We live in a day in which understatement is hard to find. We have no shortage of embellishment and exaggeration. Public communication is awash in grandiose claims. Parties, events, releases must be bigger and better than the last.
Sadly, we Christians too often fall prey to this cultural pressure. This Sunday, this conference, this study, this message must more “epic” than the last. And such a penchant is especially acute in ministry upstarts and church plants like ours, where our collective insecurities and immaturities conspire to make it feel like everything needs to sound better than it actually is, to make us seem stronger than we truly are, to give the impression we have momentum and staying power, when really we are powerless deep down, and gnawingly uncertain.
Understatement in the Bible
Alongside understatement, the Bible uses hyperbole at times. There are lessons we can learn on both sides. But we are in a society so flooded with exaggeration that understatement is what sticks out today as so counter-cultural, and so desperately needed — not just the surface expressions, but the humble heart that lies beneath it.
How refreshing to hear the psalmist pray, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). Not despise. Yes, that and so much more.
Or to hear the apostle Paul, doubtless one of the greatest men to ever live, say in all insincerity, with such humility, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Then to hear this gospel summary with honest self-deprecation, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Or perhaps most surprising of all to our modern ears — especially since the enterprising and exaggerating spirit seems to take hold of us deepest when we’re part of some new work, not yet established and secure — Luke repeatedly describes the progress of the early church in understated terms (Acts 12:18; 14:27–28; 19:23; 20:12; 21:39; 27:20). At the very time in the history of God’s people when they would be most prone to exaggerate the details of the story, Luke uses, as far as I can tell, a highest concentration of understatement anywhere in the Bible.
Let’s learn from this as a new church, and learn to give our good reports with humility.
Free Enough to Be Little
Cities Church, when Christ is our security, we learn to be okay with our lives being more exciting than everyone needs to know. Rather than making subtle and shameless efforts to have others think we’re more fruitful than we really are, we’re happy to have them underestimate what may impress.
Ultimately, it is the bigness and unsurpassed beauty of Christ that frees us from exaggeration. Since Christ is even more powerful and more glorious than we can describe, we can’t over-speak about him, and we no longer feel compelled to over-speak about ourselves, our experiences, our feats, and our lives. Paul demonstrates this so well in his simple language in Colossians 1:15–20.
Let’s learn to enjoy to the bigness of Christ by aiming to be free from self-exalting exaggeration. We Christians should have a corner on understatement. Jesus is impressive enough, and satisfying enough, to make us content with having our fruitfulness and feats underestimated. May God grant us the humility to trust in him, and so communicate with honesty what may feel like understatement in the ocean of overstatement around us.
Let’s prayer together.
Prayer of Confession
Father in heaven, we all have given in. We have floated with the tides of our society and tried to make our reports, testimonies, and status updates more glamorous and dramatic than they truly are. And our embellishments and exaggerations have revealed deep insecurities in our hearts.
Father, forgive our careless use of language. Forgive our dishonoring of you through betraying the truth, even in subtle ways. Forgive our chronic unbelief and lack of humility, and for not being what our world so desperately needs.
In Christ we have the great security — the “surety,” as the Puritans loved to say — who can give the humility to leave our language at understatement. Keep us from self-exalting exaggeration in our speech, and empower us for Christ-exalting truth-telling. Help us make much of Christ, whose glory is so great we cannot overstate it, and help us understate our own strengths and feats and fruit, both individually and as a young church. May we decrease. May Christ increase. Even now as we confess to you other sins in the quiet of this moment. . . .