Monday, September 21, 2020

Anonymous Asks (111)

“How often do you need to say ‘amen’?”

This is kind of a different question, because it’s really more a matter of etiquette than morality.

Amen is one of those weird words that is exactly the same whether you’re looking through a Greek or a Hebrew concordance. It’s a Hebrew word that Greek-speaking Christians in the early church picked up and used to mean the same thing it meant within Judaism. In the King James it is often translated as “verily”. It is an affirmation of agreement. It simply means “indeed”, “so be it” or “absolutely”. Sometimes it means Yeah, me too. I feel that exact feeling, I think that exact thing and I want exactly that to happen. “Amen” is convenient shorthand for all that.

When to Say Amen

We probably don’t say it as much as we might these days, but we should: a resounding amen serves a multitude of purposes, and sends its message in all sorts of directions.

It tells the speaker, “You’re getting this right. We got your back, bro. Keep going!” It tells Heaven, “We confirm with our personal experience that the word of God is the eternal truth.” It tells the passive Christian audience around us, “Get motivated about this! Why are you just sitting there like nothing significant has been said?” It tells the unsaved in the room that what has just been said is not merely some lame notion cooked up by the guy on the platform; it is the word of God affirmed by the people of God down through the centuries. And saying an amen reminds us that when we express verbal agreement, there is a corresponding obligation to go home and live that truth out, otherwise we are hypocrites and culpable for our false expression of consent.

Most of all, it reminds us that we are not just a roomful of blessed individuals, but a redeemed, incorporated unity. We are one body in Christ. When one of us speaks the truth, the rest of us affirm it.

Unlike Israelites under the Law of Moses, Christians are not explicitly commanded to say amen, though we find the word plenty of times in the New Testament, and there are specific situations in which the writers of the New Testament appear to be enjoining it of their readers. What sorts of circumstances warrant it? Well, Paul uses it to mark statements of particular importance or universality. He is encouraging others to agree with something they should definitely agree with. The Creator is blessed forever? Amen to that. The Christ is God over all, blessed forever? Amen to that.

Such things are always worth affirming, though in church meetings there are no hard rules about this sort of thing. Each person kind of has to make a judgment call about the significance of what is being said. If it’s true, and important, and you’re feeling it (or know you should be), I don’t think it hurts to let that fact be known.

When Not to Say Amen

On the other hand, we do find this caution to tongues-speakers in 1 Corinthians:
“How can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?”
The implication is that ordinarily Christians do not say amen merely out of force of habit. It would be inappropriate to express agreement when we do not agree, or when we are unable to see the point of what the speaker is saying. God is not looking for robotic worship or pretend-learning, and an amen ought to be used intelligently and judiciously. Too many amens from the same person is rather like punctuating your sentences with Periods. After. Every. Word. It quickly becomes annoying and distracting. Saying amen to everything is the same as saying amen to nothing.

Modern translations omit the amen from the last verses of all four Gospels and some of the epistles, where it resided for years, and also from the end of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ in Matthew. The earliest available manuscripts do not have them. Still, one can easily imagine enthusiastic young scribes (or KJV translators) feeling the urge to add their own (rather unnecessary) approval of the Holy Spirit’s various accounts of the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God. If not quite a kosher practice, it is at least understandable.

Technically, if we close every prayer with the word amen, our usage is not quite correct. It’s not worth being a pedant about, but basically, ending a prayer with an amen is agreeing with yourself. From time to time I hear it said inquiringly at the end of a prayer, meaning in effect, “Please, somebody, agree with me!”, rather like Jeb Bush’s infamous and embarrassing “Please clap” after what he thought were important points in his 2016 campaign speech. Usually people are polite enough to comply with blunt hints like that, but it’s probably more authentic to let nature take its course than to go searching for expressions of approval — unless, like the apostle Paul, you are saying something truly profound and universal.

Amen as a Title of Christ

My last thought on the subject has nothing to do with when to say amen and when not to, but it is probably worth noting that the Lord Jesus refers to himself as “the Amen” in Revelation. Perhaps this is because he is the affirmation of everything God has ever said, the great executor of his Father’s will. William MacDonald calls him “the One who guarantees and fulfills the promises of God.”

Can I get an amen to that?

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