Save Your Superlatives, You’ll Surely Need Them

In the name of peace, can we banish the word “extreme” from our vocabulary? It implies that something has gone all the way to the stops. Few things have. When?that word?is used to describe kids on skates or bicycles, television programs, pizza, fleece wear, auto dealerships, and even more mundane things, it’s time to stop the madness.

I’ve always been impressed by the other end of the spectrum, the legendary British gift for understatement. When you read C.S. Lewis (and you should), and he calls something “rubbish,” it’s jarring. We should admire the way that he holds something back so that this mild epithet packs more power than profanity or the more acceptable series of the word “very” in front of “bad.” A communicator earns that power with ten thousand words of well-written temperance.

It’s not just the language, though. Emotionally, we are expected to feel that any bad day is “the worst,” any moderately determined person is a “hero,” anything we like is “awesome,” and any disappointment is “grievous.” What’s left when we exhaust our emotions and vocabulary so early in the game? If a talented athlete is a hero because he can run fast, what do we say when some lesser mortal dies while rescuing a stranger? If a terse word from a neighbor grieves us, what will we do when a loved one dies? How do we communicate that? More importantly, what emotional response is left for the worst and best things in life? Maybe despair or indifference.

Our lack of measure is often evident in our worship. Note how many of our songs, testimonies, even sermons focus on how we feel rather than on what we know. Many of these assume that we are as pressed and persecuted as the Roman Christians hiding in the catacombs. When I hear a worship leader say, “Many of us are hurting today,” I don’t wonder if it’s true but I do wonder if it should be true. We are too easily and too often hurt by things that don’t matter much.

This same lack of perspective is seen in the way people get along with each other. Should a harsh word (or one we think is harsh) occasion a church fight or split? Surely it shouldn’t but it does. Should a rude sales clerk, customer, or driver ruin our day, or even a few minutes of it? Surely it shouldn’t but it does. So long as feelings rule our minds as well as our hearts, we will be passionate about the everyday things and a bit confused by the extraordinary.

In our family we sometimes remind each other that things can always be worse than they are. It’s a light-hearted way to apply a broader perspective to whatever makes us whine. In a week when school, work, church, family, and friends converge to make an overly busy schedule, we remind ourselves that life would be more unpleasant without any one of these things in our lives. It’s still a tough week but we face it with a little more gratitude when we compare our situation with an easily imaginable, undesirable one.

Actually, we can almost always imagine a situation worse than ours. The difference between reality and this imagining is a blessing. Even the case of Job, possibly the most afflicted man alive, left him with one resource. Job’s relationship with God was his only strength and hope. The fact that God did not desert him when all other things and people did was the blessing that put all the other losses in perspective. He knew something far important than what he felt.

On the other side, we can always imagine a thing or experience to be more perfect than it is. Some say this ability is our longing for Heaven and ultimate perfection. It’s a nice thought and true I think. We also know our imaginations are not adequate for the glories of Heaven. This is an exciting thought in itself. Even desiring perfection moves us to creativity and reformation. Every reminder of sin and corruption suggests a reality without the taint of the Fall. A hint of love and beauty, on the other hand makes us hope for life unlimited by sin’s ugliness. Even a failed effort to attain it throws us at the feet of the Creator who will one day re-create everything.

That’s why I say that we should reserve our strongest language and emotions for ultimate things. The small bit of heavenly perspective we gain should tell us that we have not seen the best, the worst, or the most until we have seen the end. Things can get worse in this life but only for a time. For the redeemed things will certainly get better.

As gently as I can, to you and to me, I say reserve your extremes until you need them. Life, for most of us, gets harder with each year. Thankfully, maturity also brings new resources to bear on multiplied challenges. Your most difficult times are probably yet to come, though. Closely following those days will be the time to drag out the highest praise-unmeasured expressions of height, depth, wonder, and best. The youngest believer among us can see it from here if he’ll look at the hope that we know to be true. Let feelings follow that hope. On their own, our feelings can’t discern good from best. I’m pretty sure they’ll know it when they see it, though.

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