Roses are red, violets are blue…
Wait a minute. Are they?
When I think of a violet I think of them being, well, violet-colored–that is to say, some shade of purple. True enough, some violet varieties are blue in color, but others are yellow, some are white, and there are untold numbers of hybrids displaying an even wider array of colors.
Saying that violets are blue strikes me as being a bit too simplistic. If all someone knew about violets came from the opening line of this classic rhyme, they would be sorely misled about their splendid nature.
I find that it’s possible for us to be overly simplistic or lax in our speech about other matters as well. We may say things that we don’t absolutely mean, just because it’s more convenient, simpler, less controversial–and in so doing, we lose some of the truth of the matter. Our words may not be blatantly false, but subtly so, and with just enough deviation from reality that we can end up willingly accepting, and promoting, a skewed perspective on life.
“If you’ve got your health, then you’ve got everything.” Wow! Really? Is that what we mean? Everything?
I enjoy reading and writing, so I can certainly appreciate the use of various literary devices–including hyperbole. But we need to use such tools with great intentionality, and ensure our partners in communication receive our words properly. Otherwise, I think we do run the risk of engendering false thinking through our casual use of language.
I can still recall a cartoon that I watched as a young boy. It was an animated rendition of the Noah’s ark story, complete (replete?) with singing animals. I see them now: the animals (the lion sticks out most vividly to me) walking up on the top deck of the ark singing these words: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Over and again the animals sang that line, to great effect apparently, because it sticks with me 25 years later.
But is it true? Does God help those who help themselves? It sounds like an inspiring idea: we make effort in our lives, and God comes alongside and supports and enables us. A nice picture of partnership, to be sure, but is it true? Is it an accurate description of reality?
Such a line could be dangerous. We could begin thinking that there is some sort of causative relationship here: my investment in making my life what I want it to be calls forth God’s efforts to bring my dreams to fruition. Or, our mind spins the phrase another way: God doesn’t help those who don’t/won’t/can’t help themselves–so you better watch out!
I think the fact of life is that God helped me when I couldn’t help myself, when I didn’t even know I needed help. But the lion’s song says otherwise: God helps those who help themselves.
Surely, God does care for His children and He does help them, and I have often seen Him advancing the outcome of my humble efforts far beyond my individual ability. And I don’t think He wants us to merely live life idly, not doing anything, expecting Him to do it all without our agency, cooperation, etc. But to say “God helps those who help themselves” sounds too dangerous to me; the skewed thinking mentioned above is too violent to our understanding of life to merit the laziness of using this phrase without qualification.
To speak in absolutes, especially when using cliches or other well-worn phrases, should make us mindful of our audience: how will these words be received? Do they tell enough of the real story? Simplicity, pretty rhyme, or common use are not automatic excuses for the employment of phrases with the potential to mislead.
Violets are blue? Some are, but others are nowhere close to being so.
And while we’re at it: roses aren’t necessarily red either.