An Anchor for Our Tongues

Preachers and authors do it all the time. They quote the English definition of a word or refer to its linguistic roots as a way to ground their argument, to establish the meaning of a term or concept. Then they move on, seemingly convinced that they have offered up enough evidence for their audience to trust that they are indeed communicating the true sense of that term. What is not often realized is that, for the Christian, this kind of appeal to the dictionary or history is actually an inadequate grounding.

Perhaps a sermon is being delivered on Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The preacher focuses on the meaning of comfort in his introduction to his sermon idea. To do this, he quotes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which defines the verb comfort as:

  1. to give strength or hope to: cheer
  2. to ease the grief or trouble of: console

The preacher then takes this meaning of comfort, summarizes what comfort means according to the definitions he’s just read, and then gives his main point: Our God gives strength and hope to his people through his promises of salvation.

Or, perhaps a Christian counselor is writing a book on grief and to establish what comfort means, he appeals to the Latin roots of the word. In Latin, com meant with, and fortis meant strength. So, the author concludes, comfort means “with strength,” to be with someone in a way that gives them strength.

What’s the problem with these very common ways to establish the meaning of a term or concept? The problem is that this method of establishing meaning has only served to give us what one particular language and culture believed about that concept at a given time. But how do I know that Merriam-Webster English is giving me a true and universal meaning for comfort? Or how can I be sure that the meaning the Romans gave to their words is a faithful witness to what comfort actually is? Why should I trust these snapshots of a language at a particular time over my own personal definition for the term, cobbled together by the thousands of contexts where I have heard and seen that term used?

Unfortunately, any given language is an imperfect witness to eternal truth. A language is limited in its perspective on reality. It “thinks” in a certain way, and this affects how it describes things. This gives each language a unique perspective and voice, but that uniqueness also implies it’s missing a bunch of things that other languages notice. In English I am my age, in Spanish I have my age. If I only speak English, I only think about age in a certain way. But I am missing out on the reality that age is not just something I can be, it is also something I can possess.

Each language is also limited by the kind of vocabulary and grammar it has. When a culture is strong in something it will have a whole cloud of words related to that concept. When it is weak in something, it might only have one word, or none. Our Central Asian focus culture (strong on kinship) has unique names for all kinds of relatives that in English would simply be a known as cousin, aunt, or uncle. When it comes to grammar, some languages don’t have a future tense. Others don’t use articles at all (a, the, etc.). Languages are limited things. They are also constantly changing things, with each new generation bringing a slightly different pronunciation and even meaning to the same batch of words – and sometimes inventing entirely new ones.

Consider the necessity of explaining what the fear of the Lord actually means and you’ll see what I’m getting at here. In contemporary English, fear has lost all of its positive connotations and has only retained its negative ones. As for Lord, unless someone is reasonably informed about medieval history, the term has lost any of its earthly contextual meaning and is now only a Christianese term. The fear of the Lord simply does not communicate to my secular contemporaries in an easily understandable way. Our language has changed, like a thick fog rolling in, and obscured the true meaning of this phrase.

All of this is why pointing the audience to a dictionary definition or to the history of a word doesn’t provide an adequate grounding for Christians. We are people of the Logos, God’s eternal word, which entered into the ever-unstable sea of fallen human language and thereby provided us access to fixed, eternal truth and meaning – an anchor, not only for our souls, but also for our tongues. It is not enough for for us to know how Oxford or Merriam-Webster or our various ancestors defined a word. We need to know how God defines it. We need an eternal source with which we can compare our definitions of a word and tweak, turn, or gut accordingly.

Our preachers and authors must demonstrate what a given term means in the Bible, for only in the scriptures do we have what was imperfect human language inspired to perfectly reveal eternal truth. Once we know what the Bible means by words like comfort, then we can lean on the dictionary or a word’s linguistic roots as a good illustration or secondary grounding. But our primary grounding for a term’s meaning must be God’s word.

This means we are deeply indebted to the translators who worked hard to make God’s word clear in our mother tongue. We are also indebted to biblical scholars who can help us understand a word’s range of meaning in the original languages of the Bible – as well as those who can help compare that usage with how that term was used in other contemporary writings. Praise God, in the West we have easy access to many resources like this to help us. But the need is still great to continue to get solid Bible translations and resources into thousands of other languages without this kind of access.

The question might arise of what we should do if a certain term does not appear in the Bible, but we desire to test our language or culture’s limited definition. First, we should ask if the concepts behind the word are present in the scriptures, even if the word itself is not. Second, there is insight to be gleaned from comparing how different languages represent the same or similar concepts. If each language is indeed a unique and limited common grace witness to truth, then we should expect to find help as we put multiple languages together and see a fuller picture of what aspects of God’s wisdom their words have been able to preserve.

Preachers and authors, let’s make sure we ground our definitions in the only inspired source of eternal meaning we have, God’s word. This could often be as simple as an extra sentence or two. “The definition we just read fits well with how the Bible uses this term, as we see illustrated in this passage in…” or, “I like the Latin roots of this word because they echo so well with how the biblical authors use it, for example…” A small step toward a deeper grounding will help us communicate meaning that is eternal, and not that which is a mere snapshot of an imperfect language tradition.

It matters how the English and the Romans defined things. It matters infinitely more how God does.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Grateful Reflections on 500 Posts

My WordPress dashboard tells me I have posted over 500 times over the last two and a half years, 523 times to be exact. The circumstances that got me into this – and have kept me at it – turned out to be seasons of trial that brought with them unexpected margin and need for clarity. That margin, along with some wise counsel, combined to translate desire into actual words on the page.

Like many, in early 2020 I found myself stuck at home with everything canceled because of some new global coronavirus. The lock-downs came early to our corner of Central Asia, landing us at home several weeks before they would also be introduced in the West.

Sometime in that season I had come across a couple of posts from Tim Challies that proved to be very helpful for me. The first one, Writers Write, challenged me to stop thinking of myself as a writer if I wasn’t regularly actually, well, writing. The second post, Has There Ever Been a Better Time to Start a Blog?, gave me a roadmap for how to get started. Once I had made it through a few weeks of posting, I reached out to Tim to let him know I was putting his advice into action. His encouragement then and along the way has been a vital part of maintaining the hope necessary to keep on writing. Many of you have found my writing through Tim’s blog.

There were a few other practical pieces of advice that also proved to be wise guidance. I believe I heard them on Chase Replogle’s Pastor Writer Podcast. The first was that a writer should not be so much concerned with what others find interesting, as much as with what he himself finds interesting. This makes good sense. If we find ourselves captured by a certain topic, then we are much more able to invite others in to be captured as well. For example, I find Central Asian proverbs to be both wise and witty. Will anyone else out there actually find them interesting as well? Or am I destined to rub my chin in a very real and very lonely fascination? Turns out this is the wrong question. If the desire is in me to dig into certain topic, or to tell a certain story, that most often means it is something I should write about. The sheer diversity of readers that are out there mean it will almost always resonate with someone, and perhaps even serve to pique the interest of some who have never before themselves slowed down to rub their chins at that particular topic.

Secondly, I was greatly helped by the idea that writing is an act of faith. I often wonder when I will run out of things to write about, when the stories will dry up, or when I will reach for some principle to explore, only to find the metaphorical shelves bare. The truth is that I really don’t have any promise saying that there will always be something I will be able to write about. But again and again, when I sit down to write I find there are at least one or two things I can write about in that moment. What can I write about today has proved a much more faithful guide than what should I write about. Writing is full of surprises. Some posts that I thought were quite mediocre fare turned out to get the most engagement from readers. This idea that writing is an act of faith helps me to keep on going, knowing that writing, like any gifting, is not something ultimately originating in myself, but in the boundless generosity of a good father. Amazed as I am that he keeps giving, he tends to keep on doing so – a generosity flowing out of his very nature.

The encouragement of you, my readers, has also been a crucial piece of keeping this blog going. Though it has caught me by surprise, it has been a true delight to know that posts focusing on missions, wisdom, history, and resurrection have encouraged you, have made you laugh, and have even proved to be edifying. Your comments and emails have strengthened my commitment to keep on going, even when I had to step away from the blog for seasons of increased busyness. I am truly grateful for your generosity toward me in this two-and-a-half year experiment.

Finally, I am grateful to God for his kind and mysterious providence, for the seasons of trial he has given that enabled this blog to start and to keep going. I began writing during the Covid-19 lock-downs. A medical leave in the US for my daughter’s new-onset diabetes provided the margin needed to keep on writing during that first year. The various implosions and misadventures of ministry in Central Asia provided fertile material to work with. Now, a second medical leave is once again giving the same gift of margin as we seek to heal as a family. These seasons of perplexity and uncertainty in life and ministry have proved to be some of the most productive times for writing. And writing has itself been part of what God has used to help carry me through the fog. I may not know what our life as spiritual nomads will look like in six months, but today I can write something. And that small act of re-creation has proved to be surprisingly grounding and life-giving.

500 posts down, by the grace of God. May he give grace for 500 more.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash