Words of 'Christian wisdom' just trip off the tongue. Whether we're searching for that killer sermon line, or a word to encourage a struggling friend, we fall back so often on the register of Christian idioms. Sometimes we whip our an out-of-context verse to make our point (with all the best intentions): "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you." Never mind the fact that God said that to a specific group of people at a specific time; it really lifts the spirits of your friend who just lost his job.
While those verses out of context are problematic, there's another set of Christian phrases which we swallow and regurgitate because they sound about right, but which don't actually find any root in the Bible. They sound like they might be verses, or at least like they convey a wholly biblical concept, but in fact they're just human spiritual wisdom, wrapped up in a Christian coating. In some cases that's mildly amusing or frustrating; in others it's deeply dangerous to a person's spiritual and emotional health. Here are some of the worst offenders.
1. Jesus wants to live in your heart
This is much more problematic than you might imagine. Because while it's true that God does literally want to transform us from the inside, and supernaturally 'fill' us with his power, that's not Jesus. Jesus words about the sending of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7) demonstrate that while Jesus is accessible to us at all times, everywhere, it's actually the Holy Spirit who wants to physically inhabit us. When we use this phrase, we subtly undermine the equal role that the Spirit plays in the Trinity, and we can lose sight of the truth of the ascension.
2. God doesn't choose the equipped, he equips the chosen
There's a kernel of truth in this: of course God is more interested in character than skills. But that doesn't mean he isn't interested in skills! This phrase unhelpfully negates the years of hard work and study that millions of Christians put in to become experts in their chosen fields, and I think we're better off being glad that they did, and then encouraging them to also develop strong character alongside.
3. God won't give you more than you can bear
Close, but that's not what the Bible says (it says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that you won't be 'tempted' beyond what you can handle), and it's also not terribly helpful to someone who has just suffered the worst tragedy of their life. This phrase subtly suggests that God is only letting you go through this agonising pain because he knows you're strong enough to handle it – and what would that say about the nature of God?
4. Pray the sinner's prayer
Of course Jesus calls people in the Gospels to moments of repentance; line in the sand points in their journey where they fully own their decision to follow him (like the thief on the next-door cross), and he calls us to the same. But the idea that it's simply through a one-time set of magic words that we become 'in' rather than 'out', of the Kingdom demonstrates a total misunderstanding of the heart of God and the nature of faith. God doesn't want us to jump through a sort of bureaucratic spiritual hoop in order to make sure we're on the list on Judgement Day; he wants every last bit of us, every day.
5. Everything happens for a reason
Hmm. I suppose in purely scientific terms, this is true. But it doesn't follow that God is orchestrating the universe like some sort of divine puppet master, deciding every single moment of all our lives before we duly go through the motions of enacting them. God is, and God intervenes, but while strict Calvinists might disagree, I don't believe he directs everything that happens, and I don't believe that he weaves every single incident on earth into a flow chart of never-ending purpose.
This phrase might feel like it helps your friend who's going through a crisis; actually it just tells them that God let something bad happen to them when he could have stopped it, because he was using the situation to accomplish something else. Yes, God works through all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28); it doesn't means he uses everything to make something good happen somewhere else.
And going along with this is...
6. God is in control
God isn't in control. He definitely has the overall victory (1 Corinthians 15:57), but he isn't controlling all events in the here and now. Why otherwise would Jesus talk in John 12, 14 and 16 about the need to drive out 'The Prince/ruler of this World'? God has surrendered control on Earth so that we might have Free Will; the ability to choose whether to follow him, or not. This phrase might seem helpful when you're waiting to hear if your mortgage has been approved; it's a lot more difficult if you've been abused, or betrayed, or otherwise agonisingly hurt, only to learn that God was apparently in control the whole time. I think this is the kind of theology that sends people spinning away from church, never to return.
7. God helps those who help themselves
Another popular Christian idiom, more so among some cultures (and political viewpoints) than others, presents the entirely unbiblical idea that God is there to get on board with our own entrepreneurial agendas, as long as we put in the hard work. In fact, the gospels seem to be much more about how we should die to ourselves (Mark 8:35) and take up our crosses and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). God has a mission, we are utterly privileged that we get to join in with it.
8. You can't outgive God
Of course this is true. God has created an awesome universe, breathed life into us, then given up his only son to death for our sakes. I'd like to see anyone try to outdo that. But when this phrase is used, the implication is purely financial, and while there are many testimonies to how God has enabled monetary miracles, he certainly doesn't promise some sort of high interest yield transaction. The famous "test me in this" verse in Malachi 3:10 is a wonderful promise of God's abundant, holistic blessing; we reduce it to a minuscule shadow of itself if we simply make it about money.
9. Hate the sin, love the sinner
Finally, let me underline that this phrase is NOT IN THE BIBLE. Jesus tells us to despise evil in our own lives, to turn from sin, and to persuade others to repent of their sin, but he doesn't tell us to hate sin in others. Because of course, as soon as we starting hating a behaviour, we hate the fact that people engage in that behaviour. It's a short walk from there to – if not hating – definitely feeling negatively about those people, and this trite phrase perfectly sums up the condescending duplicity of conditional love. That's not to say we can't stand against injustice and its perpetrators – many wonderful Christian individuals and organisations do so, and make the world a better place as a result, but even then we should be focusing on the need to defeat sin, not to feel an angry emotion about it. If this all feels a bit like complicated semantics, Jesus makes it wonderfully simple. "Love the Lord your God... and love your neighbour as yourself" he says.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape.