Lots of us pay attention to words.
We have to use them to convey thoughts from our minds to the minds of others.
As someone who has studied words, I tend to pay attention to words that come and words that go. That is the nature of language. Here are some simple examples. In the past, one would say “I am going to the gymnasium” where today the shortened popular version of that would be “I am going to the gym.” In the past, we would have breakfast or lunch but today we can have something in-between called brunch [a relatively new word]. Language change is driven by new technologies, new products and new experiences. Can you imagine someone a few years ago knowing what this expression means; “She texted me this morning.” Texted?
I am constantly amazed by the new words that seem to pop up every year. Some folks think that when they buy a large dictionary, they have all the words in English defined in that one book. Sorry, it does not work that way. New words get added to the dictionary every year. A few new words added to the 2017 dictionary are “froyo” a short word for frozen yogurt, “troll” meaning to harass someone through social media and “concealed carry” referring to carrying firearms in public.
Pastor Labberton* spends some pages on a simple expression that has invaded our culture: “not a problem.” Think about it. When someone did something for us in the past, we would say “Thank you very much” to which the helping person would say “You’re welcome.” Today it is common to get a “Not a problem” response. Almost ninety-five percent of the time when this happens, I just let the expression happen, unnoticed. I always note it in my mind but I don’t comment. About five percent of the time, I will say something like “It is a problem; you went out of your way to help me” to which I usually get odd looks. Better to let it go and adapt to the times.
Labberton just won’t let it go.
He feels that “you’re welcome” acknowledges the dignity of the person who has helped you. This small expression communicates the exchange of services or hospitality; it is flexible, “serviceable” and most of all, it is respectful.
On the other hand, “not a problem” looks at the cost dimension of the service provided. The person who does the favor or service is saying to someone you have not inconvenienced me too much, it is not a hassle for me or your need has not overly complicated my life. It is “not a problem.”
In the context of helping those less fortunate in our world, it is a problem to help them. Labberton uses the Biblical example of Jesus helping a leper right after He delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Wow, what a time to show people how to walk the walk; this was it. Lepers in the days of Jesus were to shout their malady so people would know they were coming. They had to yell “Unclean! Unclean!” so others would know to stay away. Labberton equates this to someone shouting to others “I am a problem! I am a problem!” To Jesus that day, it did not matter. When the leper said to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean”, Jesus replied “I do choose. Be made clean.”
Jesus was a person who had a life with purpose. Yet He chose to extend His life into the life of one who was an outcast in His society. What He did for the leper was a problem but He did not act that way to the recipient of His miracle. His miracle was a service that should have been done; it was just another example of Him loving His neighbor.
Today, if you live a life of means, you don’t want to be a problem. In my experience, it is a rare Christian who admits that they personally have a problem and they need help. When my pastor asks for prayers from our congregation, the prayer concerns are almost all for others and when she asks people to hold up their hands for “unspoken concerns”, the church is full of hands [probably personal problems].
Today, if you live a life of means, it is hard to bridge the social gap and extend your life into the life of a poor person. It is a problem. It is a hassle. It does cost us.
Jesus calls us to help those with less. Jesus goes even further than that. He even calls us to love our enemies.
Let’s just be honest about it all.
To help those less fortunate takes a commitment on our part. It takes time and it may even take money. When we assist others, we may encounter lives that are full of problems. Life is messy in the real world and when we aid folks who really need our help, maybe we should say “you are welcome.”
Is it really honest to say “Not a problem”?
I don’t think so.
∗Author of The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor