling into the category of “in my day, they never cancelled school” and “our kids never whined” boasting. But it is worse, because it can imply some sort of spiritual superiority, or hurtfully insinuate that the reason the person is hurting is that he/she lacks sufficient faith. (See also: “How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting.”)

This is not to say that you should not share your own stories of difficult times and your experience of God helping you through those times. Those can be very helpful stories. But be aware of your motivations in telling them–and be sure that you have first listened to your friend.


Finally, #4: the God cop-out. It’s like “I’ll think about it…” but with a spiritual twist, and often pops out of our mouths when we’re afraid to JUST SAY NO:

Meaning4Because then, if we decide we don’t want to do it, we can just blame God.

What are some other cliches–and their translations–that grate upon your senses?

{You may also like “How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting”; “Click ‘Like’ and Share if You Love Jesus & Other Abominations,” and “Seven Deadly Social Media Sins.”}

15 thoughts on “Translating Christian Cliches: What People Say v. What They (Might) Mean

  1. When I was new in the faith I was told to scrupulously avoid minced oaths such as “gee,” because we are not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Yet I cannot recall anyone ever pointing out this common practice of invoking the name of God to co-sign your own stuff (minced enough for you?) is a particularly egregious violation of the commandment

    To make matters worse, I have often been judged as insufficiently spiritual because I don’t speak this way.

    The essence of personhood, we are told, is to be possessed of intellect, emotion and will. This hyper spirituality rejects intellect, exalts emotion, and uses God’s name to hide the will.

  2. Similar to your # 2- My college aged niece got a “I can’t date you anymore because my heart is really burdened to focus on my relationship with the Lord” which really meant he would have a new girlfriend turned fiancee turned wife over the next year or so. Just take responsibility that your feelings have changed, don’t blame it on God.

  3. Back when I looked like Rachel’s cartoon version of me I was talking to a brother who had adopted some doctrinal views (not at all heretical) that were at variance with those of our church. In defense of his new position he quite passionately stated that this change was the result of his having “really prayed, and really studied, seeking the Lord on this matter.”

    I asked him if he was thereby implying (as he certainly seemed to be) that the rest of us had not prayed or studied because we were not really interested in knowing the mind of God. This charge of course was vehemently denied.

    The fact that his new view had also recently been adopted by an extremely opinionated and controlling family member, upon whose largesse he depended, never entered the discussion.

  4. I’d like to see a cartoon on the infamous “Bless her heart … .” That’s the one that initially comes across something like “Bless her heart, she can’t help it if she’s …” but translates to “I’m about to put the smack down on her with a huge dollop of gossipy goodness, so listen close!”

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