Freedom of Expression in a Photoshop World

The Beauty of Understatement

We live in a day in which understatement is an endangered species. We have no shortage of embellishment and exaggeration. Public communication is awash in grandiose claims. Parties, events, releases, political rallies must be bigger and better than the last.

In our society of hype and hyperbole, pomp and posturing, we create our own online profiles in a matter of minutes, select our most flattering photo, highlight our most impressive accomplishments, and then fill our timeline with the confirming data. We are experiencing (not to overstate it) an epidemic of over-promising and under-performing. Few of us have the humility to report on our lives and experiences with simplicity and truth.

Sadly, we Christians too often fall prey to this cultural pressure. This Sunday, this conference, this study, this message must be more “epic” (talk about exaggeration) than the last. Such a penchant is perhaps especially acute in church planting and other ministry startups, when 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 feel powerless deep down, and gnawingly uncertain.

Why We Exaggerate

What our relentless over-the-top claims, and “holy” exaggerations, reveal is our deep-seated insecurities. Public speech, social media, and personal conversations have become opportunities to compensate for what we know is lacking.

“Social media and personal conversations have become chances to compensate for what’s lacking.”

It is the insecure artist who needs his next album to be better than the last, the insecure actor who needs this new role to surpass all the others, the insecure employee who needs to brag about his latest feat, the insecure mom who longs to demonstrate her kids are the cutest, the insecure pastor who needs to exaggerate about how great things are going — or forecast, with a humble air, how historic his particular ministry venture will prove to be. By the Spirit’s help, of course.

We Hunger for Humility

Because of all the overstatement and shameless hype, all the facades, all the smoke and mirrors, there is indeed a hunger in our generation, perhaps like never before, for humble, honest, Christ-exalting understatement. For modesty of speech.

We yearn for understatement, because there is so little access to it. We ache for it from others — and yet we find ourselves utterly unable to produce it. Having been conditioned by the confetti of commercials, the posturing of politics, and the insecurities of social media, we cannot bring ourselves to do for others what we so desperately long for ourselves.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that nonbelievers are left to deal in the counterfeit currency of endless exaggeration. Without Christ as the Great Security — the “surety,” as the Puritans loved to say — how will we have the humility to leave our language at understatement?

Understatement in the Bible

It is humility, after all, that goes hand in hand, and is the source, of true understatement. Understatement, as a figure of speech, has long had the technical title “tapeinosis,” which is Greek for humility. It is humble to understate something and allow your listener to experience the rare joy of discovering that something is more moving than was claimed. And it’s humble to understate things such that some listeners may never know the full force of it — because you are secure enough to have it go unacknowledged.

The Bible uses hyperbole, no doubt. But we are in a society so flooded with hyperbole, 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 them.

“It’s humble to allow your listener the joy of finding something is more moving than claimed.”

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. Experience the joy of tasting the more.

Or to hear the apostle Paul, doubtless one of the greatest to ever live, say in all sincerity, with manifest humility, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Then to enjoy 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 when he writes of “this light, momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17), or asks his readers without any bombast and drama, “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25).

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 — Luke repeatedly describes the progress and impact of the early church in understated terms.

  • When Peter was supernaturally delivered from prison, “there was no little disturbance among the soldiers” (Acts 12:18).
  • When the gospel caused a riot in Ephesus, “there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19:23).
  • When Paul laid his hands on a young boy, and raised him from the dead, “they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted” (Acts 20:12; see also 14:27–28; 21:39; 27:20).

Secure Enough to Be Small

When Christ is our security, we learn to be okay with our lives being more dramatic in reality than everyone needs to hear about through our speech. 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 otherwise impress.

“With Christ as our security, we can be happy with life being better than everyone needs to hear.”

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 need to feel compelled to over-speak about ourselves, our experiences, our feats, and our lives.

Christians should have a corner on understatement. Let’s learn to enjoy the bigness of Christ by aiming to be free from self-exalting exaggeration. Jesus is impressive enough, and satisfying enough, to make us content with having our fruitfulness underestimated in the ocean of overstatement around us.