No Word For Grace

“Our people group has no word for grace or gift.”

One missionary couple shared this fact at the gathering of a church planting network this past week. The comment landed with sobering weight, since the preaching at the conference was working through the book of 2nd Timothy. We all realized that without the word or concept for grace, you would get stuck at only the second verse of the book.

How do you preach the gospel in a tribe where there is no word for grace?

At lunch the next day, a couple of us asked these missionaries and bible translators some further questions about this problem of missing vocabulary. Thinking of the sermon on the mount, I was curious about how this people group viewed the blessings of rain and sun, which they don’t work for, but receive freely despite how righteous or not they are.

“Do they view these blessings of nature as gifts somehow, or as entitlements?”

“Our people group, sadly, is a very entitled one,” my friends responded with a frown. “Even with things like these.” Dead end there. Earlier they had shared how even a father building a house for his son would expect payment for this labor.

When faced with a lack of spiritual vocabulary like this, a missionary has three primary options. The ideal one is to dig deeper into the language and culture to find a word or phrase that might be there – though currently hidden – that can in fact do the job. A second option is to make up a new word within that language, ideally by combining other words or word parts that already exist. Finally, you can introduce a loan word from another language. With these latter two options you have to teach the meaning over and over again to make sure the new word created or introduced gets paired with the right meaning. But even with the first option of finding an indigenous word, constant teaching might be needed to make sure the word grows into an accurate, biblical meaning.

Our friends could pursue any of these options as they move forward. This is one reason they are focusing first on bible storying before they begin Bible translation. It gives them more time to iron out these thorny linguistic issues.

As we tossed around the problem at our lunch table, they shared that there is one indigenous word they need to explore further, a word which they had recently learned in the marketplace. Their locals will often sell a batch of produce, such as a small pile of tomatoes, for a set price. But once the customer has agreed to purchase, the seller might throw in a couple extra pieces, and then use a specific local word to describe these extra tomatoes that are apparently functioning as some kind of gift. Initially, this seems to me to suggest a meaning more like a bonus, which is still earned in a sense because of the initial purchase. But it does at least show the culture is not entirely absent of the concept of something being given for free-ish. And that could be a beginning.

Or, since they work as Bible translators and are gifted linguists, this couple could end up just making up a new word with the help of their translation team. But again, this path is not without its risks. There is no guarantee the word will gain traction and actually be used enough to be understood. However, sometimes this can indeed work. Another missionary shared how this has taken place in Indonesian. A word for grace was created a couple hundred years ago, and it is now well-known and widely used among the Christians there. 

Borrowing the word from French – their country’s trade language – could also be the way these missionaries decide to go. But again, the risk is that this loan word could end up being used without understanding or even that grace itself could thereby be understood as a foreign concept, not really something that belongs to this unique tribal group. But this option can also work at times, as it has among the Central Asian people group where we’ve been laboring. A term for grace was borrowed from the historically-dominant language of a neighboring people group, yet is now used freely and without baggage among local believers.  

It is a sobering thing to realize that some societies have fallen so far as to not even have a term for grace or gift. A lack of a word means that since the fall, that category of truth has been almost completely destroyed in that people or culture. Given the nature of God’s law written upon our hearts, I don’t think a spiritual category can ever be utterly destroyed. Yet it seems possible that a concept can become so foreign to a people group long-separated from the truth that it now lingers in the soul only as a shadow of a distant memory – something barely present as a form of intuition, something perhaps felt, but not “known” in a cognitive, linguistic sense.

At times like this the role of the missionary is a stunning and vital one. They are in a sense raising a dead concept back to life, by clothing it in an old, new, or borrowed “robe” of a word. In time, and with the help of the Spirit, this word will become a vital part of the spread of the gospel in this language and the life of the new indigenous Church. This being the case, in the words of 3rd John 8, we really ought to support people such as these. The stakes are very high, and we need to pray for wisdom for those tasked with this kind of high responsibility to make the truth clear in long-lost languages.

I am so grateful for these friends laboring among this tribe, and for all in similar roles. May their labors over specific words and meaning someday bear fruit such that their focus people praises God’s wonderful grace – and both knows and loves what that priceless word means.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

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