A woman approached me at church one Sunday and was very sincere as she requested that my wife and I pray for her and her children. In that moment, what was my profound response? Did I have something of encouragement to say to her? Sad to say but I whiffed. I fell back into a cliché response at a pivotal moment. My response to her was to “hang in there!” In a moment where I needed to respond with some of those “apples of gold” I was nothing close to being golden.
How lame was that? Couldn’t I have come up with something more original than that? I’m supposed to be a “writer” yet I couldn’t find anything better to be an encouragement to her in response to her request for prayer.
Maybe I am being a little too hard on myself but I have thought about this moment since it happened and it has bothered me a lot. Of course, it’s easy for me to think of things I could have said NOW! I think about the many times I have needed a word from someone but was frustrated with their religious cliché response to my need yet I had fallen into the same trap myself.
It’s so easy to fall back to a cliché because it’s safe. A cliché is a saying or description that is used repeatedly for a given situation. While it may be said to mean well, many times there is a backlash effect. Instead of comforting or encouraging, it is something we say because we don’t know what else to say or we are caught off guard. Words are so vital to us. Proverbs 25:11 tells us that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” To be fair, many of us don’t think quickly on our feet or have high-speed vocabulary to pull out when someone approaches us. So what can we do to be more effective in our response? I think there are two ways we can compensate for the times we fall into using a cliché. They are prayer and follow-up.
Just as this woman requested, we prayed seriously for her need. I also prayed that I would have wisdom if opportunities like that occurred in the future. I truly want to have that “word fitly spoken” for someone. Not just a “hang in there” or “keep looking up”. I want it to mean something.
Although this woman couldn’t see that we had taken her request seriously, we followed up with her. When you do this, it says to a person that you have taken their request seriously and it wasn’t just passing words in the church foyer. There are several ways you can follow-up but the best thing you can do is to communicate with the person to let them know you are praying for them. You might also include a magazine article, encouraging card or sermon on tape. When you pray for someone and listen to what God says, He will direct you on other ways to “speak” to that person.
Another way to counter the cliché trap is to study and memorize scripture more. In doing so, we could have an archive of material that we could recite in an appropriate situation. When I think of memorizing scripture I always think of those contests we did in youth groups or children’s church. If you memorized your “memory verse” you would get a prize or some other recognition. Memorizing scripture is more than that. Embedding the Word into our minds can equip all of us to be more effective servants of the Lord. It’s a shame that we can commit sports statistics to mind but barely recite key passages from the Bible. If we can memorize scripture, we can not only gain wisdom for our own lives but we can also equip others. That’s a lot more effective than remembering who hit the most home runs. A home run may impact which team wins a game but scripture memory may help someone win eternity.
Don’t get me wrong there’s certainly nothing wrong with using clichés. They are clichés for a reason. Many of them are repeated because they are based upon God’s promises made to us and they are true. Unfortunately their truth becomes weakened because of overuse. Real wondering and real doubt demands more. It is no question that it is a delicate balancing act. The balancing what we don’t know vs. what we do to help encourage someone.
We also have to be sure what we are using the clichés for. Are we spouting them because we think that is what the person is struggling with and needs to hear? Or are we spouting them because that is what we have been conditioned to say? Are we saying that because we don’t know what else to say and we don’t want to confront the reality of us not knowing, our own doubts, or our insecurities? Job’s friends had the same problems. They had a lot of right answers, but they were for the wrong problems. Instead of giving advice to make Job feel better, or even being quiet and just be with him they ended up not helping him at all.
Words are powerful and can do a lot to help someone to continue pressing ahead in life. Who else has the words that bring life than Christ? Let’s allow Him to speak through us in ways that will help hurting people and bring encouragement to others who need a little boost along the way. We can do it if we apply ourselves and default to His wisdom rather than our own. We all need a good word. There is nothing better than the right word at the right time.