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Words I Avoid

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Like many of you, words matter to me. I select them carefully. In theological contexts, there are some words I avoid pretty thoroughly. They aren’t bad words. (Bad words are far more delicious and difficult to eradicate.) These are words that irritate me, that carry a very slight tilt one direction when my own ideas tilt the other.

I’m not claiming you must avoid these words, that they are dangerous, or utterly unfit. My list below will finally tell you more about me than the words.

1. Perfect, worthy, pure—these words are biblical and in a vacuum there is nothing wrong with them. But of course, we don’t live in a vacuum. I have found that these words stir up so much shame and fear on one hand, rage and resentment on the other hand. People hear them and some adolescent peccadillo immediately rushes to the surface of their consciousness. These words make them feel dirty. Once upon a time they were a disappointment to…their parents, their pastor, God. A few people have pushed beyond that response. For them, these words bring back memories of manipulation, hypocrisy, and devious churches. These words set off their highly sensitive BS detectors. So I’m giving these words a 200 year time out. In the year 2200, we can take them out and see if they are fit to be used again. (God’s wrath and anger are similar. They are scriptural words and may enhance our understanding of God. There are some pretty solid explanations of what is actually intended. But the trauma awakened in so many people by these words, and the twisted ways these words have been used might mean that they too need a two century time-out.)

2. Spiritual—most of the time “spiritual” is an adjective that isn’t needed. Why “spiritual life” when “life” will do just as well? “Spiritual” leadership. “Spiritual” questions. Spiritual seems to bring reverence to the word it is modifying, but instead it makes them unreal and lightweight. It restricts God’s concern to ethereal things, to a mysterious area about the size of a grapefruit near your sternum. God is about our whole life, not some shadowy portion of it. Our Lord became incarnate, tangible, and concrete, so let’s focus on the incarnate and the whole.

3. Triune—I picked this up from an Orthodox friend who rolled his eyes at “Triune.” I’m not entirely sure why. But he was brilliant and knew everything theological. I think the concern is that we can better and more simply say “the Trinity,” or even the “Holy Trinity.” In using “Triune” we are trying to sound trinitarian, but using Triune as an adjective of God—the Triune God—still tilts toward the oneness of God. Threeness becomes an accessory, a quality, not essence. Really, we are disclosing our own discomfort with the Trinity. And sometimes you don’t use a word because a really smart person doesn’t.

4. Father—I really don’t want this to be about gender-neutral language for God. I’m not a stickler, not avant-garde. But there are so many other possible names for God. Just because I don’t use “Father” doesn’t mean it is going away. Almost every lay person I hear pray still begins “Dear Heavenly Father…” so my boycott is apparently having no impact. Yes, I know about Jesus and his Abba. Yes, I understand the significance of the trinitarian formula—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and use it often. Beyond that, however, “Father” isn’t one of my names for God.

5. Ought/must/should—I don’t think these words work. In my sermons or in Christians ethics, saying we ought or should, changes nothing. It may even lead to the sense that Christianity is a self-improvement program. But I especially hear it in conversations about the future of the Church, i.e. “in the 21st century the church must…” I hear it as a word of the immature and the impatient, as if the Church is our creation, at our control. And of course, if we do it wrong, the whole enterprise will go under. Thankfully, it won’t.

6. Sanctification—I’m not sure I even believe in sanctification anymore. (Plus it is one of those churchy, insider words.) We don’t get better. I like what the Heidelberg Catechism says in Q&A’s 114 and 115—paraphrasing here, but basically even the most mature only make small progress in being better, and that genuine sanctification is to realize more fully your own sinfulness and to rely more and more on Jesus Christ. Sanctification is not a project for the individual, it is an eschatological reality in Christ.

7. Sovereign—I guess I still believe in God’s sovereignty, more-or-less, correctly nuanced. But the word itself feels so impersonal, lever-pulling, and cold-unto-cruel. I don’t find much of that sort of sovereignty from Jesus. I prefer to talk about God’s love being preemptive, taking initiative, and coming to find us.

8. Learn and teach—for someone who wants to learn and loves to teach, these may seem like weird words to exclude. But they are so Reformed, so didactic, so neck-up. I hear it a lot in our Reformed church liturgies. Why be poetic and inspiring, when you can give a ponderous theological primer instead? The question then arises, what words to use instead? Share? Love? Follow?

9. Believe and faith—like a lot of my words, I’m not able to fully eliminate them, but I try to use them sparingly. Here I’m jousting against the common American maxims, “Do you believe in God?” As we all know, even the devils believe (and tremble). And, “You gotta have faith!” In who or what? I try to use the word “trust” a lot. It conveys, I believe, more of a relationship, a connection, reliance—and less of an assent or knowledge.

Your words? What nuances do they carry? What words do you try to avoid and what do you use instead? And what does it tell you about yourself?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the Reformed Journal's previous iteration, Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

6 Comments

  • debmechler says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay, since our language about these matters affects the way we perceive life and how we function as a result. I have also been replacing faith and belief with trust. Another one for me: “the congregation I serve” instead of “my church,” for obvious reasons.

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Loved your list! I would add “just” as in “God, I just want to… blah blah blah. Amen.”

  • Eric Barnes says:

    You put words to many of my thoughts. Thanks Steve.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks to you all for your input.I also heard privately from several people who talked about what one person called “Orwellian church talk.” “Come along side” and “metrics” were two to be avoided. At some point, someone should write “Words I Try to Use A Lot.” About “justs” in prayers, for Lent I am going to stop counting “justs” in the prayers of others.

  • David Vandervelde says:

    A couple words that I have seen over-used to the point of becoming (somewhat) meaningless:
    – Missional
    – Unity
    – Justice

  • Sue Nave says:

    how about “blessed”? as in we are so…

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