24 May 2016


How Christians “hang up” on God in our conversations with him.

Amen /ɑ.mɛn, eɪ.mɛn/ excl. Utterance of support or agreement.

Amen comes from the Hebrew verb amán/“[it’s] settled, certain.” Sorta the Hebrews’ way of replying, “True.” For the most part, we Christians use amen as a way to finish our prayers. Like when you say “goodbye” on a phone conversation, or “over and out” on a radio conversation. My Sunday school teachers would even describe it as “hanging up.”

Custom is, we gotta finish our prayers with amen. Or the popular incantation “in Jesus Name amen.” Or, if you want everyone else in the room to say amen along with you: “And all God’s people said…” (or “the church said,” or “we all said”) whereupon everyone would reply, “Amen.” Sometimes the three-syllable “A-a-men.”

As you know, some Christian customs are more than just traditions: We gotta do them. They’re virtually commands. If you don’t end a prayer with amen, it confuses people. Wanna really throw your prayer group? Next time you lead prayer, don’t bother to “hang up.” Just start speaking in general. Watch ’em get all agitated: “You didn’t say amen. You gotta say amen.” As if God is held up until we get “off the phone,” so to speak. Point out you don’t need to end prayers with amen—you realize even the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end with amen, right? Lk 11.2-4 —and they’ll still go bonkers, like an obsessive-compulsive counter who simply can’t end on an odd number. (Some of ’em will even say an annoyed amen on your behalf.)

But this insistence on capping our prayers with amen misses the entire point of the word. What’s amen mean again? True. Why would you say “True” at the end of a prayer? Because we agree with its content: “What you said is true. What you requested is good. So be it. Amen.”

This being the case, having “all God’s people say amen” at the end of a prayer isn’t just the prayer leader trying to get a little attention and recognition. It’s agreement. Do you agree with what was just prayed? I’d hope so. (That is, I’d hope the prayer leader didn’t pray anything inappropriate. It’d suck not being legitimately able to mean amen when we say it.)

This also being the case, do we really need to cap our own prayers with amen? Seems a little redundant to agree with ourselves. But we do it anyway, ’cause it’s unthinking, brainless custom. You know, dead religion.

When Jesus said amen.

Jesus was in the regular habit of saying “amen” before various statements. You likely never noticed it, ’cause most bibles don’t leave the amens in there. They translate ’em as “verily” (KJV), “assuredly” (NKJV), “truly” (ESV, NIV, NRSV), or “truth” (GNB, NJB, NLT). The translators realize your average Christian is gonna think of amen as what we say to finish a prayer, and not realize it means true.

But the reason Jesus prefaced these statements with amen (or two of ’em, “amen amen,” in John) was because he wanted it clear he was making a statement we can utterly depend on. It’s why I translate these statements, “Amen, I promise you.”

Here are five instances from the Sermon on the Mount alone:

Matthew 5.18 KWL
“Amen! I promise you all: As long as the heavens and earth exist,
not one yodh nor one penstroke will ever be taken out of the Law till it’s achieved.”
Matthew 5.25-26 KWL
25 “Be quick to cooperate with your opponent—whoever you get in the way of—
lest your opponent turn you in to the judge, the judge to the bailiff, and you’re thrown into prison.
26 Amen! I promise you: You’ll never come out of there
till you work off your last quarter.”
Matthew 6.2 KWL
“So whenever you do charity, don’t toot your own horn,
like hypocrites do in synagogue and on the street, so they can be praised by people.
Amen, I promise you: They got their wages.”
Matthew 6.5 KWL
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who really like standing in synagogues
and the corners of the main streets, praying so they might be seen by the people.
Amen! I promise you all: They got their credit.”
Matthew 6.16 KWL
“When you fast, don’t be like the sad-looking hypocrites
who conceal their faces so they look to people like they’re fasting.
Amen! I promise you all: They got their credit.”

And so on. You get the picture.

But we should get the idea amen isn’t a word to be thrown around lightly. As so many of the hypocrites do.

Inappropriate amens.

See, amen means we agree. In responsive churches, like my Pentecostal church, whenever the pastor says something people agree with, you’ll hear people in the congregation say (or shout) “Amen!”

In fact there are certain Christians whom you can count on to say amen to pretty much everything their pastor says… whether he makes any sense or not, whether she’s quoting the bible in context or not. From what we’ve seen of their unkind, out-of-control lives, we know they’re not actually following Jesus, but they’ve convinced themselves the church leadership has no clue. That’s why they sit within earshot of the podium; if the sermon’s getting recorded, they’ll be heard on the audio. Traditionally we call these suck-ups “the amen corner.”

The rest of the folks say amen when we actually agree. But not always. Mainly when we wanna look like we agree.

We wanna look like we really were listening to some long-ass prayer, while in reality our minds were wandering, and we spent the last 15 minutes debating with ourselves about whether to go to the Mexican or the Chinese place for lunch. ’Cause we like Chinese, and it’s less expensive; but the kids always want Mexican; but the kids have no taste and all they ever order is quesadillas anyway, and that’s just cheese and tortillas and barely counts as Mexican food, and I’m the adult here dangit, and… oh wait did they just say “In Jesus Name all God’s people said”? Better say amen then.

Not only should we not say amen to any prayer we don’t agree with: Sometimes we need to speak up. Sometimes the prayer leader needs correcting. Hopefully that’s rare, but it can happen, and when it does, us saying amen to it means we’ve vocally agreed to a rotten prayer. Bad example for fellow Christians, and doesn’t honor God any.

I know; people don’t wanna make trouble. Which says all sorts of things about their lack of courage, or the church’s dysfunction. Either way, grow a spine. I’m not saying you have to stand up and proclaim anathema (the opposite of amen, which literally means “accursed”) upon such prayers. Just don’t blindly, or falsely, say amen. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Let your yes be yes, your no be no, Mt 5.37, Jm 5.12 and your amen be amen.

And privately get this stuff sorted out. Have an honest relationship with one another.