How would you describe a sunset to someone who had never seen one?
What words would you use to help a person without the sense of smell to capture the aroma of bacon cooking steeped in its own juices?
If you wanted to describe to someone who couldn’t hear a dove calling to her mate through the early morning mist, what words would you use?
Language by its very nature is composed of words with somewhat specific meanings and each of those words touch a nerve of understanding that helps us make sense of what we read, what we hear, or what we observe. We have learned those words from a very early age through rote exercise and sometimes inappropriate applications (“Kids say the darndest things”). We’ve learned to hear words or read them in contexts that gives them meaning. Consequently I might use the word anger and what my head imagines wrapped in that word may never be what your head imagines. When I talk about love I think of a variety of people. How they touched my life filters that word for me. The word jealous for some is a hot word – it stirs anger and disappointment. For others it spawns thoughts of self-pity and frustration. In a current TV commercial a lady is talking about “retirement.” She says that in her Latino language, there is no word for “retirement”, the word they use is jubilation! For those of us who have “retired” – jubilation is not always the foremost word on our mind – it may very well be worry and that’s hugely different.
It’s often what words do to us that colors their meaning. If that’s true for us, imagine carrying that idea to a foreign language and attempting to translate their words into our words with the same force and meaning. It’s seldom done successfully. How many times have your heard your Bible Study teacher say, “In Greek the word means…..” and you think, “Wow, that’s not at all what I think of when I hear the English counterpart.” Hence, part of the dilemma.
When speaking of God – our God or any god – words become increasingly important because they are so increasingly inadequate to describe the infinite God of the Christian faith. Not only are words inadequate, they can often border on idolatry. Although it can be said that words fail to appropriately describe God and his character, words are what we use with great regularity and, I might add again, inadequacy.
In technical jargon the words we use to describe God – words such as love, jealousy, anger, wrath, faithful, his out-stretched hand, his “coming down”, his “walking in the garden”, etc. – are called anthropopathism (emotional or psychological) and anthropomorphism (corporeal) . In relationship to biblical applications they mean describing God and his nature or action in human terms. It is quite an apt description because after all, the only tool we have for describing God are human terms. Our words. English words. Greek words. Hebrew words. Any words of any language. We have no other tool.
So is it fair when we say “God is love” that he really isn’t love as we know it? Or when God says he is a “jealous” God that he really isn’t jealous as we use that term – it’s just a word we use to try to describe a certain characteristic of God. Or is it fair to say that God did not “come down” to witness the plight of the early Israelites or speak at Jesus’ baptism? Those are just expressions we use to come to terms with that which we don’t understand. No, that’s not fair. Words are all we have. Words were all the Israelites had. Words were all the Greeks had. When scripture tells us that God said such and such, he either said it or he didn’t. If he said it, he said it apparently in words – at the time – their words which are now translated into our words.
There were times in the history of the Jews when the use of anthropomorphic or psychical words were not allowed. It was deemed heresy to use them when talking about God. And as many of us know, the writers of the OT found it anathema to write God’s name. They used euphemisms or other divine names but never Yahweh’s name. The point was then and is now a serious risk of assigning God inappropriate characteristics or actions. We can make him all too human in nature or we can assign to him characteristics that don’t belong. Then again, we have no other tool. If the OT is “God breathed” then that “inspiration” fleshed itself out in words – words that described God and his interaction with humans. Adequate? No. Necessary? Yes.
Indeed, I can “feel” God’s presence. I can “sense” his leading. I can yield to his spirit. But if I want to talk about God I’m going to have to use words. Are they adequate? Not at all. But that’s all I have. I may know him intimately and be hopelessly obedient to his will, but if I’m going to tell you about that or describe it to someone, I’m going to use words!
Words….they’re all we have!