Hyperbole (the use of exaggeration to make a point) was often used to great effect by Jesus.
We can smile at the imagery but also get the message when he told people to remove logs from their own eyes before trying to remove specks from each other’s (Matthew 7:1-5).
We hopefully do realise that Jesus was using hyperbole when He told us we had to hate our family and even ourselves in order to be His disciple (Luke 14:26). His point was that nothing, even our most precious relationships, should come before our love for Him.
When Jesus said that if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out – He did not mean it literally. Rather, He was making the point that we should do whatever is necessary to prevent ourselves falling into sin. If we fail to recognise the hyperbolic language of Jesus when he uses it, we could soon end up having no eyes, hands or feet left (see Matthew 5:29-30 and Matthew 18:8-9)!
When Jesus used this form of exaggeration the point of emphasis that He was making through it was clear, He never employed it frivolously or in places where it was inappropriate or not warranted.
In contrast to this careful use of hyperbole by Jesus – I have noticed a trend in modern society and also in today’s Church of using hyperbolic or exaggerated language at almost every opportunity. We talk about people being brilliant and amazing and of experiences being fantastic and awesome, time and again. After a while this not only grates, but it starts to sound a trifle insincere.
I think this practice has largely come over from the USA, where everything is ‘bigger and better’, via movies, TV shows and social media. Unfortunately it has now infected the language we use in the UK. It has perhaps affected the younger generation more due to their greater exposure to these US influences and Americanisms but I have heard it employed by people of all ages.
The problem with overusing these expressions is that the more we do it, the more we devalue them and the less they end up having any real significance. Thus, some of the most dramatic and emotive words in the English language are being robbed of their true meaning and impact. For instance, if in one breath I describe a hamburger or beer as ‘awesome’ and in the next breath I use the same word to describe God Almighty – the maker of heaven and earth – how accurately does that inform anyone about how we should view God?!
In his fascinating book ‘The Screwtape Letters’, C.S Lewis postulates that there is a special department in the demonic realm that is dedicated to corrupting the meaning of words for their own infernal purposes. I would not be at all surprised if the enemy is ultimately behind this overuse of hyperbole and its consequent devaluing of these powerful English words.
I am not questioning the enthusiasm and good intentions of those who use this language in order to make something sound impressive or a person feel appreciated. However, I think that less dramatic words like nice, lovely, good and great are perfectly adequate and actually more accurate and genuine in most circumstances. The problem is that if everything is excellent, amazing, wonderful, beautiful, fantastic, brilliant and awesome then in the end – nothing is!