I suppose they are rather harmless by themselves; pithy and trite sayings intended to give you a positive perspective on an otherwise ordinary day:
• "Believe in yourself."
• "Live your dreams."
• "Be good to yourself today."
• "Keep moving forward; don't look back."
But what struck me this time, as I placed the last bite of chocolate on my tongue, was how similar these Dove sayings are to many things spoken from pulpits and podiums in the mainline American church.
Listen to many popular "preachers" today and you likely won't be able to go 2 minutes without one of these sayings invading your eardrums. "You have the seeds of greatness on the inside." "There's a champion in you waiting to be discovered." "God's got a big purpose for you, so aim high." "Don't let hard times get you down. Pick yourself up, and tell yourself, 'I'm important. I'm significant. I'm going somewhere.' " "Take hold of all that God has in store for you." Doesn't it seem strange—no, frightening—that there is no qualitative difference between what many "pastors" are preaching from their stages and what a candy company is printing on their wrappers? It struck me as odd that such teachers are unwittingly using Dove candy wrappers as if they are part of Holy Writ. Why is it that so many "pastors" and teachers are taking the liberty of basing entire "sermons" on words that are qualitatively no different than Dove candy wrappers? Maybe I missed the memo, but could someone tell me when these shiny foil candy casings were included in the canon of Scripture?
Oh. They weren't?
Well, that's a relief. Because not only is there the glaring problem that the vast majority of these words contradict Scripture itself; there is also the reality that such words are, at the end of the day, worthless garbage, worthy of the same grave as candy wrappers: the landfill. They don't proclaim any true or lasting hope; just positive, narcissistic thoughts and nice, ego-stroking words that fade almost as quickly as they are heard.
I know. It sounds mean, right? "What's the harm?" some may ask. "Certainly you're not opposed to a little bit of positive thinking. Certainly inspiring words can't hurt. They can brighten a day and bring a smile to our face."
But there's a dirty little secret...
(They aren't true. And they can hurt. Eternally.)
As a pastor, I sit with people in some difficult situations. Terminal cancer. Broken relationships. Sexual confusion. Questions about God's love. Consciences burdened with decades of guilt and recurring sin. With all of these situations, there is conversation that can be had and questions that can be asked so that the law can be properly administered and the healing balm of the Gospel can be applied with care.
And then there's death.
Death's unrelenting presence has this way of shutting us up. It's so powerfully big that it leaves us speechlessly small. Death is not a conversationalist. Death is not swayed by cute, empty, feel-good phrases. Death can see through a pastor's shiny teeth and manicured hair. Death takes the self-esteem, life-lesson bullet points from the sermon, regardless of the eloquence with which they are spoken, and exposes them for the vacuous nonsense that they truly are. Death has this way of shutting us up, and the few words we do speak tremble under his weight.
So, when it comes to the words that we speak in the face of suffering to try and bring true joy and lasting hope, consider the "deathbed test". It works like this: imagine you are sitting at the bedside of a dying person. There's no question that this person will be dead before the week's end, if they even last that long. They are suffering. They are in pain. They have questions about their future. They are worried about their family. Their life is leaving them before your very eyes. And you are there to speak some kind of word that is supposed to bring them comfort. Throw into the mix that they are probably thinking much about their life of sin, and wondering if the cross of Christ is truly as gracious and saving as it sounds. If they are left in that sin, they will spend eternity in hell.
Next, take a saying. Any saying will do. Maybe it's one you heard on the radio. Maybe it's a piece of wisdom you learned from your grandfather. Maybe you read it on a candy wrapper. It could even be a Scripture verse. Take those words and imagine yourself uttering them in that room where death is holding court. If the words that you release into a dying human's ears are actually able to give true and lasting hope in the face of death itself by pointing them outside of themselves to Christ alone, you've probably got a pretty good nugget of truth. It ought to sound something like this:
• "But God showed his own love for us in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8)
• "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:23)
• "But Christ has indeed been raised from death, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Cor. 15:20)
• "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." (1 Cor. 15:26)
• "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." (John 11:25)
• "God made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, in order that we may become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21)
• "We were buried with him, therefore, through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, we, too, may live a new life." (Rom. 6:4)
• "All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Is. 53:6)
• "But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:4-7)
(Notice the lack of narcissistic positivism and the focus on Jesus?)
However, if the words you have chosen to speak cause Death to throw back his head and laugh in diabolical delight at the sheer stupidity they contain (e.g. "Never give up." "Believe in yourself." "Keep moving forward; don't look back." "Tomorrow will be a brighter day." "Think positive thoughts."), well, it's probably a good idea never to utter those words again. Anywhere. Ever. Not the deathbed, not the bus stop, not the dinner table. Really. Leave them for the candy companies.
You see, the thing about Dove chocolate wrappers is that, while they may tell us the self-inflating sentiments that we like to hear, they have a less-than desirable destination: the garbage heap. They eventually land amidst slimy banana peels, last week's moldy leftovers, and baby diapers, the contents of which shall remain undisclosed. The words may last for a moment, maybe a day, and then they are crumpled up into a tiny ball, thrown into a wastebasket, and forgotten even before their chocolatey contents traverse your digestive tract. Even worse than their fleetingness, such greeting card sentiments instruct suffering people to find hope in themselves, or in some vague ideas floating in the sky about happiness, positive thinking, flowers, brighter tomorrows, or some such nonsense about God closing doors and opening windows. Such words are completely impotent in the face of daily suffering, in the valley of the death-shadow, and in the guilt-racked corners of the conscience. Is that the kind of garbage theology we ought to be feeding the lambs of Christ, whether in the pew or on the deathbed? The answer is quite simple: no, it isn't.
What should we be feeding them?
We should be feeding them a word that will first point them to their true natural selves: sinners in need of a Savior. We should be feeding them a word which takes seriously their suffering as a result of that sin. We should be feeding them a word that tells them who their Savior is and what he has done to forgive them by his shed blood on the cross and the empty Easter grave. We should be feeding them a word that is so powerful that it slays the wicked father of lies. We should be feeding them a word—the only word—that can stand up to the great enemy of death; a word that defeats death not with positive thinking and and fluffy phrases, but by bursting its bonds with a vacant tomb. I only know of one place to find words like that: Jesus.
Let's leave the garbage theology in the trash where it belongs, and instead proclaim Christ.