Over the years, many teachers and preachers of God’s word have shaped the way I understand the Bible, the world, and myself. Easily the most important have been those who pastored me personally – who led the churches or ministries of which I was a member. People who knew me, invested in me, and shared their lives with me.
But there have also been many teachers and preachers outside my local ministries – authors, conference speakers, and various other leaders – who have played an enormous role in shaping my thinking and my life. Some are people I’ve come to know well; some are people I’m yet to meet. Some are the ‘big name’ authors and speakers that everyone knows; some serve in relative obscurity.
As I look back and consider why people I barely know have influenced me, a number of factors emerge. But for now, I want to mention one common characteristic among those who’ve impacted my thinking: a willingness to state the truth in bold and challenging ways. Put another way: a willingness and ability to exaggerate.
Take, for example, a well-known Australian preacher who has profoundly influenced me (and countless others). For many years now, this man has shown a willingness to state the truth of God’s word and its implications in a clear, uncompromising manner. He employs hyperbole to great effect. He has been able to both confront and comfort people in extraordinary ways by stating biblical truth in stark, challenging and sometimes startling ways.
Very few of us will be like this particular man. But no matter what ministry God gives us – whether speaking to hundreds, or teaching vast crowds of one – this aspect of ministry is something that we should all strive to emulate. We must all grow in our willingness to exaggerate.
Why exaggerating is crucial
When people turn up to Bible study, when they come to church, when they meet you over coffee to read the Bible or discuss spiritual things, they don’t come as empty vessels eagerly waiting to be filled with gospel truth.
People are tired, stressed and distracted. They may assume the Bible has nothing new to teach them. Maybe they’re willing to hear the Bible’s answers to their own questions, without being ready to see how the Bible changes the questions and re-orients their assessment of what really matters.
In some measure, thanks to our sinful hearts, we’re all like the people Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 4:3-4: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
In short, sinners like you and me are far less ready to hear God’s word than we should be.
On top of that, powerful cultural forces pull us away from hearing the Bible’s claims on our lives. The idea of absolute truth (particularly in the realm of religion and spirituality) is scorned today; relativism rules the day. You can believe things about God, but just don’t take it too seriously or too far.
Perhaps most importantly, our sin is deadly serious – much more serious and far-reaching than we usually realise or admit. Sin needs to be confronted and revealed. Polite, balanced statements of truth aren’t always the way to achieve this.
Understanding all these realities helps us see why a willingness to exaggerate is so vital. The distractions of our busy lives, the sin in our hearts, and the cultural air we breathe all conspire to make it almost impossible for us to rightly hear God’s word. Bland statements of truth remain true, but they are often like water off a duck’s back. Teaching points that die the death of a thousand qualifications (‘before we think about what this verse does mean, let me show you six things that it does not mean’) can be easily ignored.
Stating the truth with hyperbole can grab the attention. Finding the sharpest, most arresting way to make your point can cut through the barriers, unstop deaf ears, provoke a reaction, and engage the heart and the mind. It forces listeners to stop and ask questions they’d never considered before. It can open up new vistas on reality, expose sin, reveal the beauty of God’s grace in new ways, and drag people kicking and screaming out of their comfort zone.
Is exaggerating biblical?
Jesus himself was no stranger to the art of exaggeration and hyperbole. For example, he told people that following him meant hating your family and your own life (Luke 14:26). He said it’s easier for a camel – about 7 feet tall and weighing up to a tonne – to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved (Matt 19:24). He told people to gouge out their eye if it caused them to sin (Matt 5:29). He compared hypocrisy to having a 2×4 sticking out of your eye (Matt 7:3-5). He referred to those who opposed him as things like ‘blind fools’ (Matt 23:17), a ‘brood of vipers’ (Matt 12:34, Luke 3:7), ‘hypocrites’ (lots of times – six times in Matthew 23 alone), ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matt 23:27) and children of Satan (John 8:44). Subtle.
A similar pattern is seen throughout Scripture. If you’ve spent any time reading the Bible, you’ll know that it pulls no punches. Whether it’s describing the seriousness of God’s judgment, or the extravagance of God’s mercy and grace, Scripture is packed with truth stated in confronting, extreme ways. As a tiny sample:
- “So the angel swung his sickle toward earth and gathered the grapes from earth’s vineyard, and he threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. Then the press was trampled outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press up to the horses’ bridles for about 180 miles.” (Rev 14:19-20)
- “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:11-12)
- “I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated.” (Gal 5:12)
- “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9)
Now it’s true, the power lies in the Bible, not in our ability to exaggerate. God’s word never returns to him empty (Isa 55:11). And just to be clear, this never means we lie. For more on that side of the coin, you could read 2 Corinthians 4:1-2. Exaggerating or using hyperbole means stating the truth in the strongest possible terms – not stretching the truth, and certainly not being dishonest.
Moreover, given that we’re imperfect, a willingness to exaggerate might mean we occasionally overstep the mark and need to clarify our point later. It might mean we’re misheard, or even willfully misrepresented. Obviously there’s a place for measured, complete explanations of the truth. And of course, some people go too far (Martin Luther, anyone?).
But there I go, qualifying my point.
Most of us (myself included) need to be willing to take a lot more risks and state the truth with a cutting edge.
Hug hard, so you can hit hard
Being willing to exaggerate is not the same thing as just ‘being harsh’. Sometimes it’s the exact opposite. Exaggeration – finding the cutting edge of what you want to say – may be even more necessary when you want to drive home the concept of grace, a concept that still comes unnaturally, no matter how long we’ve been Christians.
It’s also helpful to remember that, where possible, an exaggerated truth works best in the context of relationship. When people know you love them, they’ll be more likely to bear with an overstated truth. When people aren’t sure, or they don’t know you at all, it’s easier for them to jump to conclusions. My ability to hear hard truths from unknown authors or speakers has increased as I’ve gotten to know them, or at least as I’ve listened to more of what they say.
That doesn’t mean you should say nothing in case someone who doesn’t know you hears it. Maybe it just means you need to prepare yourself for criticism. But it does mean we should love the people we’re teaching, in whatever way we’re able, to help them hear the hard truth from you. As one preacher says, ‘Hug hard, so you can hit hard.’
All of us, not just preachers – have to take risks. We have to be willing to speak the truth in extravagant, risky ways. Trusting in God, state the truth clearly and boldly, in ways that will challenge the world, confront our culture’s way of thinking, and comfort the weary and downcast.