Jesus said, “All you need to say is simply, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:36, NIV 2011).
A few years ago a machine left a message on my answering service. The machine said, ‘Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman would like to personally invite you to…’ At that point I stopped listening, because I realized that if Raj Sherman and I can’t even agree on what constitutes a personal invitation, I probably don’t want to attend whatever it is he’s inviting me to. A personal invitation is an invitation delivered by one person to another person. A machine programmed to make robocalls cannot deliver a personal invitation.
This is an example of how inflated speech has crept into our vocabulary. Another example, one that has become to common that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so meaningless, is for people to describe themselves as ‘passionate’ about something. “I’m passionate about reconciliation’, or ‘mission’, or ‘building community’. Personally, I’ve always thought it was better to let other people describe me as passionate (or not), rather than making that claim for myself. But nowadays you can’t just be ‘interested’ in something, or even ‘quite good at it’ – you have to be ‘passionate’ about it!
Another example is in the baptismal liturgy in the (Canadian Anglican) Book of Alternative Services (that we took over lock, stock, and barrel from the American 1979 Prayer Book), in which we are asked ‘Do you promise to obey (Jesus) as your Lord?’ I am absolutely certain that no one who has made that promise has ever kept it; the absolute best that I, infected as I am by original sin, can promise is to TRY to obey Jesus as my Lord. Once again, inflated speech.
From Anabaptist and Quaker friends I’ve learned about the deep desire for truthfulness, for simple speech, that makes us reluctant to speak more than we can deliver. An oath is dangerous because it gives us the illusion that we’re in control of the future, when we’re not even completely in control of our portion of the future (all sorts of calamities beyond my control can effect my ability to deliver on the oath). To simply say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, or ‘I’ll do my best’, is to acknowledge our human finiteness and the fact that we’re not ultimately in control. To say “I’m actually quite interested in church growth and I’ve done a lot of reading and learning about it” (if it’s true) is probably (for 90% of the people who say it) more modest and honest and accurate than to say “I’m passionate about church growth”.
It concerns me that our politicians have been using inflated speech for so long that they don’t realize that they’re making the language meaningless (and you all know who I’m thinking about right now, although he’s only the latest manifestation of this). But that isn’t what should concern me the most. What should concern me the most is the number of times I myself treat language like this. God is not impressed with my outrageous exaggerations. God, the psalmist tells us, ‘desires truth in the inward parts’ (Psalm 51:6, KJV). May the Lord deliver us from inflated speech, and may he teach us the virtue of truthfulness and modesty.