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Careful – religious clichés often offer only partial truths

Paul Graves

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

Do religious clichés bug you? They can drive me crazy – if I choose to let them.

Any kind of cliché is an observation or phrase that has lost its original intent and power through misuse or overuse.

For me, religious clichés can be more than just trite. They can damage a person’s spiritual growth because “if it’s spiritual, it must be true.” At best, religious clichés are miniscule slivers of the fuller truth they appear to represent.

The older I get, the more I become the self-description I’ve used since 1985: Faithful Skeptic. As I grow more patient in my faith journey with every passing season – you choose how long a “season” is – I grow more impatient in my skepticism.

I get increasingly irritated and impatient with our intolerance of people whose religious expressions differ from our own. I despair at our selective hearing when we hear only the words of religion and choose to not listen more deeply to the heart-tones of possible spiritual connections.

So for whatever they may be worth (or not) to you on this day, here are a few random religious clichés considered by this faithful skeptic:

•“There but for the grace of God go I.” In some past column, I touched on this cliché. My opinion hasn’t changed. It too quickly settles for a “fickle god,” one who would spare me, but not another person.

I have a close friend in her early 60s who will soon die from cancer. God didn’t slip away from her through the cancer. She is actually more aware of God’s grace than ever before.

What is the real nature of God’s grace in my friend’s life if I believe “there but for the grace of God go I”? I want nothing to do with that kind of fickle deity.

•“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” These words attributed to Jesus are found in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21. They are said when he contrasts an unfailing “treasure in heaven” with excessive material accumulation.

Consider the implications when Jesus’ words are reversed: Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also. At times, we too easily let Jesus’ words roll off our tongues without letting them linger in our hearts and minds first. I find flipping clichés around or upside down generates new wonderings in me.

•Another money-related cliché: “The poor you will always have with you … .” This is spoken twice by Jesus (Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7).

This phrase only begins Jesus’ sentence in the fuller story. The last part reads “but you will not always have me.” The entire story illustrates Jesus’ reminder to focus on important matters in their own time.

Jesus was about to die. He wanted his friends to focus on their last days together. There would be time enough for reaching out to the poor.

His isn’t a prediction of how it must always be, only how it was in that moment. Yet we repeat this phrase to justify our lack of responsible action to eliminate poverty in our communities, country and our world.

While reaching out to the poor is more fashionable for us today, we still fall short. We simply try to ignore the poor and too often justify our inaction with those first words of Jesus.

We may pray for the poor and needy in our worship times, or even contribute to our local food banks. But, if we do not work to eliminate the systemic reasons for poverty, our efforts may be acts of charity, but they fall short of being the acts of the gospel justice Jesus calls us to perform.

Do you have religious clichés that bug you too? Let me know so we can explore them together.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via e-mail at
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