It Is What It Is

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I can’t remember the first time I heard someone say it.  I never said it until my thirties, when the realities of life quietly ushered in a more melancholy mood to supplant my youthful optimism.  I watched friends marriages fail.  I spent time in the Third World.  My wife got sick.  Friends let me down.  And I took advantage of friends.

Darkness began to claim what seemed like his rightful place in the hierarchy of presuppositions.  Things will be bad, or they will be good.  Or they will be so-so.  All the while Facebook reigns, and I am busy, so under the influence of my low investment friendships I settle for a shorthand way to communicate big things, and so I say, “It is what it is.”

But what does that even mean?

Here in the Rabbit Room, words matter, and they matter here because they matter out there–in the world–where the Amish fear to tread.

When I said, “It is what it is” for the first time, I knew that I was posing.  Right now it makes me think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.” But in this case it is both more subtle and more consequential.  I was posing because that phrase pretends to make a definitive claim that assumes insight on the part of the speaker.  In fact, it assumes so much insight that the speaker need not even elaborate.  I see the situation, it looks like something I’ve seen before, so I want to lump it together with all those other things I’ve seen and call a spade a spade or a thief a thief.  Quite unlike what Jesus did on the cross.

If it is what it is, what is left for Jesus to do?

Jesus defines every moment, every relationship, every success and every failure, and his Spirit gives believers insight if they seek him.  But the goal of his insight is always Love.  “It is what it is” seems to strip the hope of Love away from the conversation.   Lately, whenever I hear “It is what it is,” I get this picture of someone slicing corn off a corn cob right into the trash can.

I can understand “It is hopeless” or “It is a mess” or “It is a sandwich,” but “It is what it is” seems meaningless at best, and at its worst reduces Jesus Christ to irrelevance.

It’s not that I think we need some kind of word police.  I just know that I’m already prone to missing opportunities to see God at work all around me.  I’m usually thinking about myself, not what he might be up to.  But if God is truly always on the move, and my role is to keep watch and not judge, then the discernment required to confidently pronounce “It is what it is” starts to seem more and more…inconceivable.


25 Comments

  1. Travis Prinzi

    I remember I started using this phrase in order to mock someone who said it, because I thought it was an absurd little phrase.

    Then I overused it, and now I just use it.

    That’s what I get for mocking people.

    Anyway, “It is what it is” is exactly the opposite of the way it is, because it’s almost different than it initially appears. There’s always a deeper meaning, a significance behind the seemingly settled, and a magic behind the mundane.

    Good post.

  2. Travis Prinzi

    Another thought – I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Seeing Eye.” There, he takes on the idea that because some astronauts flew to space and didn’t see God, that there was no God.

    I mean basically, they’re getting up to space and saying “It is what it is,” and there’s nothing else here.

    Lewis said that it’s all about disposition, not about what the physical eye perceives. “Much depends on the seeing eye,” he wrote. Someone who already sees God on earth will see him in space. Someone who doesn’t, won’t, and they won’t see him in Jesus, either.

  3. Nathanael

    Good thoughts, brother.
    Cynicism is an easy snare in which to fall. There is so much potential in any given situation to see what it could be, and not to settle for what it is.

    I posted on Facebook yesterday that I “desire to be a defender of the weak, a voice for those who cannot speak.” And someone challenged me by essentially saying that it sounds good in theory, but how is it to be practically lived out.

    So I replied, “Notice I said I desire to be these things. I think practically it means jumping in, without reserve, to situations where I will look foolish, but where the weak need someone to support them, and the silent need someone to speak for them. Will I do this at work? In my neighborhood? In the store? In the church? In the street? Lord help!”

    Several things keep us saying, “It is what it is.” When we see potential in a situation, we are accountable to do something about it. And if we refuse to voice this cliche, and instead disire to see hope rise out of ashes, we find that relationships with hurting people are messy and time-consuming.

  4. Paula Shaw

    Awesome! When I first started reading the post, I thought, “Oh no, another ‘it is what it is’ user”, but as I read on, I thought, “Yes! This guy gets it!” I really dislike that phrase because of the inference that there’s nothing that can be done to help a situation, thereby making our God impotent. God always does something~ heals, teaches, bestows mercy, gives knowledge, directs, saves, challenges, tests, and ALWAYS meets us with love (“the aching may remain, but the breaking does not”). For those of us humans who can’t, or refuse to see God’s hand in our lives, then I guess “it is what it is” has more credence. It’s taken a long time for me to know that things are seldom as they seem, so the phrase, “it is what it is” just holds nothing for me. Thanks be to God!

  5. Austin Storm

    I encountered the phrase through the Bravo reality show “Top Chef”. The contestants on the show seem to use it extensively, and by it they mean, “I’ve done my best, made many decisions under pressure, and now I stand by my work as it goes to be judged.” I’ve only used the phrase after that pattern, and somewhat jokingly. I think I’m ok with it – I see how there could be a twinge of existential despair, but it’s not inherent.

  6. Jon Andrews

    Words are so important and the scriptures tell us how powerful the tongue is. We continue to toss things out just to sound authoritative or smarter than we really are. I heard a person in my church say to a student, “don’t say that in church.” What? First if some words or discouraging things shouldn’t be said “in church” then maybe they shouldn’t be said. Second what are we conveying by saying that? We are almost encouraging each other to live two separate lives. One at “church” and one outside. I ask which one is the real us? Words are so powerful.

  7. Chris R

    Here in the Rabbit Room, where words matter, I like the fact that you capitalized Love. Signified to me that Love is a living and active thing, not just a feeling to throw around.

  8. Charles Churchill

    Great post!

    “It is what it is” is existentialism’s deity defining statement; its equivalent of Jehovah’s words at the burning bush: “I am that I am”.

    I needed that reminder.

  9. Leigh McLeroy

    What “it is what it is” IS, is just plain lazy. Lazy thinking, and lazy word choice. The first time I said a four letter word in front of my dad, he paused for a moment, then he said: “I’m surprised at you, Leigh. I thought you had a more extensive vocabulary than that, and a brighter mind to know how to use it.” SO much more effective than a shrug and “It is what it is.” My cursing career was short lived as a result. Words do matter, and if you’re going to say “It is what it is,” you might as well just let your eyes glaze over and edit it down to an inarticulate “Duh.” (And I love Inigo’s other line from Princess Bride…the one that expresses precisely what he means: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

  10. kelli

    Beatifully said, Randall! Yes…”what is left for Jesus to do?”

    I have a strong distate for this phrase, and you have summed it up perfectly.

    Oh…and…we’re looking forward to seeing you in Humble tomorrow night!!!

  11. Dan K

    I’m more in line with Austin.
    Job saying “the Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name.” couldn’t that be, “it is what it is. Blessed be the name” ?

    I have recently taken to using (nearly entirely) as a summary. In a discussion this morning: I must balance coaching & advising teammates with the level they are ready for, and cannot expect the top level from a rookie. It is what it is.

    In some twisted way (which with work I could expand more) I can see 2 legitimate uses:
    -Saying I recognize the existing conditions, now let’s get to work.
    -Or as Top Chef contestants saying the work is done, and the result is beyond their hands.

    I think the danger (and nature of language creep & laziness) is that it will/has come to mean the conditions exist AND the result is beyond my hands. Simply encouraging laziness for the speaker and the listener.

    At this point I’m ignoring the HUGE discussion on human effort within the Divine providence which probably goes full circle to : it is what it is, blessed be His name. Which would drive to motivation (being used by God) rather than laziness.

  12. Randall Goodgame

    @randallgoodgame

    I like those 2 uses, and I’m glad you guys brought them up. The last thing I’d root for would be a new law. The more important discussion for me is how easily I get lulled into language that does betray my faith.

    It’s not much different than me sarcastically saying, “O goody, grits again!” when that’s all the breakfast food we’ve had in the house for a few days.

  13. Michael

    Great post.

    I’m wondering if we should start a new phrase… maybe “It isn’t what it is”? Because we know that no matter what the situation looks like to us, there’s much more going on behind the scenes. God is moving.

    Maybe: “It isn’t what it was”? Since this might mean that we recognised that our feelings of existential hopelessness, real though they may be, need to be interpretted in the larger frame of reference of our whole lives of testimony.

    Any other suggestions?

  14. Beth

    I’m so sick of “it is what it is”. I hear it ccnstantly. Its companion phrase seems to be “you do what you have to do.” What the heck does that one mean?

    I think people in our culture are too lazy to think of something to say that actually means something.

  15. Cherie Heringer

    I’m going to take your words and thoughts on a different path. Stay with me.
    There are times when a conclusion must be reached – can we agree on that much?

    At times, too much diatribe, well it becomes inconceiveable. That’s when comments like – “I need you to land the plane,” or “the horse is dead,” should be interjected into the conversation in order to save one’s companion from further shame.

    Now, in the instance of saying, “It is what it is,” there are occasions in which this phrase finds meaning to me when there are no really good words in wihch to explain a situation. In such a case, I don’t consider it a cop out to park said phrasiology in God’s hands and leave it be. There are times when one must do what one must do in order to press on. Too much thought often defeats acting upon a good purpose, or moving on.

    As I experience more years and therefore more life, I find myself being faced with inconceivable situations. A child who dies, a friend who drops dead for no really good reason, parts of Atlanta getting 20 inches of rain in a day. I park these inconceivable happenings in God’s realm. I have no control over such things.

    I suppose I live in the land of knowing Christ is who He is. Perhaps I live in a certain enchantment in that land and I find my peace and therefore my outlook there. So to me, “It is what it is,” is like saying, “It is as God says.” Amen.

  16. debbie

    I have to say I agree with cherie. Sometimes I have to let go of situations that I cannot do anything about, should not do anything about. I recognize that I am not in control of people, circumstances. I do not say it with hopelessness, but as a reminder to myself that at this present moment the situation is what I see it to be. I can fret, worry, fume or I can choose to leave it in the hands of my Father who is more than capable of seeing the larger picture when I cannot.
    probably a better way of expressing myself when faced with situations that are beyond me is to tell myself and others let it go….Let God do what He is going to do and trust Him with the results.
    It is what it is right now but with God it will be what it will be.

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