Language has never been a science. It is mysterious, beautiful, and often confusing.
All of us are dependent upon language for communication — whether it be verbal or non-verbal. As language becomes both more diverse (due to globalization) and more unified (due to mass media), we are caught between understanding and misunderstanding.
Historically, Christians have recognized that God primarily speaks to us through His word. He spoke the world into existence, He spoke to the Israelites throughout the centuries, He sent His son into the world to fulfill the Word, and He continues to speak to his people today.
We do need to look far before we realize how “slippery” language can be. When people use language, there is always a degree of uncertainty when it comes to meaning. It is no wonder that there are so many cases of misunderstanding between people. The nature of language itself, because it is not scientific, often leads to such misunderstandings.
Left on our own, we are often misled or confused. We define words differently, speak them differently, use them differently, and so on. In order to truly understand language, of course, we need someone to guide us as we interact with language and interpret it for ourselves. We need to ask questions, seek clarification, and truly interact with the speaker.
Thankfully, we can be assured that God’s Spirit does just that. In speaking of the Spirit of God, Jesus calls Him a “helper” and assures that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is a teacher that can clarify our confusion, unveil what is veiled, and satisfy our need for knowledge.
In our day, many scholars want to deconstruct language, both religious and non-religious, and question whether we can truly determine a meaning from a text. For example, some point to textual criticism and the many variants used in Christian scripture. How can we truly know anything if language is so slippery?
In response, we must first admit that language is mostly effective. Otherwise, we would not use language at all. The argument that language cannot communicate meaning is self-contradictory, so we cannot hold on to that argument for very long.
Secondly, we do not need to deny these difficulties, but we can embrace them. If language were purely scientific and self-evident, we would have no misunderstandings, we would lose some of the beauty of language, and the Spirit would have no role in helping us understand what has been spoken.
As we come to God’s Word, it is essential, then, that we ask for the Spirit’s help. Interpreting the text is not simply an intellectual puzzle to be figured out. It is an exercise of listening to God’s voice as He speaks to us through His word.
As any married couple knows, true listening involves the heart, even more so than the mind. Communication is not simply the deciphering of language, but the heart-felt interaction with what is being said. Only then do we truly listen.
May this be true of us as we listen to God speak to us.