When I was sixteen I got all Jesus freaky. My church had the traditional roles for youngsters and oldsters that allowed only old folks to occasionally shout an “Amen!” or “Hallelujah.” Sometimes, partly to annoy folks, I would let loose with an amen or hallelujah. People weren’t quite sure if teenagers were allowed to do this, but they couldn’t really say anything.
I wasn’t obnoxious to just church folks. When secular people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, “Holy.” They would look embarrassed or befuddled and shuffle away.
On some level I understood that spiritual warfare was going on in the linguistic and semantic realm. Words that had once had strongly positive connotations were being murdered. In our secular discourse we could talk about people who had a holier-than-thou attitude but not a holy attitude. We could label people as self-righteous, but never simply righteous. Every common use of the word “holy” was sarcastic or satiric. The word holy in a positive sense had been killed in everyday discourse.
In the 60’s and 70’s even Christians became reluctant to talk of holiness as something they longed to possess. We so feared being cast as self-righteous Pharisees or unhip puritanical legalists that we carefully avoided talking about God’s command for us to be holy as he is holy. Hey man, we’re all human!
And of course the other front in the linguistic war was to take every negative word and use it positively. Things we approved became “wicked, bad, or sick”. Other negative words were made over with an endless stream of euphemisms. Adultery became having an affair, a fling, a thing, a friend with benefits.
So my little stunt of saying I wanted be holy when I grew up was a rebellion against what C. S. Lewis called verbicide—the killing of a word. In a small smart-alecky way I was refusing to let the word be killed. I now have a little list of words I refuse to exile from my conversations with secular colleagues and friends. Recently, I have had to add the words moral and immoral to that list in defiance of the snarky attitude that snickers at any attempt to make moral judgments about actions or policies.
We think with words, so when we are robbed of specific words, we lose not just a word, but all the word means. The good news is that the hunger for righteousness (which Jesus called blessed) and holiness remains and is rooted in the human heart even if the world shuns the words. So not only should we refuse to surrender the words to pejorative meanings, we should always be finding fresh ways to express the beauty of holiness and a life unpolluted by the toxic waste of sin. And as with love, holy actions speak louder than words.