I am a Christian at a loss for words. In fact, speaking from a Christian perspective feels something like tiptoeing through a minefield of words: I can barely write without worrying that the words I’m using will either implode with cultural baggage or lie dormant underground, meaning nothing.
Allow me to demonstrate.
I mock Chick-fil-A as I stuff waffle fries into my mouth. I’ve been reluctantly cuffing my jeans for several months now. “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” is my guilty pleasure. When searching for a C. S. Lewis quote, I mistakenly open my Bible to the New Testament. I still get a little too excited that communion at my church involves real wine. I liked banjos before they were cool. I believe the word “creative” was never meant to be used as a noun to describe a type of person. I know just enough Hebrew to decipher the majority of forearm tattoos. I cringe at phrases like “facilitating community” and “intentional vulnerability,” yet crave these things at my core.
I have been searching for a new word, when what I need is a true word.Drew Miller
So here I am, flailing in a sea of failing words, and my first instinct is to throw them away and look for new ones. I go shopping on Wikipedia for a new spirituality as nonchalantly as if I were shopping for new clothes. I borrow from various traditions and languages, attempting to escape the suffocation of my own, only to find that I get tired of those too.
I have been searching for a new word, when what I need is a true word.
Every word is a promise we keep by speaking, a promise made to protect the hope that humans are still capable of telling the truth. True words, then, are promises as-yet unbroken, little pictures of fidelity reminding us that we can still trust each other.
But what happens when we break these promises?
We kill words. There are about as many ways to kill words as there are to kill people, but here I’ll list the three most common as I see them.
First and least harmful, we kill words through sheer repetition. When this happens, the deceased word is then referred to as a “cliche.” Cliches are like the poor songs that get overplayed on the radio: they aren’t necessarily bad or untrue–in fact they are often overused because they have something good to say–it’s just that I never want to hear “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz ever again.
Second and more serious, we kill words through dishonesty. These dead words are called lies. This is pretty straightforward: a breakdown occurs between what I’m saying and reality, causing people to lose trust in me. My word is no longer true.
We are speaking where we stand, and we shall stand afterwards in the presence of what we have said.Wendell Berry
Last and most dangerous, we kill words by using them violently. Words that have been used violently are referred to as “bad words:” vulgarity, prejudice, and hate speech, for example.
Wendell Berry has written, “We are speaking where we stand, and we shall stand afterwards in the presence of what we have said.” We have all stood in the presence of truth, deception, joy, and exhaustion, whether from our own words or the words of others. We know from experience, then, that the health of a language indicates the health of those dealing in that language.
Our world is filled to the brim with words, and the turnover rate for these words is ever-increasing. The chattering of news networks, emails, and advertisements hardly gives us a chance to stand “in the presence of what we have said.” This constant frenzy does considerable damage to our words, rendering some useless and others dangerous until we struggle to speak meaningfully at all.
And yet there is one ancient word that manages to rise from the ashes no matter how many ways we kill it. This is no ordinary word; it also happens to be a person: the word that was “made flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
This person I speak of was marred and mangled, bloodied and beaten. His name has been deceitfully bought and sold, invoked for acts of mass violence, and domesticated into empty cliches. This person suffered the deepest alienation humanity has ever known: the cavern between Creator and creature. His name has been used as a weapon to further this alienation, to sprinkle salt into his own wounds.
But this word has proven true, not in spite of these atrocities, but because he can be found binding up wounds in the thick of them. He is to be trusted because “by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
When the truth of this gospel sinks into my heart, I react in one of two ways.
Sometimes, I am even more at a loss for words than before. I gag at all the ways I have spoken of Jesus, whether harmful, presumptuous, or just plain silly. I struggle to form one complete sentence about him. I may try to write a song, because songs seem more durable than plain speech, but I fail in the attempt. Finally, I resolve myself to silence.
Other times, the truth of this one eternal word suddenly enlivens all the other words. In my joy, all my abuse of language doesn’t matter to me anymore. I want to say all the words because they are all so beautiful. I begin to love speaking of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, my Father in heaven, and his kingdom coming to earth. I resolve myself to speech, saying, “I will never hesitate to speak the gospel again.”
But have you ever said a word over and over again so many times that it sounded like gibberish?
Have you ever looked at someone you love, and then all of a sudden, they look completely unfamiliar to you?
No matter the resonance of my silence or my words, I usually end up feeling like I’m speaking gibberish and praying to a stranger.
I recently told one of my past professors about this. He said, “I think it’s a good thing that you’ve realized you don’t actually know Jesus.” I asked him why, and he reminded me that just when we think we know everything there is to know about someone we love, we discover that we don’t know them at all.
As odd as it sounds, I take a strange comfort in the humiliation of knowing I don’t know Jesus. At least from here, I can begin to know him with greater sincerity.