In his book Language Lost and Found Niklas Forsberg notes, “Words are worn and torn, and so turned (differently). At times they are torn and worn out. But since words are turned—changed but not necessarily exchanged since words may look the same while their concepts change—it is oftentimes hard to come to see that one may fail to be in command of one’s own language.” His point is that the words we say are like doors to conceptual rooms in which the walls keep getting repainted and the furniture is constantly being rearranged. The underlying concepts no longer match the words we once used to signify them.
For example, when Christians say “Jesus,” we don’t mean exactly the same thing Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses mean when they say “Jesus.” When we say the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, Christians are making a theological statement behind which lies an understanding of the Kingdom of God, Christ’s ascension to the Father’s right hand, and the God-ordained nature of all government. It would seem that “under God” has, in many ways, been drained of its Christian theological background and is more of a reference to generic morality for some and naïve sentimentalism for others. The point is that words don’t always carry the concepts we think they do.
Perhaps worse, there is also a way for us to use words that don’t convey reality. In other words, we don’t proclaim truth by what we say. Think, for instance, how odd it would feel for Paul to say that he was hoping to be “lucky enough” to make it to Rome. The word “lucky” is, sadly, a part of my vocabulary. It is my lazy way of speaking about good things that happen to me that involved events I couldn’t control. In using the phrase “lucky,” I’m missing the opportunity to make a more robust theological statement about God’s ongoing presence in my life and his providence over all things. I’m not using biblical words, nor am I using my words biblically.
One of the benefits of social media is that we have the opportunity to think before we post. Even while writing this short article, I’m thinking more carefully about the words I use than I might if I were just speaking off the cuff. As we post on social media, we can begin to focus on our tendencies to use words that don’t convey God to the world. Our speech reflects our beliefs about the world. As Jesus teaches us, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). The way we speak says something about our hearts. Our use of language, whether spoken or written, needs to glorify God and point to the reality of his presence.
JAMES SPENCER, PHD is Vice President and COO of Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind. He also writes a regular blog at nextgenchristians.com.