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on the words we use

Once when I was about seven years old I told a friend of my mother’s that I liked to read Shakespeare ‘just to relax.’ Mostly this was youthful pretention and lack of self-awareness, but it was true that I occasionally flipped open a paperback volume of Shakespearean plays and skimmed through them. Likewise, when I was young I tore through Nancy Drews and The Chronicles of Narnia, later moving on to Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and Pride & Prejudice. I read cheesy teen devotionals and pastors whose views I wish I’d never subscribed to, and of course the Bible. I tried to slug my way through Anna Karenina and Dracula without much luck.

And all these words I let into my head and heart shaped me. Just as now the words of Lauren Winner, Shauna Niequist, Abraham Heschel, and Sarah Bessey chip away at my sculptured beliefs cast so long ago. Because words change, influence, move, comfort, wound, and mean things.

I used to be pretty cavalier about God’s sovereignty. If ever I endured a difficult time, I knew that the purpose was to sanctify me. Recently though I listened to Jonathan Martin’s sermon about the wilderness. He beautifully said that no matter how we end up there, God’s purpose is always the same; to meet us in the dark places and find intimacy with us.

This perspective makes a radical difference. Either God allows me to suffer to ‘make me better’—implying that he’s primarily concerned with my behavior and its reflection on him—or he allows me to suffer so that I will come to a place where I can experience his love more fully. The first emphasizes performance; the second, relationship.

When you take this example to its extreme and consider the words we speak amidst tragedy, it becomes even more poignant. What does the Christian have to say to the tornado survivors in Oklahoma, the families of people who died in the Bangladesh factory collapse, the mother of little Martin Richard? Should we shout of God’s sovereignty and process of sanctification? Or ought we whisper of his love, compassion, binding up, gathering under wings?

In his book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel contrasts conceptual thinking and situational thinking in the realm of philosophy. On this subject he comments,

“One does not discuss the future of mankind in the atomic age in the same way in which one discusses the weather. It would be wrong to leave out of such a discussion the awe, the fear, the humility, the responsibility, that are or ought to be as much a part of the issue as the atom itself. What we face is not only a problem which is apart from ourselves but a situation of which we are a part and in which we are totally involved.”

Similarly, the ache of a broken world is not a theoretical concept but a concrete reality in which we all live. It would be wrong to leave out of such a discussion the anguish, the weeping, the confusion, and the despair that are so much a part of the issue. So the words we speak about tragedy cannot be simply concepts and terms we use to understand God better. They must be the words which acknowledge that God enters in to our situation and why he does so.

The beauty of having (at least) 66 full books that tell the story of our God is that we have plenty of words to choose from when we speak of him. Choosing the right ones is a weighty responsibility. The reality of God’s wrath and holiness, judgment and discipline may be facts to which we attest. However, what is most true of God in moments of profound sorrow is that he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. These are the words of eternal life, and we must learn to choose them.

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