Words Give You Away

Words give you away. A week or so ago I posted something on Facebook to encourage people who fear that God has been removed from our schools. That post got more likes and shares and “thank you’s” than anything else I’ve ever put on Facebook. When one of my friends shared it to his Facebook wall, he got a reaction I could never have anticipated.

A guy started quibbling with the theology, “Is David saying that all of these people worried about God not being in schools do not believe in God’s omnipresence?” Stupidly, I took the bait, and quite the lively and completely pointless back-and-forth ensued, though we both remained very courteous. His point was that I’m missing what people truly intend when they complain that God has been taken out of schools. What people actually mean, he said, is not that God has been removed, but that God is no longer openly acknowledged. My friendly opponent argued that I was quibbling over a “Freudian slip,” that people don’t actually mean it like it sounds. But it’s not a Freudian slip. Freudian slips are accidental. They do not keep “slipping” out of people’s mouths the same way over and over and over again.

My response was, and is, that people nearly always say pretty much what they believe. In fact, your words actually belie what you really believe. Words give you away. If you say, “God is no longer in our schools,” you don’t mean only that “while God is certainly present in a theological sense, he is no longer openly acknowledged.” You in fact mean that the lack of acknowledgement of God’s presence in schools makes you feel that God is no longer there at all.

Freudian slips are not the issue. If you deeply and truly believe in the loving grace and presence of God in every school everywhere, it simply will not occur to you to say, “God has been removed from the schools.” If you do say this, then you do not truly believe God is everywhere in any meaningful sense. Even if you can make finely tuned theological arguments about God’s omnipresence and insist that you believe them, you don’t. Words give you away.

Christians all over the country regularly ask God to help them live what they believe. But they’re missing the actual reason they’re not already living it, which is either that they do not actually believe it, or whatever they believe is messed up and their lives reflect the mess. You will live what you most deeply believe, count on that. You are doing that right at this moment. Words give you away. Listen to yourself. When you pray, do you ask God to “be with” so and so? Don’t you believe God is already with that person? When church starts, does the pastor invite God into the service? Isn’t God already there? Do you REALLY believe that? It’s not God who needs an invitation — we human beings need an invitation to join God where God already is. Don’t you think that confusion manifests itself in your life? Count on it. Our words give us away. If you’re listening to yourself and others, you will find a thousand ways a week that words reveal we believe something other than what we claim to believe.

Watch evangelical Christian behavior — who they love and hate, who they exclude, who they can justify looking down on, what they think about hell and salvation, how they act in regard to Jesus’ clear teachings on loving enemies, on non-violence, on love for the poor. You will see what Christians actually believe. That is why theology is increasingly distasteful to me. Though it has its (very small) place, as I get older I have less and less room for abstractions in my life.

The Apostle James wrote,

James 1:27 (NIV)

27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Christian religion too often begins with theological abstractions about God, sin, heaven, hell, faith, etc., but real religion is something you do. It is a way of living in the world before it is anything else at all. To whatever extent it is not this, it is just a set of abstractions and theories. That is why we can argue endlessly about it. We cannot argue with the kind of action James wrote about. I want to increasingly live my life in ways that can’t be argued with, because I want my life to increasingly be about what I do and how I live. When discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. — a Christian pastor — no one ever says, “He held these heretical universalist views.” His faith was embodied in how he lived in obedience to Christ, and no one questions particulars of his beliefs.

The moment I say something like this, someone always comes along and says, “Yes, but you must be careful about belief,” and “You gotta have a balance,” etc., etc, and we are instantly back into abstractions and arguments. I’m not going to relate to God that way any more. Words give you away. Me too.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • I love that you quoted from James (Which is one of my favorite Biblical books.)
    And I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. At the very heart of your message I see the same truth that James hits on shortly after you quoted him, in chapter 2.

    “18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?”

    Or as the Message says it:
    ” I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”
    Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
    Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?”

    This is an area that I need major improvement in. I’m working on turning my words and claims of faith into tangible action.

    • Me too, Jerry. Big time. I have recently been blessed to have a very, very poor man come into my church who desperately needs help. Spending time with him and getting to know him, driving him around places, etc., has been a huge blessing to me. I realize in those moments I’m doing the work of God (as well as at my job, at home, etc., but serving the poor brings it home for some reason) and it’s amazing. It puts theology in its place — the fairly low place it deserves compared to how we live.

  • Ruth

    Good thoughts…I enjoyed reading your blog today Dave.

  • Joy Arbor

    I so enjoy your blog and FB posts! There’s a lot to love in here, but all I want to say here is that the reality that your words give you away is why I think the anti-political correctness argument (“you know what I mean” and “everyone knows I’m not racist so I can say these racist things”) is so bogus (as do researchers on the connections between words, even listening, and subsequent action, at least toward people), and writing about the self is so illuminating. Of course, with writing about the self (reflective writing) you have to be willing to read what you actually say and investigate it. This is why I love reflective writing for myself and advocate it for my students — as a tool toward self-knowledge. Just sayin’. Hoping you’re on the mend, Dave!

    • Thank you, Joy. It means a lot to me that you keep reading. I respect your intellect and articulateness (is that a word? – ha!).

      I see what you’re saying about anti-political correctness. You can definitely apply my post to that and there is definitely merit to it. “I’m not trying to be racist but…” nearly always means, “I’m about to say something racist but don’t want to be considered a racist.” On the other hand, I think the PC thing goes way too far, emphasizing victim-hood a bit much. People probably do need to develop thicker skins! I also celebrate and enjoy the fact that we’re getting back to where comedians can talk about race and culture/ethnicity in their acts again and jokes can be understood as jokes.

      Keep reading and commenting. We agree on many things and when we don’t, you always challenge me to think!