By Matt Smethurst
“Books don’t change people,” observes John Piper. “Paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.”
A good sentence is a gift. We love finding complex truth shrink-wrapped in clear, simple, memorable form. It’s why Charles Spurgeon, C. S. Lewis, and Tim Keller are dominating a newsfeed near you. Even God likes pithy statements — at least enough to breathe out a whole book of them.
But one-liners aren’t always helpful. Sometimes, in our desire to simplify truth, we can trivialize and even obscure it. And to obscure the truth is to tell a lie.
Here are five popular Christian clichés that aren’t biblical and therefore need a memorial service.
1. “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”
I appreciate the heart behind this statement. It’s true, after all, that God can do anything He pleases (Jer. 32:27), that He sometimes redirects our course (Prov. 16:9), and that He never abandons His own (Heb. 13:5).
But if God closes a door in your life, there’s no guarantee He’ll open a window. He may not open anything. He may want you to realize you have the wrong address.
Scripture is filled with examples of the Spirit closing doors, windows and any other conceivable entrance to keep one from heading in the wrong direction or at the wrong time (Prov. 16:9; 19:21; Acts 16:6–7).
I once heard calling described as the trifecta of affinity, ability and opportunity. Do you like it, can you do it and is there an open door? Now there are rare times when, if the third piece isn’t in place, God may want you to break down the door. Missionary martyr Jim Elliot once said that a lot of folks are sitting around waiting for a call when what they need is a kick in the pants.
But what if God has something else for you entirely? What if He doesn’t want you to move to that city, or take that job, or enter that relationship — whether by door or window?
Maybe He wants you to reevaluate in light of affinity, ability and opportunity — your internal desires, your confirmed giftings and your actual options.
2. “You’re never more safe than when you’re in God’s will.”
Insofar as the safety here is eternal, or means something like “in the right place,” this maxim is gloriously true. Almost every time I hear it, though, the person is referring to physical safety.
Years ago as I was preparing to become a missionary in a closed country, well-meaning believers assured me God would protect me from harm since He had called me.
Jesus seems to disagree:
You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. (Luke 21:16–18)
Some of you they’ll slaughter. But you’ll be entirely safe. Huh?
These promises sound contradictory, but they’re not. Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) was almost certainly reflecting on this passage when he said, “They can kill us but they cannot harm us.”
I love that. Only a Christian could say something so crazy.
God has promised us many wonderful things; physical safety isn’t one of them. Brutal life circumstances are normal in a fallen world. Pursuing God may even lead you into greater physical danger. But you will be spiritually alive and eternally secure.
3. “Let go and let God.”
At its best, this phrase highlights the value of surrender. God is God, and you are not, so lay down your résumé, your excuses, your fears.
All too often, though, the phrase is wielded as if the symbol of Christianity is not a cross but a couch. It’s subtly used to put the brakes on striving, on working, on effort.
Now, if “let go and let God” solely referenced the moment of justification, it would be fine. But it typically refers to the process of sanctification, which is anything but passive.
The Christian life is grueling. When Paul reflects on it, he doesn’t think of sunsets and naps but soldiers and athletes and farmers (2 Tim. 2:3–6). He thinks of running tracks and boxing rings (1 Cor. 9:24–27).
We are called to work out what God has already worked in us, laboring not for our salvation but from it (Phil. 2:12–13). This dynamic of restful vigilance (Matt. 11:28–30; 16:24) — what the Puritans called “holy sweat” — lies at the heart of Christian experience.
As J. I. Packer once put it, “The Christian’s motto should not be ‘Let go and let God’ but ‘Trust God and get going.'”
4. “God will not give you more than you can handle.”
In a culture that tells us we can be anything we desire, this motivational slogan is meant to encourage, to reassure us that life won’t be too hard. There will be challenges, sure, but God knows my limits. He won’t overdo it.
The problem, though, is that God will give you more than you can handle. He’ll do it to make you lean on Him. He’ll do it because He loves you.
Over the past few years, few things have encouraged my soul more than the letters of John Newton (1725–1807), the former slave trader who penned “Amazing Grace.” In one letter to a widow fearing death, Newton writes:
Though our frames and perceptions may vary, the report of faith concerning [the time of death] is the same. The Lord usually reserves dying strength for a dying hour … When the time shall arrive which he has appointed for your dismissal, I make no doubt but that he will overpower all your fears, silence all your enemies, and give you a comfortable, triumphant entrance into his kingdom. You have nothing to fear from death; for Jesus, by dying, has disarmed it of its sting, has perfumed the grave, and opened the gates of glory for his believing people.
The good news is not that God won’t give us more than we can handle; it’s that He won’t give us more than He can handle.
5. “God helps those who help themselves.”
I’m not aware of a statement more commonly misidentified as a Bible verse. And the fact that it originates from Benjamin Franklin — not God’s Word — is the best news you will encounter today.
If God only helps those who help themselves, we’re all sunk. But He didn’t come for moral standouts; He came for moral failures (Matt. 9:12–13). He came for us.
While this slogan may be a fine summary of the teaching of other religions, the entire message of Christianity hinges on the fact that, as Charles Spurgeon once quipped, “God helps those who cannot help themselves.” Indeed, He helps those who humble themselves, who repent and rely on Jesus alone.
Truth Is Loving
While the heart behind these five mantras is often genuine, they’re all unhelpful for one overriding reason: They are unbiblical.
Speaking biblically isn’t just a matter of truth; it’s an issue of love. God’s words, after all, are true and good for the world. May we love our neighbors by stewarding our words, and may we steward our words by speaking what is true. For love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor. 13:6).