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Posted Thursday, March 22, 2007 by Brian Beers
Categories: Culture and TheologyFaith  

Christianity can seem like a swarm of buzzwords, catch-phrases, and euphemisms. Current buzzwords tell us what has captured the collective attention of the church. Catch phrases tell us the efforts being made to influence the church. But euphemisms have a deeper meaning. More accurately: Euphemisms prove that there is a deeper reality. While buzzwords and catch-phrases reveal wishful thinking, euphemisms reveal a “wish it weren’t so” kind of thinking. There are aspects of reality that we cannot avoid and cannot avoid talking about. So we resort to euphemism.

Perhaps the use of euphemisms in the presence of the true God is evidence to his weight of glory. We speak of the “hand of providence,” “dying to self,” “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” and “besetting sins” among others. Yet we shy away from fully considering what they mean. In this way our use of euphemism reveals something of the power of our faith.

These phrases have a foundation in Scripture, but they have taken on a life of their own. They are a shorthand reference to vast and terrible truth, but this shorthand shortchanges the reality. We need to be able to be able to mention God’s working without invoking an entire seminary course, but we rely solely on the euphemism and let the truth atrophy. In part this is intentional.

How can we claim to understand the hand of providence? On one hand we have those wacky minute decretalists. On the other we have the unbalanced open theologians. But even stripping the cherished, vain discussions we run into the activity of a personal God who can choose to do whatever he desires. How can we bear that truth? We can’t bear another person’s binding decision even when we think we have some influence. And we have no leverage with God by which we can force his decision the way we wish.

So we invoke a euphemism, shielding ourselves from the harshness of this reality. We don’t wish to deny his hand. We are truly glad for his working. We simply cannot gaze fully on this truth. It is too weighty. And this is how euphemism shows the power of the faith and the reality of God.

We cannot often discuss the truth at any depth. It is true and we know it, and we intend to live in accord with it. But its scope is beyond us. We have to reduce it for it to fit even into intense discussions let alone casual conversation.

Even when we move away from considering God directly, the truth is still to heavy to bear. Do you have a “besetting sin” – some sin that you continue to commit though you admit that it is sin? This euphemism shields us from the shame of ongoing rebellion against God. Whatever path we trod to get here, we have a heart that is not submitted to God. We live for self and fail to comprehend the effect of our sin and God’s hatred for it. We refuse to be persuaded that it is, in and of itself, horrid. We consider God’s opinion of this horror to be no more significant than the enjoyment we derive from it.

The euphemism, besetting sin, obscures this reality. But even if we are dead to the righteousness God demands, the euphemism stands as a headstone for a reality that is dead to us. Maybe it is a reality that never was alive to you, but God likes to make the dead alive. So you are not stuck with the euphemism. You may have the reality instead. But my point in this is that while the euphemism is woefully inadequate compared to the reality, it still proves the reality of the deeper truth. And more importantly it proves that the deeper truth is greater than the euphemism. The euphemism is not an exaggeration of the reality.

An example, from ancient Israel, can serve to demonstrate the difference between exaggeration and euphemism. Baal was a Philistine god whose name also meant “owner” or “lord.” The name of Baal stands in contrast with the name of God. Yahweh is the name of God (Exodus 3:15, 6:3). His name is a cognate of “I am.” This is why the Pharisees were ready to stone Jesus when he said, “Before Abraham was I am” (John 8:58). But in written Hebrew, his name was altered to prevent the Holy name from being spoken and profaned. A Jewish scribe would not utter the Lord’s name. When he came to it in the text, the scribe would instead say, “the Lord.” This could be indicated in the text without corrupting the text because vowels are written beneath the consonant they follow. The vowels for the word “lord” (adonai) replaced the vowels for the word “I am” (Yahweh). This is the origin of the KJV transliteration Jehovah.

The key point is that “lord” was a euphemism for God’s name. And this reduced the weight of God’s glory to something comparable to that of Baal, the “owner” of the Philistines. But while Baal’s name represented the epitome of his stature, the comparable Jewish euphemism represented a major reduction in God’s stature.

In conclusion, we have euphemisms. They enable us to discuss weighty truths without collapsing from their weight, but they also allow us to stray in our application of the truth. We need to take time to unpack our euphemisms; to see where we have strayed from the teaching of Scripture. And having done that, we continue living and serving God with a whole heart. But in the meantime, euphemisms haunt us with the majestic power of the truth.

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