On Misusing Language

A Christian man is on trial in Iran for having converted from Islam — a capital crime. To compound their error, Iran has just announced that the lawyer who was defending this Christian has been found guilty of another crime against the state. Now we all know that his “crime” is actually that of trying to support the basic human right of a person to change his mind about spiritual matters. But the court charged him with “acting against national security.” Such mis-use of language is not at all trivial. It is really hard to tell the world you are sentencing a man to nine years in prison for supporting human rights. But you can justify all sorts of actions under the umbrella of “national security.”

We see language misused all the time, with all sorts of consequences in the real world. One of the most common terms we hear today that has been twisted out of shape is the word “tolerance.” Because in practice, those who speak loudest for tolerance have absolutely none at all for any worldview that suggests some people’s values are actually the result of distorted thinking or that some values are flat-out wrong or poor ways to live. They call it “hate speech” and even threaten bodily harm (which they denounce when the shoe is on the other foot). Consequently, we now have a word that justifies all sorts of hateful behavior toward Christians in the name of proper social behavior. Misusing language can have serious consequences. It even rings of  “Newspeak” from the novel, “1984.”

Unfortunately, we also misuse language in our churches. A few years ago, one famous preacher begin his daily radio message with an invitation to “a time of Bible study, fellowship, and prayer.” What exactly did he mean by the word fellowship? What kind of fellowship can I have with a pre-recorded message on the radio? This may seem like splitting hairs. But we catch our meaning of things by the way they are referred to over time by people we look up to. In the first 30 seconds of his program he completely demolished any value in the idea of fellowship. That’s a misuse of language, and it’s not benign.

Language can be misused in all sorts of ways. The word “community” has been so frequently applied to virtually any collection of people, that we have greatly diminished our ability to describe a close-knit group that is truly investing in one another and becoming interdependent in some very good ways. If we use our best words to describe trivial gatherings, what words do we have left to talk about what really matters?

We also hear people use the phrase, “I have a relationship with God.” Thankfully, many of them do, and we can rejoice with them. But for a lot of people I have known over the years, that phrase has very little real meaning behind it. What they mean is, “I prayed the sinner’s prayer once, I go to church, and I read my Bible fairly often and try to live by what it says.” Unfortunately, that’s a misuse of language. I have that kind of “relationship” with a few of my favorite authors. But that is not what God intended for our relationship at all. And when we use that word for something that is so devoid of real interaction or connection, we lose touch with what might actually be possible.

Our use of language matters. That’s why when we wrote Forming, we devoted an entire class to “Grace” and still another to “Renewing Our Mind.” These are terms that are easily watered down by the way we talk about them. I have even wondered sometimes if there should be a wiki-words site that tries to make sense of some of these common misuses of our words. But then we would need to wonder who was defining the terms. Still, language matters.

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