Plain Language

Words and written language have always fascinated me. Discovering word derivations was a family sport when I was growing up. And I still find it hard to ignore a garage sale book on etiology of words, or familiar words that are commonly mispronounced, or language development, or grammatical errors in common use.  To me, exploring the origins of words is as exciting as a mystery, and reading examples of misused Oxford commas, as humorous as a book of jokes.

As a follower of Christ, the concept of communication through words is not only an interesting subject, but also holds deep spiritual meaning. The fact that God has chosen to use words as His basic and most precise method of communicating with us leads me to believe that He values words even more than I. How appropriate, then, that His Son would be called the Word.

Jesus is the communication from and about God, revealing who God is and what He wants us to know about Himself and His relationship with us. God uses words to reveal Himself and His will. The Bible tells us that God speaks to us through the collected words of scripture.

I was taught that the original languages of the Bible are particularly precise languages compared with earlier written languages, which one could associate with the sovereignty of God in timing the transmission of His words during an era of developed language. But with the centuries of cultural and linguistic changes, it has in some cases become more difficult to understand the words that the inspired writers used. It is as if we have to pull back several layers of curtains – translations, cultural changes, unfamiliar environmental references, etc. -trying to see clearly what God has communicated. This process is understandable and cannot be totally avoided. However, I am concerned about another curtain that unnecessarily shades our understanding of God’s words, and that is when we add an additional layer of theological terminology when teaching or preaching Biblical truth.

As in any academic study, using technical terms allows us to condense larger concepts into a word or phrase, making references to these concepts more manageable. But using theological code words in our teaching or preaching conversations can also cloud the full meaning that God wants to communicate to us. If we use the words gospel, grace, salvation, or even love without describing what we mean by those words, we may hinder the communication of God’s word to others. Listeners who are not familiar with the Bible or Biblical terms are likely to misunderstand or only partially understand the truth that is being presented.

Even those who have been trained in theological terms can benefit from the practice of using plain English to describe or define Biblical concepts. For example, the preacher in my childhood church defined grace as God’s riches at Christ’s expense, a description that, although clever, did little to help me understand the concept of grace. It wasn’t until I heard an illustration years later comparing the effect of justice, mercy, and grace, that I understood that grace meant being treated better than I deserved. A simple description of the word in plain English might have given me an opportunity to recognize and respond to God’s grace in my life years earlier.

Both my husband and I have personal stories about when we first understood certain deep theological principles as the result of reading Bible passages in a contemporary translation. Although we both were steeped in King James Version scriptures from childhood, and thought we understood that language, we were struck by the truth and power of the teaching when we read it for the first time in our everyday language. Suddenly the verses applied to us!

Similar stories are told by those in other countries who have been hearing the Bible in their trade language, and then hear it for the first time in their own dialect. They are often amazed and overwhelmed by the true meaning – and can understand and apply the truth in ways that were not possible before, now that their hearts as well as their minds understand clearly.*

Perhaps part of the intensity I feel concerning the use of plain language in teaching and preaching God’s truth comes from my experience for the last four decades as a nurse. I have seen the negative effects of using technical terminology in health care, and the serious harm that poor communication can cause. It has distressed me to discover that very little of what a patient was told in the medical office actually translates into understanding. One of my goals at work has been to help break the code of medical jargon for my patients. Accurate communication in any area of life is dependent on the use of words that are understood by the hearer.

So my challenge to those of us who teach or preach: we must consider what our listeners will understand by the words we use. If theological code words must be used for the sake of brevity, we must at least define or describe them in common language during the presentation. God is communicating His truth through the teacher or preacher. Anything we do to cloud that communication is dishonoring to Him. Our goal is to throw open the curtains and allow the light of God’s Word to shine into our minds with the truth about ourselves, God, and the relationship He wants to have with us. The gospel is only good news when it is understood.

*See Nehemiah 8:8-13 for a dramatic example of how people respond when they hear the word of God from those who “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.” (NLT)

Words that Lead to Meaningful Change

I was delighted to hear that our church was starting a short series of messages from the book of Nehemiah yesterday. I fell in love with Nehemiah chapter 8 a few years ago when I was in the midst of writing a blog (which I will repost today) on the importance of clear communication. You may fall in love too, when you read the dramatic power of what happened in that chapter. To get the full impact of the change that occurred in that story, read Nehemiah 8:1-12 for yourself.

Summary: In chapter 8 we hear the story of the exiled Israelites coming back from captivity to their previous capital, Jerusalem, which was in ruins. Discouraged by their circumstances, the men, women and “all the children old enough to understand” (Neh 8:2) gathered together to hear Ezra read what we would call the first five books of the Bible. Not only did they hear the text read, but additionally thirteen leaders spread out among those listening and “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage” (8:8 NLT). Many commentators suggest that the large crowd was divided into smaller groups so that the 13 leaders could translate and explain the information passed down from Moses. The people responded, shaken by their realization of their sins and then elated by God’s promises to them. After this, verse 12 explains “so the people went away to eat and drink at a festival meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.” (NLT).

The people of Nehemiah’s day did not just hear the Bible being read; they were instructed in what it meant. The power of the word of God, causing life change, comes from hearing and understanding. 

We, like the Israelites in Nehemiah’s time, initially approach God’s word by hearing or reading a biblical passage. The first step is understanding the words (E.g., What do the individual words mean?).  This level of understanding is foundational but may be limited to the surface meaning.

The next level of understanding deals with what the passage actually means (E.g., If this is true, what does it teach or explain about God, about other people, about me, about truth? What is the deeper meaning behind the surface meaning of the words)? 

Then, how does the passage apply to me and how do I need to respond to it? This is the level that the people in Nehemiah 8 reached when they understood God’s words. They understood God’s requirements, their needs, and God’s gracious provisions and promises for them. This is the level of understanding that brings about significant transformation. 

Hearing/reading the words > Understanding the meaning > Applying and responding > Life change (in this case, repentance, joy)

My personal take-away: It’s important to read the Bible. But if I want the Holy Spirit to speak to me through it and change me to be more like Christ, I need to meditate on what the passage really means, apply it to my life, and respond as He leads. I am grateful for the “leaders” God has placed in my life, in person and through books, to help me understand His word.

For more on the effect of language on presenting the message of the Bible, I encourage you to read the following post, Plain Language.