People who write about writing tell us to avoid cliches. I read one article that advised tucking a few cliches into dialogue, if you’re writing fiction, so the conversations sound normal and familiar. Generally, though, cliches are considered trite and unoriginal. There’s nothing modern readers and publishers like so much as an original idea or a twist on an old one.
While I agree with all of the above, one day it dawned on me that the problem with cliches are not the phrases themselves. The problem is us. Most of the definitions and articles I looked up said that a phrase became a cliche through overuse. Why was the phrase overused? Because it aptly or creatively expressed something people identified with. But people heard it so much, they got tired of it. Then the phrase lost its luster, if not its meaning. The phrase still meant what it always did, but we don’t hear it the same any more. We gloss over it or even get irritated by it.
Most of us use cliches thoughtlessly out of habit—thus the admonition to watch for and eliminate them from our writing and speech. But some cliches are used to stop a conversation, according to Wikipedia. For instance, if you’re telling someone your troubles, and they respond, “That’s just the way the cookie crumbles” or “Into each life some rain must fall” (though the latter is from a poem), they’re not really interested in hearing you.
It’s possible to let truth become cliche spiritually as well, isn’t it?
In the church I attended in my teens and college years, we sang “Victory in Jesus” quite a lot. In another church my husband and I attended several years ago, a frequent congregational song was “Til the Storm Passes By.” In another place, it seemed like I heard “Be Thou My Vision” almost every week. For a while, I almost cringed when I heard these songs announced or heard their opening notes.
But was there anything wrong with the songs? No, they are all wonderful expressions of Biblical truth. The fact that they seemed overused was a problem in my own heart.
What about Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Granted, sometimes people use this verse like a band-aid on cancer. They mean well, but they want to “fix” the problem instead of weeping with those who weep, and then the verse becomes a conversation-stopper. But does the frequency with which we hear this verse null its meaning and effectiveness? It shouldn’t.
If someone quotes or refers to Psalm 23, should I glibly think, “Shepherd, sheep, got it,” and move on?
When Israel complained about eating manna, honestly, I can identify with them. But God faulted them for grumbling and murmuring. They forgot the miracle of God’s provision in the wilderness—a wilderness they were wandering in due to their own sin and failure.
In Malachi, Israel was offering to the Lord animals that wouldn’t even be fit for a governor (1:8), much less for a sacrifice for God. Then the people complained, “What a weariness this is” (1:13).
It’s good to be familiar with God’s Word. Throughout the Bible, God expects us to know Scripture enough to be able to think about it in our everyday lives. So if some parts of the Bible seem trite or overly familiar to us, the solution is not to scale back on our Bible reading.
What can we do then?
We can pray with the psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). We can remember the incredible privilege it is that the Creator of the universe wants to speak to us. “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalm 139:17). If God’s Word isn’t feeling so precious and wondrous lately, we can ask God to help us see it that way.
We can pray for revival. “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6). “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (Psalm 119:25. Other translations say “quicken,” “revive, “preserve.”) Three times in Psalm 80, the writer asks God to “Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.”
We can ask God to search our hearts and lead us to repentance if need be. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite'” (Isaiah 57:15).
We can ask God to restore our delight in Him and His Word.
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart (Psalm 40:8).
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them (Psalm 111:2).
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
We can return to our first love. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5). Maybe thinking back through our testimony, God’s dealings with us when we first knew Him, revisiting our “Ebenezers,” those times we saw evidence of God’s working in our lives, will stir up that first love.
Practically, maybe interrupting our regular scheduled Bible reading plan to read through some psalms or passages that have held special meaning for us in the past might help. So might reading the Bible in a different translation than you’re used to. Slowing down to focus on the words, maybe reading them out loud, can keep us from racing through a passage. A college professor years ago advised looking up the definitions of all the words in a verse, especially if the verse was familiar.
There was a young man in my youth group years ago who, whenever he was asked to pray, asked that we’d learn something new from the Bible that day. We’ll continually be learning new things from the Bible; we’ll never exhaust it in this life. But sometimes we need reminders of what we’ve heard and learned before. “Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:12-15).
John Newton wrote a lovely hymn called “Waiting for Spring.” First he talks about God’s promise that the seasons will continue, so we have the assurance that “Winter and spring have each their use” and winter will give way to spring. He says, “Believers have their winters too.” “Though like dead trees awhile they seem,” the spiritual life God placed in them will cause them to bloom again. He closes with this prayer:
Dear LORD, afford our souls a spring,
Thou know’st our winter has been long;
Shine forth, and warm our hearts to sing,
And thy rich grace shall be our song.
May God shine in and warm our hearts and renew our love for Him and His Word.
(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)
One thing I pray regularly is that my hands will not become calloused from handling the truth.
Being intentional with our words, whether using them in a cliche or otherwise, is key!
I think this is definitely a problem I have with Bible reading — I’m so familiar with so much of it that it is really hard for me to focus and not go into “auto pilot” mode. I like the idea of praying for God to restore our delight in him and in his word. Just last night in a devotional I read about how we needed to have increasing faith and how to get it — ask God for more faith. Somehow the idea of asking for more faith was new to me and that struck a chord. Thank you for these helpful thoughts!
I’ve found that there’s always something new for me to learn or see in God’s Word – IF – I pay attention and ask him to speak to me. Yes, what a shame when we take on a ho-hum attitude about the Truth and get lazy with it. Lord, help me do better.
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Thank you for this article. May the Lord bless you.
Thank you for this, the Lord bless you. We should indeed not let the Word of God become cliché to us. We must tarry long to understand and glean from its glorious fountain.
We do often get used to the truth and we don’t want to take it for granted. I like the idea of reading the bible in a different translation. And asking God to help us see his words differently. In a new way.
I think my life’s become cliche,
it’s gone on far too long
that I spend each rummy day
in a Jimmy Buffett song.
I guess I thought me cool at first,
a jester in Hawaiian shirt,
but it’s clear that the bubble’s burst
and now I feel the hurt
of living in a fun house mirror
to dance for audience of one,
drawing further, never nearer
to the warming sun
that the Lord’s held out for me
above my empty copper sea.
Psalm 119:18 has been weaving its way in my thoughts for about a week now. We need our eyes opened each time we visit God’s Word. I so agree, familiarity will rob me (us) causing us to gloss over the words. I also think our attention span has shortened with the use of the internet and social media. We desire to hurry on and get to the next click. We need to take time to digest and absorb what we have written so we can apply it to our lives. There is much wisdom in all you have shared, Barbara, and I join you in praying for God’s Word to fall fresh on our souls each day.
I love the tips you give to help us veer from the familiar so we can open our eyes to see the wondrous things God wants to share. I have found when I pause to pray before reading, I often see something in a familiar passage I have never seen before. I am enlightened afresh. It makes me so excited, I find my self sharing it over and over.
Well said, though, there’s nothing wrong with singing a new song, just like thinking of original ways to say something in our writing. A lot of your post hit home. I wonder if in our world of so many memes and posts, we tire out from the snippets of so many repeated verses over and over in the social media feeds. I know i do. Which is also why digging deeper in the Bible and other passages and reading the entirety of it is so enriching.
When we delight ourselves in the Lord, He renews and deepens our love for Him. The only cliche I use a lot is “like water on a ducks’ back”, but I use it to illustrate how the Lord wants us to be free from offense.
I connected with this deeply, Barbara. Thanks for nudging me to dig a little deeper and allow God to continue to do a new work in me!
Your suggestion to read Scripture in a different translation really resonates with me. I’ve always been deeply concerned about the idea of translators adding to, or subtracting from God’s Word, so I leaned toward word for word translations. However, they don’t have our normal English word order so they make understanding more difficult. My compromise has been to study in a more literal translation and do devotional reading in others.
The hymn you quoted at the end sounds lovely, Barbara … I’ll be putting that on my list of things to look up soon! You’ve brought to mind certain phrases that get tossed out casually a lot, like “God is in control.” It’s absolutely true, but glibly using it as a “Bandaid for cancer,” as you say, isn’t super helpful. I think it does happen that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but you’ve given some wonderful guidance when it comes to not letting that happen in our Christian lives.
It is easy to let familiarity blind us to the meaning and importance of so may of these beautiful Biblical texts and songs of praise. This post is an excellent reminder to really listen and strive to absorb as well as understand them. Thank you for sharing with Hearth and Soul, Barbara.
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