Do you remember teachers who seemed overly picky in correcting your word choices? You’d ask, Can I go to the bathroom?” and the teacher’s reply would be something like, “Are you questioning your physical ability to get to the bathroom or did you want my permission?” And you learned to say “may I?” instead of “can I.”
Most of us who were embarrassed by such an interchange wondered if it was really necessary. After all, the important thing was getting to the bathroom!
As a missionary, I can now understand that the teacher, as picky as he or she was, had a reason for insisting that we use the correct words in a given situation.
We depend upon words to understand one another, to understand concepts, and ultimately we depend upon words to grasp reality. Words have precise meanings. We can know what a person means, in part, by the words they choose. We may think the words don’t matter as long as we get our meaning across. But when people become sloppy about the words they choose, that sloppiness can eventually spill over into their ability to grasp concepts—and even their ability to grasp reality.
That is not to say that language is not a dynamic and growing means of communication. For example, we have words today to describe technology that we did not have 100 years ago. Language can evolve in order to communicate what is new.
Language can also be co-opted. For example, if someone asks you whether you are gay, chances are they are not inquiring about the lightness of your mood, but they are asking whether you are a homosexual. The word “gay” has a new meaning whether we like it or not.
Unfortunately, language also can devolve and make what was once clear seem fuzzy and difficult to discern. The misuse of words over time can erode their meaning. The result is that often people do not realize that a word no longer means what it used to.
The erosion of language poses an interesting question: does our failure to understand concepts cause us to misuse words…or does our misuse of words hinder our ability to understand concepts?
The assertions “That may be true for you, but it’s not for me” or “I have my own truth” misuse the word “truth.” A person might just as well point to a ham sandwich and say, “If you were to eat that sandwich, you would be eating the flesh of a pig. But if I were to eat that same sandwich, I would be eating the flesh of a salmon.”
When people allow themselves to believe that truth can change from one individual to the next, they make human beings the measure of reality. It could be that the erosion of the word “truth” stems from the sin of pride, or the sin of self-centeredness. It could also be that the sins of pride and self-centeredness gain strength in us through the weakening of our respect for words and their meanings.
What does this mean for us as people who are committed to communicating the gospel?
First, it means that we need to be careful that we don’t allow words like “truth” to become eroded in our own minds. Even if people around us no longer understand the meaning of a word, we must guard it in the lexicon of our soul.
Second, it means that when we have an opportunity to uphold the meaning of important words, we should do so. I don’t mean for us to be self-righteous about correcting people as they discuss spiritual matters with us. But we can point out that in order to have a meaningful conversation, we must have a common understanding of the words we use. The fourth definition of the word “truth” in the dictionary is “a particular belief or teaching regarded by the speaker as true”. (p. 1520, New World Dictionary of the American Language). Unfortunately, that is the definition most people have in mind when they talk about spiritual truth—and it is the weakest. First, any definition that includes a form of the word that’s being defined is circular (in this case, “true,” is used to define “truth”). Second, this definition is very loose and contradicts the first three definitions, which describe truth as something that corresponds with fact or reality or trustworthiness. Ultimately, beliefs and teachings either do or do not correspond with reality. That is the common understanding we need in order to have meaningful conversations.
Third, we need to be charitable with our choice of words, and use those that have meaning to the people we want to reach. If we use words like “sin” and “salvation” we must not assume that others understand their meaning. Jewish people especially are unlikely to have the same concept of these words as those who grew up in a church. Many Christians don’t realize this because sin and salvation are words that we see throughout the Jewish Scriptures. However, most Jewish people who you are likely to meet will be largely secular and not well acquainted with their own Bibles.
It is easy, even for a missionary, to forget that we tend to use words and phrases in ways that are not familiar to others. For example, I was witnessing to a Jewish friend and mentioned someone who I described as “another Jewish person who believes in Jesus.” She said, “Wait a minute. Don’t you find that most Jews believe Jesus existed?” I had to admit rather sheepishly that I was using Christian shorthand and that what I meant to say was, “a Jewish person who believes that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord.”
Finally, we should use our words precisely and accurately, but they should also be seasoned with grace. In our desire to be exact, we should avoid being pedantic. Words are important because we can use them to help people be reconciled to God. Our desire to see that reconciliation should bring a note of compassion to whatever words we choose when sharing the gospel.