Shelf Life

Posted on December 14, 2013

Oreos in hand, I pulled the milk from the refrigerator. As I began to pour, ribbons and chunks edged their way over the mouth of the gallon. Something was not right here. I looked down and sure enough the date clearly printed on the jug had already passed. The shelf life had expired and this milk was no longer good for anything that milk was normally good for. 

Often we don’t realize that like our groceries known as “perishable”, words also can have a shelf life. And once the expiration date has been passed, a word can be increasingly no longer good for what it once was fully intended for.

Our difficulty as people is that we often confuse words, with their actual meanings, so it is hard for us to let go of a word, which has symbolized an eternally significant, or personally significant reality. How do we confuse words with their meanings? I’m glad you asked.

Let’s think of this with a simple noun, the easiest word for us to divorce from it’s own meaning. Consider the word “car”.  Three letters with a single syllable. None of these aspects can get you out of your driveway. The word “car” is not a car itself. It simply represents a reality that is somewhere other than on the tip of your tongue, or the screen of your computer.

The person-place-or-thingness of your average noun makes it easy for us to recognize that a word is not the same thing as the thing symbolized by the word. But enter the world of concepts and ideas, enter in particular the world of religious concepts and ideas. Even more, enter the world of your religious concepts and ideas. Suddenly, if we are not careful, the words gathered around the concepts and ideas that we consider anchor-like tenets of our faith can become as sacred as the realities themselves.

Since we know how crucial it is to guard the core of our faith, we apply this to guarding the words used to express the core of our faith, and we end up guarding symbols while we completely forget the realities that are represented by these symbols.  Or at least other people do. You and I probably don’t.

The resulting confusion, when we mistake words for the reality they represent, could have us aggressively defending a particular translation, or interpretation of our Holy Book, while thinking of those who do not think like us in a way entirely incongruent with the ideas in our Holy Book.

It’s almost as if somehow we feel that truths that have existed since the beginning of time, long before language ever existed, require us to memorialize certain language sets lest these fragile truths fall apart.  Almost as if we believe that if we do not express the realities with the words “thee” or “whosoever”, the realities themselves are weakened or congealed like outdated milk.

I believe it is words that deteriorate and not the truths themselves. This reality, the shelf-life of language-bits, sets up two potential pitfalls. The first, as we have been observing is a tendency to be more committed to a word, or language style than the actual meanings of the words themselves. The second is, sometimes in our attempt to change language, we may actually change meaning, and diverge from an important objective reality.

For both of these reasons, it is important to read, listen and engage our thoughts listening not just for word selection and microscopic accuracy, but for meaning and realities expressed.

Let’s pick a word to look at through these lenses. Let’s play with the word “Christian” and see how attached we are or are not to our assumed meanings.

In todays culture where many look at the church in it’s current expression and recognize ways that we are off course, people try to express this misdirection, and offer course correction. In these discussions, writings, musings, blogs and tirades, we find people playing word games with the word “Christian”. Sometimes, because they are trying to bring about change, they actually change the meaning of the word, and other times they address the cultural drift that has already taken place around that word.

So offerings like “unChristian” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, examine how this generation thinks about the reality behind the word, “Christian”. Or the book, “A New Kind f Christian” by Brian McLaren, turns attention to the meaning of the word. In these cases and multiple others people are dealing with meanings and using a common word; “Christian” to express in some cases a wide array of actual meanings.

Forget the authors, think for a moment about the nation of Israel, the birthplace of “Christianity”. If you are a believer in, or follower of Jesus, in the nation of Israel, you may not want to identify yourself as a Christian. This is not an issue of “being ashamed of our faith”, it is a simple and practical understanding that this word “Christian” in that land does not mean what we want it to mean.

You see to residents of the Holy Land, hundreds of years ago, a group of Crusading Christians showed up claiming to represent The Christ, and in His name, raped, burned and pillaged the land. To the modern day residents of this land, the word Christian can in some cases be much like the word “terrorist” to you and I. In fact those calling themselves by the word-symbol “Christian” behaved very much like the reality that we represent by the word-symbol “terrorist”. Today, much like Vizzini in the Princess Bride, we might do well to say to ourselves, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…”

In the land of Israel, if we get caught up in defending the word “Christian” we may find ourselves defending a reality that we despise, and not even know it.

Rather than defend the word “Christian”, and all the various historical cultural, spiritual baggage that has become attached to it, what if we ask instead this question. “I wonder what Jesus would have intended and desired for the life of those who follow what He said and did while on the Earth?”

Before we purpose to lead in this movement of Jesus followers, we should begin to consider that the first thing Jesus asked people to do, to even begin following Him, was to Think Differently.

“Repent (think differently)” He said, “because the realm and rule of God is moving among us.” We cannot lead a movement initiated by this man Jesus, if we are committed to always thinking the same, and defending words, without ever considering shifting meanings. Thinking differently by it’s very definition, means, to move from your current way of thinking; the way you are thinking right now. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t assume that because you once changed your way of thinking you now have “the right way of thinking”. That in itself, is a wrong way of thinking. Check the expiration date on your thoughts.


  • Laini Hall

    You sound more and more like Polly Wright the more I hear you.

  • Laini Hall

    John 10:27-28

    King James Version (KJV)

    27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

    28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.

  • Wendy Hardin

    Greatness! Thanks for sharing!