Christian Fluff

“Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore, let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5:2

It’s usually in High School that many students learn the skill of adding fluff to their writing assignments to make them fit the length that their rubric’s requite. Whether it be consulting a thesaurus to replace shorter words with longer ones that they don’t quite know the meaning of, or repeating sentences in as many ways as they can justify, these students, myself once being one of them, add content in hopes of a good grade.

It’s usually in church board meetings or evening prayer gatherings that believers learn to pad their prayers to make them sound more elegant and impressive to those listening. Maybe an extra mention of the phrase “hedge of protection,” the word “impact,” or an explanation of how our concerns might be “lifted up” to God may even bolster our competence in the minds of those with us.

But I wonder if this Christian fluff, these phrases we speak in prayer, or even in conversations with other believers, is just as damaging as it is to the student who fills his paper with mindless jargon? Do we really know what we speak about? Have we examined what the words we use actually mean?

Rashly Spoken Vows & Words

In Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, the Teacher warns his audience against making hasty vows to the LORD, ones they never really intend to follow through. He labels this behavior as foolish, and explains that it is better to say nothing at all than to say something mistakenly (5:6).

I imagine that many Israelites were tempted to promise the LORD much in exchange for divine help, only to backtrack on their words when their requests were heard and granted. It might even be the case that vows were used in the attempt to manipulate God to act. Yet, and in doing either of these things, an Israelite would characterize God wrongly. The LORD is in heaven and not on earth. He cannot be manipulated. He is not impressed with piety for piety’s sake.

Hannah Arendt, in the intro to her book The Life of the Mind, wrote: “Cliches, stock phrases, [and] adherence to the conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking-attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.”

Arendt was writing in response to the cliché’s she heard Nazi officials use in order to hide their own consciences from the horrors of their crimes. But her words about stock language, in a more general sense, can be applied to our topic now.

Christian fluff can shield us from speaking the truth. It can make us lazy as using it is surely much easier than doing the hard work of genuine study and reflection. It robs us from learning how to sit in tension amidst the mystery of God. And just like some ancient Israelites were doing, we might be tempted to use words that sound pleasing without really considering their meaning. We might try to manipulate God with our displays of baseless piety.

Maybe phrases like “Let go and let God” or “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” should be retired. Maybe any language that turns truth into a trivial shadow of itself should be done away with. And maybe lines like “I’ll pray for you” should be followed up with genuine prayer (or better, action) lest we become ones who promise sacrifices in the Temple but don’t deliver when it comes time to fulfill (5:4-6).  

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