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‘Broken,’ ‘Authentic,’ ‘Surrender’: The Problem of Christian Jargon

Kimson Doan on Unsplash

It’s easy, perhaps even necessary, to mock Christian jargon from time to time. As George Orwell said decades ago, jargon first obscures—and then prevents—thought and communication. And that’s intolerable if we are, in Paul’s words, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

Before the fun begins, however, we must make distinctions. Some jargon comes directly from Scripture. For example, “saved” appears many times in God’s Word, and it generally has the sense we give it in church circles. “Saved” is an important biblical term, and the danger is not that it’s misleading, but that we use it thoughtlessly, so the term loses its heft.

But more often, our jargon has a light connection to Scripture. One thinks of prayer language like “hedge of protection” and “open door.” We pray the Lord will open a door or put a hedge of protection around someone. “Hedge of protection” comes from Job 1:10, and the concept of God easing one’s ministry path appears in Colossians 4:3 and Acts 14:27. Conversely, Acts 16:7–10 shows that the Lord closes doors or paths.

Overuse of a minor concept can deafen us to more prominent biblical concepts.

The difficulty here is that overuse of a minor concept can deafen us to more prominent biblical concepts. In biblical history, sometimes a door is closed and the Lord expects believers to find a way to push it open. In Luke 5:17–26, a group of faithful men encountered a closed door to a house and decided to gain entry by tearing off the roof—a choice Jesus commended.

Broken Jargon

“Broken” is an interesting case. In my circles (perhaps not yours), certain pastors and teachers often tell their people they are broken or need to face their brokenness. Without completing a study of Hebrew and Greek terms, it may be enough to say that “broken” typically appears between 100 and 200 times in standard English translations and that the sense is almost always negative, often sharply negative. To be broken is normally to be useless (a broken bow) or to be devastated, defeated, or despairing, as many passages show (e.g. Ex. 6:9; 1 Sam. 2:10; Ps. 31:12; 69:20; 102:23; Job 17:1; 31:22).

I believe “broken” has a positive sense one time in the Bible: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). “Brokenhearted” is also positive four times: Psalms 34:18, Psalm 109:16, Psalm 147:3, and Isaiah 61:1. “Broken” or “brokenhearted,” then, appears to be a metaphorical way to say God is pleased when sinners repent, humble themselves, and turn to God for healing. To be broken is a proper response to sin, which leads to God’s grace and restoration.

There are three difficulties with the jargonish use of “broken.” First, “broken” takes on meanings that aren’t quite biblical. So, we sometimes hear a person glorying in his brokenness: “I feel so broken.” They seem to mean they grieve their sin, but it’s an odd way to say it and can have a prideful ring, as if one is glorying in his humility. Second, “broken” drives out other, more biblical terms like “sin.” A disciple once told me, “My campus minister never told me I was a sinner or committed sins. I was simply broken.” So “broken,” which sounds like a disability, not a moral problem, displaces sin and rebellion. I don’t want to banish “broken.” The term can label problems; for example, a broken political system. But a statement like “God comforts his broken children” is ambiguous. Is sin in view? Third, this shows that overusing “broken” can supplant clearer biblical language.

Consider that Scripture commands or encourages believers to “Be strong” more than 30 times (Josh. 1:6–9; 1 Kings 2:2; Ps. 27:14; Isa. 35:4; 2 Tim. 2:1). If we constantly commend brokenness, how can we also say “Be strong”? And might the failure to commend strength cause a communication failure with a certain kind of person—not because we critique foolish self-confidence, but because we fail to urge men and women to aspire to greatness and power in Christ?

Surrender Your Transparency and Authenticity

There is a third category of jargon—terms that have no biblical basis whatsoever and come from secular culture. “Surrender,” “transparency,” and “authenticity” all belong in this category. The Bible never uses “surrender” in the jargon-laden sense of making peace with God through faith. And “transparency” and “authenticity” never appear in Scripture. Still, Christians often command believers to surrender to God and be more authentic. When we adopt opaque concepts, we may baptize secular concepts that sound quasi-Christian.

Consider “transparency,” as in, “You need to be more transparent.” At times, that means, “Tell me what I want to know.” The Bible certainly advocates honesty, but it never promotes telling people everything they want to know. Proverbs 17:9 says, “He who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Gossip need not be false to be harmful. Some matters are private. Why should a pastor “be transparent” about a recent counseling session with Mr. or Ms. Jones?

Precise language is a servant of good theology.

“Authenticity” also seems semi-Christian at first. The Bible teaches believers to be genuine, honest, and sincere, but authentic is not quite the same. Our culture defines authenticity as living life according to the needs of one’s inner being, rather than the demands of society or family. In existentialist thought, authenticity means choosing one’s path and thereby defining oneself. The authentic person is true to the self and rejects the common path; that idea is clearly sub-Christian. God does not want me to follow my path and chart my course; he wants me to follow the path Jesus charted. While Frank Sinatra may sing “I did it my way,” Scripture commends God’s way. The Bible never says “Be true to your inner desires.” It blesses Jesus, who said, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).

A believer’s praise of authenticity may be an innocent lack of precise language. Maybe he or she simply wants to promote sincerity. Yet the praise of authenticity may also be a step toward expressive individualism, which asserts that every person is original and that our unique capacities, stories, vision, and passions dictate the way we ought to live. Sadly, believers all too frequently adopt concepts that seem to resonate with biblical ideals, but actually contradict them.

As Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse point out in Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate, professing Christians can reason like this: “God made me and therefore made the desires I have. Everything God makes is good, and therefore my desires are good. Good desires deserve, even ought, to be fulfilled.” Anything less is inauthentic. But Scripture never says all our desires come from God, never says all desires are good, and never even says we should indulge every good desire (I may desire sleep and yet need to stay awake).

Let’s Get It Right

The need to get our language right applies to all sorts of theological and ethical discussions. Approaching them, we remember Paul forbids quarrels about words and encourages a peaceable approach (2 Tim. 2:14, 24–26). Yet we also know that precise language is a servant of good theology. Liberal theologians may call Jesus “Savior” but mean that his teachings and example “save” his followers from an empty life. They may say Jesus rose from the dead, but if they just mean his spirit and teaching live on, we must insist that “resurrection” has a physical dimension.

Someone once said men will fight about important things and that a religion that utters pious phrases but shrinks from controversy will never stand. So let us strive to use the right words in the right way, for the sake of Christ and his church. I don’t ask that everyone guard their every word, but I do propose that leaders draw our language—words and meanings—from Scripture as much as possible, seeking to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

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