I was speaking with a Mexican friend the other day. I told him he had a beautiful family, and he said, almost automatically, “Gracias a Dios.” Thanks to God. I don’t know why it struck me that time in particular, since it’s a very natural and unremarkable expression in Spanish. But it did strike me. It made be think how devoid of God-language English has become.
This is especially true of the benighted Frozen Chosen, of whom I am, at least marginally, one. But even if we come from a tradition that uses expressions that actually make it seem like the Lord Jesus might actually exist in a way that affects their lives, these phrases often feel very artificial. Pentecostals and every sort of gnostically-inclined Protestant sound clunky and overly pious when they insist on appending “Lord willing” as a qualifier at the end of any definite statement of plans in the near future based on this passage in James 4. It is used almost exclusively among people who will recognize it as a sign of to-be-admired piety, but seldom at work or in the company of the father-in-law. The more sacramental Anglicans might be comfortable with more Christian phrases, many from Scripture, that invoke God’s blessings in an everyday sort of way. Sadly that is only an accident of phrasing; there is nothing everyday about the Anglican and his liturgical language. There was once, but that is a relic of the past.
Also please understand that I’m not talking about buzzwords and catchphrases that the latest megachurch or youth movement or earnest book has introduced. I’m talking about really universal phrases.
So ingrained, for good or ill, is “Thanks to God” in Portuguese that “I’m an atheist, thanks be to God” is a natural-sounding joke. And not quite on the same level as “Thank God I’m an atheist”, relief being the only emotion the English “thank God” is able to convey.
I don’t mean to call out any particular Christian traditions. For many years I and nearly all the Christians I’ve shared the table with (not just at my current church) haven’t even made pentecostal- or Anglican-level attempts at shaping our everyday automatic English this way. I’m not calling out, but I am resolving to add certain phrases to my vocabulary, and suggesting that you consider doing the same.
Of course, there are problems with Christ-saturated language. Or even just religiously saturated language. Portuguese and Spanish are my comparison gauges. Portuguese features a word that is used very commonly, oxalá, and Spanish has the same word, ojalá; it comes from the Muslim occupation of Iberia, and means literally “if Allah wills it”. Oxalá is used as a part of everyday speech, with almost none of its users knowing the word’s origins. It replaces “hopefully” and “keep your fingers crossed”.
There is an sense in which the use of certain Christian phrases can be like oxalá, that is, said reflexively and without any real thought or awareness of its meaning. It can even be done superstitiously. But that’s no reason not to do it yourself. Many people talk of the “churched” population of the South, of the ubiquity of churches here and the religiosity of Southerners as if it were an evil to be condemned as leading to inevitable hypocrisy. While the ubiquity of some form of Christianity in the South has its own problems, it is surely better to be Christ-haunted that to have no glimpse of Christ at all. Christian culture is good, and so is Christian language, even if it gets abused from time to time (or often). Some might be superstitious, some might take the Lord’s name in vain, but there are only two ways that will change. Either everyone forgets the name of the Lord, or all the righteous call upon him. It’s because I prefer the second option that I’m going to make an attempt to use certain phrases, which I’ll here list, in my everyday speech.
1. God be with you/Be with God. You can say it coming and going. You can use it to salute Christians and to bless unbelievers. And as these depart, you can say Go with God. The word “goodbye”, by the way, is an alteration of “God be with you”. Portuguese, like Spanish and French, says goodbye by saying “to God”.
2. God willing. I want to avoid using it after any mention of plans or the future, as in “I’m going shopping tomorrow…God willing.” I grew up around people who felt guilty making any declarative statement about the future (I won’t say I wasn’t one) without using that phrase. But that can end up being a piety-stick that risks being as boastful as the men mentioned in James 4 were. I do, however, want to use it as an invocation, as an acknowledgment that although breathing and going to the supermarket are gifts of God, this other thing would be a special gift from my father. “God willing our baby will be born healthy.” “God willing my parents get here safely.” Or even, if you wish, “I’m going shopping tomorrow…God willing.”
3. Thanks to God/Thank God. This is the most awkward one to use in English, but the one I am most anxious to introduce into my vocabulary, since I’m an ungrateful sort of fellow. In Portuguese it sounds very natural to say “Our baby was born healthy, graças a Deus.” Or “My parents got here safely, graças a Deus.” Using “thanks to God” in those sentences sounds stilted, but using “thank God” only sounds relieved. Relief is all that is left of that phrase in English.
4. God bless you. This is one in which English has a leg up on the Latin languages, which merely wish a sneezer “health!” But I, as have most English-speakers, have been trained to say simply “bless you”. Since I intend to invoke the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will say “God bless you”. This is the one I’ve had the most success making a part of my speech patterns, because it’s the one that takes the least courage. If the mood is lighthearted I will say to a sneezer, “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.”
I’m going to go for it. I’m going to use the phrases. Lord willing. And I’m going to try not to sound like an ass. I’m going to try to sound like I am a son of God, and that God is with me. Ask me in a while how that went.