How Semantics, Euphemisms, & Coined Phrases Influence the Church–Part I
“Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”–safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” [Jer 7:2–11 NIV]
I am going to attempt in a series of posts, relying fully on the Lord’s help, to point out that many words used by the inspired authors of the bible and coined phrases in use now have experienced or are experiencing a semantic shift in today’s culture, words like grace, works, freedom, and unconditional love. A semantic shift occurs when a word takes on a different connotation and meaning over time. For example, the term “gay,” back in the thirteenth century, meant “lighthearted or joyful, but in the fourteenth century also took on the connotation of “bright and showy.” The term “the gay ’90s” refers to the 1890s period of a happier and more simple time in the United States. I remember back in my high school days using the word to mean “dumb or boring,” as in, “No way. I don’t want to hang out with Pete at his house. That is so gay.” Today, of course, it almost always refers to a homosexual person or practice.
We also recognize word changes in today’s political euphemisms, terms like “ethnic cleansing” or or “the Final Solution” or “alternative facts.” The diabolical nature of using these words is that they obscure truth when they are used to justify an action or soothe our conscience. What kind of fruit do these words produce? That is my major concern in this post. When words get redefined in the Church, it has far-reaching effects. It leads to either great error such as occurs in heresies, or in well-meaning folks, misunderstanding that leads to either an incongruent life or a double bind. The devil can use this to confuse, mislead, and beat up the Lord’s sheep! So let’s look at a few biblical words, euphemisms, and coined phrases that have changed or are beginning to change in our time.
The first term I will tackle in this post is unconditional love, and then I’ll touch on the euphemisms we use for the word “sin.” We hear the phrase “unconditional love of God” a lot in churches today, so please don’t feel like I’m being critical of the folks who are–I am only trying to help us recognize the enemy’s subtle error (which I also have accepted in the past without any real evaluation of the term). The secular website, “The Good Men Project,” explains the phrase this way: “The general idea behind unconditional love is to love someone wholeheartedly and unselfishly under any circumstance. It is a love in which one person cares for another person’s overall happiness and health without expecting anything in return.”
The trouble with this definition is that most folks leave out a lot of qualifiers and exceptions not contained in the synopsis. For example, the article admits that staying in an abusive relationship is not productive, nor is objection to a unhealthy habit a negative. If we didn’t add these qualifiers, that would be taking the short definition way too far. We would become a doormat by letting others treat us however they want or giving to others every whim they demand. If humans can recognize that unconditional love is in this sense not healthy, because there are always exceptions, because we have boundaries, how much more can we not recognize that to expect unconditional love from God is not healthy for us, either? The Lord is not a doormat. He is God Almighty! But what the world reasons is that unconditional means just that–no conditions whatsoever. Why? Because it appeals to our flesh to have someone else totally committed to our happiness. The problem gets twisted because we, in our natural state, don’t know what makes us truly happy. For example, I used to think smoking cigarettes made me happy. The reality was it was not my overall happiness that was in view, but my momentary pleasure at experiencing the rush of the nicotine. (At the Lord’s command, I quit. I truly believe I would not be alive today had I not listened to Him. This is true happiness!).
Unbelievers do the same thing. They equate happiness with what is giving them pleasure at the moment. And that changes so fast because we are all fickle. A person may experience some negative consequence from one pleasure, then run to a different one. Then we preach the gospel message and the Holy Spirit convicts an unbeliever of the illicit pleasure, and they say, “You are being judgmental. You are not loving me unconditionally.”
Do you see the shift in meaning for the average person? Now, in psychology it is defined more appropriately, and professionals will correct these erroneous applications and the unhealthy outcomes they produce. They often liken unconditional love to a parent, especially a mother’s love for her child. She will patiently teach, correct, and fight for her child–even die for her child. This does reflect God in so many ways. But I find it interesting that that they choose the likeness of a mother, rather than that of a father. God likens Himself to a father. Perhaps because mothers can tend to be less harsh or can take love to unhealthy extremes because of their emotional makeup. (On a side note, I would like to point out that psychology recognizes the unhealthy application of the term unconditional love in people, but because of unbelief, will not acknowledge it toward their view of God, if any!). So, the mother analogy is more correct, but I think there is a tendency to forget the Lord’s more stern side because of this. And, inevitably, as we shall see, the parent-child analogy does not even uphold a loose or even strict reading of the term.
For example, the above definition says that unconditional love does not require or expect anything in return. How often do we find ourselves telling our children, “We feed you, with clothe you, we give you shelter–and you treat us like this? The natural reaction is pain and anger at the failed expectation of obedience or demonstration of love. What about the illustration of marriage? I think I’m getting this from a sermon I heard or book I read a while back. What if a couple got married and the husband never showed his wife affection, never spent time with her, never talked to her, and constantly hurt her feelings? Would the wife just accept this in the relationship? If human beings will not feel healthy or put up with (either emotionally or in actual action) such treatment, then how much more would the the Godhead not tolerate such things? “But He is God, He can handle it,” you might say. It is true He is more longsuffering than us, but that does not mean His expectations change or are canceled out because He is perfect. If He did, we would not be the benefactors of His ultimate good He intends! His love necessitates conditions, or we would come to spiritual ruin and die.
Now, a bit on the euphemisms for “sin.” The world today does a couple things when confronted with the gospel message that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Euphemizing sin makes it less offensive to ourselves, like a subtle justification that we are really not that guilty. People make “mistakes,” and are “not perfect,” or, my favorite, are “just fun-loving.” We use euphemisms for many other words for particular sins in the bible, such as “cohabitating,” for “fornication,” and “cheating” for “adultery.” My point is that people, even Christians, don’t like to be confronted with their sin. I feel it is important to use and define these words properly, especially for unbelievers, for the simple fact that they are used over and over in scripture. If the dots aren’t connected, or connected to a different meaning, the truths in God’s Word will not be understood or lose their power. For example, in Jeremiah, the Lord says, “Israel treated it all so lightly–she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. [Jer 3:9 NLT]. So, if the common word “cheated” is used here, it brings to mind the word “dishonesty,” instead of the repugnent sin the Lord used to illustrate Israel’s propensity to worship worthless idols. Our Lord desires understanding: “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”[Hos 4:6 NIV]
Not only do the unsaved balk at the word “sin,” but they also associate it with rejection of their natural human worthiness or identity–a denial of the God-given dignity He desires for everyone. So, if we tell someone that homosexuality is sin in God’s eyes, they will shoot back that we should love unconditionally like Jesus did. They are right that we should do as Jesus did. He corrected. He reasoned. He told parables. He condemned sin. Did He love unconditionally as they mean it–to accept them just the way they are and bless their continuation of sin? Absolutely not! Jesus said, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. [Mat 18:8–9 NIV] Jesus used violent terms and hyperbole to illustrate how we need to handle sin. We are not to mollycoddle our flesh. We are to crucify our flesh: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” [Gal 5:24 NIV] We do this through the power of the Holy Spirit, not through any human means.
So, if we are to be imitators of God, does God love unconditionally? The term “unconditional love” does not occur in the bible. It was supposedly first coined by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in the 1930s, then picked up on by the free-loving sixties culture. How is it that the Church has adopted this coined phrase from an atheist? Or, pardon me, to use his own euphemism, his “nontheistic mysticism?”
Now there are many illustrations in the bible that seem to allude to the unconditional love of God, such as the prophet Hosea marrying an immoral woman to illustrate to the Israelites the Lord’s fidelity even after all their spiritual prostitution to foreign gods. But this is not unconditional in any sense of today’s layman terminology. The Lord sought Israel’s repentance, a turning away from their sinful ways to embrace His righteous ways. God’s love is many things: compassionate, longsuffering, and faithful far above any human ideal. He draws us with His loving kindness: “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them. Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?” [Hos 11:4–5 NIV] So, in the sense that God overlooks sin or winks at it, continuing to bless us and let us continue in it, no, it is not unconditional. Our Lord has given us so many conditional, or if-then statements to receive His blessing –requirements to be met–and an expectation of obedience and for His love to be returned. Consider just the following verses from scripture:
You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master. [Gen 4:7 NLT]
If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. [Deu 8:19 NIV]
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God. [Deu 28:1–2 NIV]
If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God–good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your ancestors. [1Sa 12:14–15 NIV]
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. [Isa 58:6–10 NIV]
If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the LORD Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me. [Mal 2:2 NIV]
You say, “But that’s the Old Testiment. We are under grace now through Christ our Lord.” Okay. Let’s check that out:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. [Mat 6:14–15 NIV]
“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. [Mat 18:6 NIV]
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. [Mat 18:6, 15–17 NIV]
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” [Mar 8:38 NIV]
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple. [Luk 14:26 NIV]
If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. [Mat 10:37–39 NLT]
“Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. [Jhn 8:39 NIV]
If you love me, keep my commands. [Jhn 14:15 NIV]
Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. [Heb 10:26 NLT]
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. [Rom 8:13 ESV]
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. [1Jo 4:11 ESV]
And this is just a spattering of scriptures. How is it that we have bought the lie that the Lord’s love is unconditional? It seems that the Lord’s forgiveness and compassion rather show His faithfulness, not His tolerance of sin. Repentance and change is required to have God’s blessings. In order to do those things, there is an order in God’s wisdom. First, we need to believe in the Son of God. Jesus, when asked what work the Jewish people must do to be doing the works of God, said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” [Jhn 6:29 ESV] Our response to the gospel message of faith in Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and promise of eternal life MUST begin there. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” [Jhn 3:3 ESV] We must experience new birth through the power of the Holy Spirit, new life in Christ wrought by His power. It needs to be in this order first so that it agrees with the rest of scripture that states salvation is an utter gift and victory given before we do anything good, and is lived out by the power of God. So belief, not in a god, a higher power, Allah, Buddha, or any other gods, but only in Christ Jesus (a condition, no?)–that He was who He said He was, that He did what his disciples said He did, and that His words are truly Spirit and life. I think part of the problem in the Church today is also the definition of faith or belief. How should we think about these two words? I will discuss that in my next post.
For now, I’d like you to be sure of what I am not saying. I am not saying God’s love isn’t amazing, nor longsuffering, nor superhuman, nor dependent upon who I am or how I live when I hear the gospel preached. That’s important, because Paul says that “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. [Rom 10:9–10 NIV] But please realize this is the start. This is the embryo of faith. We do not stop there. New birth happens. Growth should follow. How to walk in faith should follow. A baby that is fed and nurtured naturally grows. We are fed by the words of the Lord in the bible. We are nurtured and matured by the Holy Spirit.
I am also not saying that the Lord will not accept us when we repent. That is always his goal, to restore us, teach us, correct us–not condemn us. This side of eternity, His love is always held out to us. If you hear any of my words any other way, it is most likely spiritual battle (or I have not made myself clear enough). Often the enemy attacks when the Lord is trying to correct us for our good. What the Lord desires is godly sorrow that leads to repentance. [2 Corinthians 7:10-11] Do not listen to what Satan says:
“Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” [Gen 3:1] What type of fruit does this produce?
We need to listen to our Lord: “The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it. [Isa 55:10–11 NLT] May God’s word prove true always! Amen.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross | Isaac Watts
- When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
- Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
- See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
- Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.