Acts 23. Modern thinkers like to complain about the inadequacy of words. “If thoughts and words exist on different planes, then expression must always be an act of compromise,” Joshua Foer wrote in the Christmas edition of the New Yorker. “Utopian for Beginners,” New Yorker, Dec. 24 and 31, 2012, p. 86. The idea is that our thoughts are real and true but they perish for lack of proper expression. The purity of our ideas die on the vine. They say no language – whether real or invented – can truly express what we think and feel. Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Gottfriend Leibwitz joined the ranks of those who felt that no invented language could capture the true essence of things.
The construct has inspired many to invent languages. Languages, it is felt, are like swords. If one can only forge the right one – preferably with ancient lore and deep magic – one can accomplish heroic tasks. One man invented a language in which he organized words by meaning rather than alphabetically. His language didn’t catch on – but he inspired the thesaurus. Foer writes of the Wakashem Indians in the Pacific Northwest that their language reveals the “evidentiality” of words: the verb inflection indicates whether the speaker is sharing information from indirect experience, direct experience, inference, conjecture or hearsay.
In “Metaphors We Live By”, Lakoff and Johnson posit that not only our language but more specifically our metaphors define us. They point out we describe conversation in terms of war. We want to “win” arguments, and so on. They say that if we were to define a conversation with a “dance” metaphor we could shift the whole world. They say the metaphors we use box us in. If only we could explode our metaphors, we could break the chains of these artificial constraints and get down to brass tacks (not to mix my metaphors or anything).
But hold it right there. Is language really the problem? Are metaphors our issue? Even Foer alludes to the Tower of Babel in this article. Isn’t the problem not words but the humans who wield them? Going deeper, isn’t the issue not that we employ metaphors of war but that the human heart so often sees discussions as arguments to win rather than meaningful exchanges of ideas?
I mean, look. I used to be a litigator. You can have all the evidentiary rules you want about words in a court of law, but it doesn’t mean people will tell the truth. You can box people in; hem them in; define them, confine them, verb and noun them; force them to invent fresh original metaphors that spring from an idealized vision of how humans should behave, but you won’t get any closer to the truth.
Because we humans all by ourselves aren’t so good at truth. We have a few problems and they transcend the shortcomings of every language ever spoken. We could all speak the same language – Utopian or dystopian – and it wouldn’t change a thing.
First, there are the thoughts themselves. With all due respect to my superiors – Bacon, Descartes and Leibwitz, all of whom I’m sure had far loftier brains than I do – I’m not so sure that human thoughts are all that pure. In fact, the Bible tells us they’re kind of the opposite. Our thoughts veer from the lovely to the not so lovely in a nanosecond. And I know that’s not the kind of “purity” those men were talking about. I know they meant that the thought itself, no matter what it is, is pure, but really? I doubt that, too. I think our thoughts are cloudy. I think they’re confused. I think they bounce around from topic to topic and that those synapses in our brains are firing like pinball machines – little electrical impulses whipping around going ding, ding, ding, and we’re the hapless recipients of all that input.
And even if you could distill our thoughts down to their purest form, there’s the issue of rationalization. We humans don’t like to think of ourselves as being less than perfect, so we tend to rationalize away our bad thoughts. So there’s a level of self-decpetion in every human being going on that’s pretty astounding. HE’S a dirty rotten liar, but me? I was just fibbing a little so I wouldn’t hurt his feelings.
And even if we feel secure enough to get real about our thoughts, wants, motives, and intentions, there’s the issue of our imperfect communication skills. We could be versed in Esperanto – a vibrant language with a rich literature of its own that Foer says was George Soros’ first language – but it doesn’t mean we could adequately explain to a red-faced teacher why we didn’t do our homework or to an angry boss why we lost the memo. Our fear stymies us. And it’s not our communication skills that are the only problem. There’s the issue of the poor skills of our listeners. They may not be listening. They may have an agenda that blocks them from hearing anything but what fits into their preconceived notions. They may be operating out of life experiences that are so far removed from ours that even if we use the same words we mean opposite things.
The real problem, it seems to me, isn’t language but the human heart. It’s our selfishness, our self-deception and our ability to be deceived – by ourselves, each other, and that enemy at large, known as Satan, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, the Prince of Darkness – whatever you want to call him, he is the spiritual force of evil whom the Bible says is our “accuser.” There is a prince of darkness who is trying his hardest to make each of us miserable. There are powers and principalities of evil who don’t WANT us to understand ourselves or each other. There’s an enemy who lies to us all day long, who tells us we’re not good enough, and by the way did we know we just messed up? And who do we think we are? And did we realize how much time we’ve wasted today? And btw no one loves us – and all those other unpleasant untrue little thoughts that trot their way past the screens of our minds throughout any given day, trying to derail us and our relationships and mire us in gloom, doom and insecurity.
The solution doesn’t lie in any Utopian language or in figuring out a way for all of us to speak the same language. It lies in spending time with the Author of all our words, thoughts and hearts. If we invite God in, His Holy Spirit comes to dwell inside us. The Hebrew word is “tabernacle.” God tabernacles within us if we ask Him to, and communicates with movements as subtle and intimate as the best human communication.
God has the answer to every communication problem we’ve ever had. He can heal us of our selfishness. He can reveal to us the hidden depths of our pride – depths so deep and dark and horrible we have no idea they are lurking within us until He shows us in His kind and loving way. We know something sabotages our best efforts to communicate but we often don’t know what it is. God reveals truth – sometimes in words, sometimes in deep knowing, sometimes in his holy Word, sometimes through Christ. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus is the Word of God.
God can also soften our hearts toward people who don’t listen to us. He can give us patience with their foibles. He can enable us to hear opinions that don’t mesh with our preconceived ideas. He makes us more open-minded. He makes us more loving.
Most of all, God can give us peace. Spending time with the Author of all our words will silence the voice of the Accuser. God tells us truth. God will tell us that yes, of course, SOME of what the prince of darkness tells us is true. Lies seldom flap around without any basis in reality. But the whole of it is completely wrong. The conclusions are wrong. The premises are wrong. Anxiety comes in the gap between who we are and who we want to be, my friend R.J. Heijman once said. Yes, it does. And Satan steps in to accuse us of everything he can think of by pointing at that gap. And then he throws in the kitchen sink. But Jesus Christ fills the gap. He came to be the bridge between us and God. He covers our flaws. He covered our inadequacies on the cross. It’s done. It is finished. The gap is closed.
The Hebrew Scriptures teach that God tore down the Tower of Babel because He didn’t want us humans to unite together in a project of evil. But if we rebuild ourselves by uniting with Jesus, we are joined together in the heroic purposes of God. Barriers melt away. Language begins to serve its purpose. We are able to let our yes be yes and our no be no. We begin to fear, a little less, people with rageful tempers. We can confront them, lovingly. We can walk away from them without guilt. We can share with others the truth about our shortcomings, because we know God has forgiven us the moment we tell Him we’re sorry; our sins were paid for on the cross. We tell the truth about things we’ve done wrong because there’s no more shame, no more sorrow, no more condemnation. Shame is Satan’s game. Jesus took all the shame and guilt on the cross for us so we can live in freedom, joy and victory.
God wants us to take courage, just as He came and told Paul in this chapter of Acts. acts 23:11. He wants us to speak bravely. Jesus is truth. The more we know Him the more we know the truth. And the truth – as someone wiser than myself or any philosopher once said – sets us free. The truth frees us from the limitations of our languages and ourselves. God enables those who love Him to speak to others in the language of their hearts.
We get there by inviting Him in. We can use our language, no matter what language it is, to say: “please, God.” Or: “help me, God!” Or, “I’d like to know you better, God, but I don’t know how or what to do or even what to say.” We all know the language of desire and need.
And no matter what language we speak, God’s answer is always: those were the very words I was waiting for.
posted by Caroline Coleman in “A Chapter a Day” on January 15, 2013