The Best Post Ever!! It Will Have You in Tears!! Of Joy!! And Mourning!!

A little while ago, I began noticing facebook links with a similar pattern:

“The Cutest Kittens Ever! #3 Will Leave You Smiling for Days!”

“You Won’t Believe These Sunrises! #20 Made Me Cry!”

“This three year old is the funniest dancer ever!!”

And so on. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why these things bothered me so much; I just knew they did. My only rebuttal was simply not clicking on the links. Until now. 

In preparing to teach on oaths and vows from the Sermon on the Mount, I came across this thoughtful application by John Stott. (Keep in mind that this was written back in 1978; apparently the internet has only exacerbated an already human problem.) In speaking about the heart issue of truthfulness, he notes:

‘Oaths arise because men are so often liars.’ The same is true of all forms of exaggeration, hyperbole and the use of superlatives. We are not content to say we had an enjoyable time; we have to describe it as ‘fantastic’ or ‘fabulous’ or even ‘fantabulous’ or some other invention. But the more we resort to such expressions, the more we devalue human language and human promises. Christians should say what they mean and mean what they say. Our unadorned word should be enough, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And when a monosyllable will do, why waste our breath by adding to it?

With his usual insightfulness and brevity, Stott nails it. With every overblown superlative (“the best! the worst! the mostest!”), human language means a little less and we become a little less truthful. While we have no power to edit other people’s facebook feeds – or their mouths – we can certainly edit our own. Our trustworthiness depends not merely on whether we avoid lying like snakes but also on whether we uphold truth in the ways that we talk. And the ways that we don’t talk.

Perhaps pastors are more guilty of this than most. It is an easy trap to proclaim a particular passage or truth to be “the most important!”, not out of fact, but for the sake of emotional manipulation. But sometimes a particular sermon or lesson isn’t the most important one ever. Such constant use of manipulation through superlatives and disproportionate adjectives only serves, in time, to make us less trustworthy.

Jesus let his “yes” be “yes” and his “no” be “no.” Whether online or in person, we can follow his example by taking more care with the words we use and don’t use.

5 Comments

  1. Adam K August 7, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    This is an insightful caution. Exaggeration is the worst problem ever! In all seriousness, though, words do have meaning and when they lose this meaning, we run into trouble. Such excesses can sometimes (as was observed) amount to nothing more than shameless emotional manipulation, particularly if they dominate the pulpit.

    Nevertheless, it’s humbling to look at a man like Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, known by many (even by some anti-superlativists, if you can believe it) as perhaps the greatest preachers of the 20th century, and yet equally known for his gratuitous use of superlatives in the pulpit. Every text, every truth, every point seemed to be the “most important” when he was addressing it in a sermon. Was this sinful? Did it cause his listeners to distrust him? That would be a tough sell, I think. Honestly, I think this idiosyncratic imperfection actually served him well in many ways, as thousands of his listeners will testify. They could tell that his enthusiasm was genuine and that made it okay.

    In a world where most professing Christians get more excited about World Cups than world missions, is it really all that dangerous to get so psyched up about a particular Biblical truth that at that moment (in the pulpit) it becomes larger than life? Is it wrong to communicate this fire to our listeners? I say, let it fly. And if, in the process, we use too many superlatives, we can always apologize to the scorekeepers after the service.

    I’d much rather hear a preacher who is seriously stoked about what God is saying in a particular text (though he overuses his superlatives) than one who doesn’t seem all that excited about the truth he is declaring. I know, I know, that’s an either/or scenario and preachers should strive to be both “en fuego” AND measured in their speech. True, very true. But it doesn’t always come out that way. And I suspect that in today’s Reformed world, we tend to do a far better job of rationing our enthusiasm than channeling it. As Ryle once said, “It is much easier to catch a chill than impart a glow.”

    With all of that said, once again, I do agree with the basic warning of this well-written post. Self-conscious exaggeration and emotional manipulation are not marks of godly speech. This is a helpful emphasis so far as it goes. But give me Dr. Lloyd-Jones and his gratuitous superlatives over 99% of the other guys out there. Blessings, AK

    • Jared August 7, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

      Adam, that’s a good word. As some will testify, I’m all for enthusiasm in the pulpit!

      It does get tiring for me, though, to read MLJs sermons at points, due to this very tendency. If someone is always shouting, it’s hard to listen to them for long. If every sermon is the most important one ever, it becomes increasingly difficult to take that claim seriously.

    • Daniel C August 11, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

      Intriguing thoughts. What stood out to me the most, though, was your statement near the beginning: “words do have meaning and when they lose this meaning, we run into trouble.”

      I’m having a little trouble wrestling with that concept. On the one hand, I can very easily relate to what you said. Word-bending manners of speech such as hyperbole and sarcasm aren’t always easy for me to pick up. That makes it hard for me to appreciate it when people speak to me in those ways, and I’m very wary of speaking in those ways myself.

      On the other hand, I can point to places in the Scriptures where God uses sarcasm, so it seems that those manners of speech are not inherently bad. I don’t currently remember any instances of hyperbole in the Scriptures, though I would be interested if you knew of any.

  2. Bob Hackett August 7, 2014 at 9:16 pm #

    Jared,

    Funny you would mention that “If every sermon is the most important one ever, it becomes increasingly difficult to take that claim seriously”. I was out for my walk this morning listening to sermons and praying. I put on a sermon from man who would be considered very “high profile” at the moment and it started out something like this; “this sermon is the most important sermon you’re going to hear…” I couldn’t help chuckling a little when I heard this because he starts out many of his sermons this way and it has had the effect that you conclude (at least for this listener).

    Bob H.

    • Jared Olivetti August 12, 2014 at 9:21 pm #

      Love it. I hope your next sermon is the most important one ever, too. But we should probably let the Spirit decide stuff like that.

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