By Riley Manning
The word of God is anything but simple, but bumper sticker-sized catchphrases about faith seem to be a dime a dozen, from “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin,” to “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
“Some are theologically accurate, but have been taken out of context and said so often they’ve become distorted, while others are plain incorrect,” said Tupelo’s West Jackson Street Baptist Church pastor the Rev. Keith Cochran.
Everything happens for a reason
The Rev. Jason McAnally, pastor of Origins in Tupelo, said though these sayings are often meant to be a comfort, they can sometimes hurt more than help.
“I feel like people resort to them in times of tragedy, when we don’t know what else to say,” he said. “But sometimes, the idea is just too comfortable and easy, and leads us to misrepresent God. When does Jesus ever give an easy answer? Usually he responds with a story or another question.”
McAnally pointed to the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.”
“But what about the Holocaust? Or infant death?” McAnally asked.
At best, he said, the idea is reformed theology taken to an extreme that most Calvinists probably wouldn’t go. McAnally said maybe the popularity of the phrase is rooted in a desire to gain control and understanding of a tough or complex circumstance.
“Our culture isn’t a fan of mystery. If everything happens for a reason, at least that explains the ‘why’ behind a situation,” he said. “What people really mean is that God can use all things for good, but that’s a very different thing.”
God helps those who help themselves
The Rev. Stanford Adams, curate at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo, said another disadvantage to faith-based platitudes like, “God helps those who help themselves,” is they associate unhappiness and misfortune with a lack of faith.
“These sayings have truth in them, but lend themselves to over-application,” Adams said. “A lot of our Saints’ Brew [food ministry] guests are where they are because of racism, a lack of support system, and other built-in barriers to mobility. Try telling them, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”
That particular slogan, he said, isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. Of course, many people on whom Jesus performed miracles – blind men, lepers, demoniacs, etc. – were precisely those in a position where they were unable to help themselves.
“‘God will never give you more than you can handle’ is one I hear a lot,” Adams said. “The purpose of it is to get people out of suffering, but moving away from that grief before they’re ready can be harmful psychologically and spiritually. We don’t have to feel better to feel God’s presence.”
Love the sinner, hate the sin
Cochran took issue with the idea that God “loves the sinner, but hates the sin,” and said God hates both sinner and sin.
“It’s meant to be a tool to communicate God’s love in a little less judgmental way, but it ends up softening God’s stance against sin,” Cochran said.
He pointed to a sermon from Southern Baptist preacher the Rev. David Platt, who pinpoints verses like Psalms 11:5, which reads, “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence,” and John 3:36, saying, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
“Even still, he died for us, and told us to pray for those who persecute us. It’s hard to wrap your head around. How can a God of love hate something? But when you short-sell God’s judgment, you short-sell his love, too,” Cochran said.
Bless your heart
Dr. Ted Owenby, director for the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, said these religious catchphrases mark an interesting intersection between the South’s relationship with language and its relationship with faith.
“The South’s largest religious group is evangelical Protestants, and the centerpiece to that movement is largely the issue of conversion,” he said. “So I suspect some of these sayings are rooted in the need for catchy, memorable phrases that are easily slipped into conversation.”
For evangelicals, he said, the maxims are kind of like road signs, reminders to live a Christian life because life can end at any moment.
“The downside is that a lot of meaning is lost between the shorthand line and the complicated ideas they stand in for,” he said.
Cochran said at the end of the day, anything that can fit on a bumper sticker is most likely doing God’s word an injustice.
“Whether you want to console someone or give them hope, the best way is to point to Jesus and to authentic scripture, and to listen,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times in a pastoral situation I haven’t known what to say. And that’s OK. I tell them I’m here, that I don’t have all the answers, that we can go talk to God together.”