Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Meaning of Words, Part I

I spoke with a dear pastor friend of mine before the weekend who informed me that he was recently given the opportunity to teach the Scriptures at a local university. He called to ask for my thoughts about his discussion with various students over the use and meaning of various words. One of the students kept insisting that he had the freedom, in Christ, to use profane words – and he had no hesitation to identify those words in the hearing of the other students. My friend described the student’s reasoning for such actions, and as he did I was immediately reminded of a similar line of thought that drew some attention back a few years when the subject of profanity and strong words started to become a bit more “hip” within our American religious culture:

I doubt that the Puritans of yesteryear would ever imagine the thought of “cursing pastors” and “cursing Christians” – but such is the brave new world of the religious culture today. I believe that the seeds of confusion in all of this go back even further to what has been a longstanding development of subjective religion here in America: a kind of modernized emotion-based-existentialism which subjugates everything beneath the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the worshipper. The problem with this should be evident, especially since everything in life is to be subject to God as that which is from Him, and through Him, and to Him – to Him be the glory forever, amen (Romans 11:36).

This truth also applies to the very words that we use.

All the words we use, whether biblical or otherwise, should be offered as  seasoned speech made useful for the edification or admonishment of others, for God’s ultimate glory. But what we must understand is this: words have actual meaning, and are therefore not innately modified by our own subjective thoughts, feelings, or affections. Now I should qualify this point as follows: a person’s thoughts, feelings, and affections (or lack thereof) can redirect the impact that a word might have on the hearer. A man can say to his wife: “I love you,” but with a drab spirit of indifference such a regurgitation will have no appeal.  However, we must affirm, once again, that the innate meaning of his words are not at all changed by the subjective reality of his indifference. Therefore, the good news within this illustration is that God’s meaning and definition of love (H. ‘ahab; G. agape) stands as an objective reality despite the subjective corruption of men. This distinction is crucial, but it is often lost within the world of subjective religion. With little or no objective anchor in God, the soul of man is lost within the morass of his own, ever changing, subjectivism and feelings. Paul addresses some of these issues when speaking of our use of words when he says – “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29).  We should note that Paul does not say “Let no word be spoken unwholesomely” as if to place the emphasis on the way in which we speak. This would be a mere repetition of his earlier instructions in Ephesians 4:15 and 25 where Paul addresses the importance of the manner, intent, and affections of our communication. Verse 29 however, presses a distinct focus on the very words that we use. In fact, the nominative/adjectival construct is unmistakable: logos sapros (unwholesome words – or words that are rotten) vs. those “words that are good for edification.” Paul’s instruction is quite clear – it is not just how we say things that is important, but it is also what we say that is key, knowing that there are some things of which we should never speak:

Ephesians 5:11-12: 11. Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; 12. for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.

Some words and concepts are simply known to be aischros – utterly dark and disgraceful. Now imagine a member of the modern culture entering Paul’s world for a minute: he might insist that Paul stand up, be a man, and talk about these dark and dirty things as a display of Christian maturity and stability – insisting that he is free and clear to do so on the grounds of a subjective innocence, replete with good intentions and affections. Paul’s response would not change for a minute. He would simply respond by indicating that things which are rotten (sapros) belong in the waste-bin of language, and that it is disgraceful (aischros) – even ungracious (Ephesians 4:29) to allow such filth to pass the lips – no matter how we say it. To deny this is to play a rather dangerous word-game. Now, is there a subjective realm to this discussion? Are there not words that are somewhat “borderline” on the issue of unwholesome speech? Certainly. But remember, even the world knows (for the most part) what profanity is. If you are in doubt of this, try reading a movie review sometime, and you will find that even the inhabitants of Hollywood understand the theology of unwholesome speech well enough. Clearly, Paul didn’t give his audience a list of things that are “disgraceful even to speak of” – such an act would be a self-contradiction within his own letter. Nor did he give us a Mishnaic listing of unwholesome words – he clearly understood that this is not a matter that can be reduced to a superficial legalism. As the children of God we must be so invested in learning the things (objectively) that are pleasing to God (Ephesians 5:7-10) that we will walk in the light of God’s wisdom and grace. Therefore, we do not walk about with lengthy lists of prohibited words, instead, we are called to exercise sound judgment, self-control, and discernment in this matter of the use of our tongues, knowing that we will at times stumble and err as mere men (James 3:2). But if we are invested in this matter of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), then all of these other conflicts will diminish beneath the weightiness of God’s immeasurable grace (Ephesians 4:29).

It is crucial that we consider our own subjective affections and attitudes when speaking, for “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34). But our subjective thoughts and feelings cannot be our chief end. Instead, we must look objectively outside of ourselves, and remember that the very words that we use have meaning – some good; some bad – and that our intentions do not transform the innate reality of such meaning. Overall, our heart matters; our words matter; and everything ought to be laid before the Lord for His ultimate glory.