Reinventing How We Talk about God

Does this sound familiar?

"I know you think you understand what you thought I said. What you don't understand is that what you thought I said is not what I meant."

Hugh Hewitt once told me when he was on my radio show that as Christians we have to reinvent how we talk about God. I think he's right. Too often we're misunderstood. As a result, we've missed some valuable "moments of truth."

For example, recently on Larry King an able Christian theologian talked with confidence and polish about his "faith." He was winsome and engaging, explaining his "beliefs" with clarity and confidence. In fact, his beliefs were the same as mine.

So what's the problem? I don't think much of the audience understood what he meant. I think they heard his words in an entirely different way than he was using them.

If I said, "Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States," people would know I was talking about historical facts. By contrast, if I said, "I believe in the resurrection of Jesus", many people would not think I was talking about historical facts, but personal faith: my sentiments, my feelings, my preferences.

From their perspective, words like "faith" and "belief" don't describe the world, they describe me. These words have been relativized in our pluralistic culture. Statements about Jesus may reflect personal "truths" (i.e., "true for me"). But they're not true; they are not facts. They are merely "beliefs" - well-intentioned falsehoods, useful fictions, convenient illusions, what I choose to feel personally.

That's not what we say, but it's often what they hear.

I notice the same thing when a newspaper recounts the rescue of a hiker who, against all odds, survives a deadly blizzard because "My faith got me through." The article concludes, "He endured because of his strong faith." Note, the writer understands the Christian to mean it was the strength of his beliefs, not the strength of the One in whom he believed that got him through. That's probably not what the hiker meant, but it's what the reporter heard.

Let me suggest a simple adjustment. Since there is often a difference between what we say and what they hear, don't give others the chance to misunderstand. Let's be more specific and exact in our language. Instead of using emotive "faith" language, use the language of truth.

Don't talk about your beliefs, talk about your convictions, about what you've been convinced of. Don't talk about faith, talk about truth. Don't talk about values, talk about what you understand the moral facts to be.

The question "Do you take the Bible literally?" is also loaded. A simple "yes" could be misleading, so I answer in a way that makes my own meaning clear: "I think the Bible accurately records what actually happened." No ambiguity here.

I've actually encouraged Christians to ban words like "faith" and "belief" from their vocabulary. These words no longer communicate what we intend them to and so our effectiveness as ambassadors is diluted.

It's not that faith isn't valuable. It's vital. But "faith" language is often misunderstood as a "leap," a blind, desperate lunge into the darkness or a personal sentiment. It sounds too much like religious wishful thinking.

The STR Ambassador's Creed says that an Ambassador is "reasonable." He has informed convictions, not just feelings or religious sentiments. When he talks about Jesus, he is careful to communicate that he is talking about facts, not just the a kind of religious wishful thinking the words "faith" and "belief" frequently conjure up.

So, instead of using "faith" language, I say, "Here are the facts, as I see them." I use the language of truth during my moments of truth. You should, too.

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Greg Koukl