I’m noticing a trend in Christianity recently. It’s probably one that’s not all that important or earth-shattering to anyone who isn’t an editor or doesn’t like words, but I’m an editor so it’s important to me. I’m even hoping some of my editor friends and colleagues have noticed too. But the trend I’ve noticed lately is that Christians love the passive voice.
Some of you might not even know what the heck passive voice is. All it means is that the subject of the sentence receives the action rather than does the action. So instead of saying Jeff caught the ball (Jeff is doing the action), I would say The ball was caught by Jeff (the ball is receiving the action). If you’re still confused, follow the advice of a teacher who tells her students if you can put “by zombies” at the end of your sentence, it’s passive.
This probably sounds insignificant to you, I’m sure. And while you may never notice using passive voice or think it’s important, I guarantee you it is subtly and without your knowledge changing the way you think about things. It will change the way you perceive both Christianity and Jesus.
Passive Voice Weakens Writing
Passive voice is known to be a sentence weakener. For example, which sentence out of these two sounds stronger? I ate a pizza, or A pizza was eaten by me. God help you if you said the second. Clear language is concise language, and concise language is usually strong language. George Orwell explained this much better than I ever could.
Passive Voice Lacks Clarity
Now the problem that I see in Christians using this is not only in the weakening of the language they use, but the clarity of the subject and object. Using the passive voice, to me, is kind of like using a double negative—it just takes more time to think it through to figure out what it actually means.
One phrase that Christians use all the time down south is I am blessed. For me this throws confusion into my head like little pieces of confetti blocking and fuzzing out anything that I can see. It’s like a snowstorm in my brain when someone says this.
Who is doing the blessing? In most cases it’s God, but are you talking about the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? Maybe it’s not even God but a family member is blessing you, or a friend. I have absolutely no idea who is doing the blessing. You might as well say, “I am blessed by zombies.” And don’t even get me started on what blessed actually means. I understand it better now thanks to Drew, but it’s still not a very clear piece of language. I suppose this is every editor’s nightmare: unclear language.
Passive Voice Shifts the Focus of the Sentence
Apart from the question of who the subject is, the stress of the sentence is moved to the object rather than the subject. Which, again, might sound insignificant, but this is my most important point.
In some cases using the passive voice is necessary. In one my favorite Zadie Smith essays, she begins, “When I was fourteen I was given Their Eyes Were Watching God by my mother.” In this instance, it is a perfect use of the passive voice because Zadie Smith is the subject of this whole essay. Yes, she includes her mother in it, and, yes, she shows lots of different influences on her reading life, but it is about her, Zadie Smith. Saying this sets the tone for the whole essay. If she said, “When I was fourteen my mother gave me Their Eyes Were Watching God,” it would be a subtle change in the reader’s mind shifting the focus on the mother more than Zadie.
My issue when Christians use passive voice is for the same reason—it puts the emphasis on you, what’s being done to you and for you. This world doesn’t revolve around you. And if you’ve listened to David Foster Wallace’s famous speech This Is Water you understand this. So when Christians say you are loved, or you are valued, or you are blessed, to me it feels like a cop out from actually including an actant in the sentence—from showing who is doing the loving and valuing and blessing. If my friend told me I am loved, I would feel good. If they said I love you, I would feel better. Specifics are always good.
But what’s more, this Christian life is not about you. The Bible does not say, “While you were still sinners, you were died for by Christ.” It says, “When you were still sinners, Christ died for you.” It’s clear, it knows the subject. We will not be blessed with every spiritual blessing, but it is God who is blessing us with every spiritual blessing.
Active Voice Helps Us Own Our Faith
Using different language changes the way people perceive things. When pro-choice-ers changed their language from anti-life to pro-choice, they started winning many more people to their cause. Small words change the way you perceive something. Sometimes newspapers will do this and try to lighten the seriousness of what they are saying. When we hear pass away instead of die our minds think it’s not as bad. The same is true when newspapers print things like “Former Stanford swimmer is scheduled for early release from jail,” rather than “Rapist Brock Turner is scheduled for early release from jail.” Do you see how words impact how you think? It’s often subtle, so subtle that we don’t even realize it.
Our individualistic, North American mindset loves the passive voice when it comes to our Christianity because it puts us at the center of things. But let’s be better Christians and start using the active voice. Let’s start saying God loves me. Better yet, Jesus loves me. The Father is blessing me. My church values me. Let’s get away from ambiguity and take ownership of our faith. This huge change starts with small steps—like changing our language.
Cover image by Denys Nevozhai.