Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Discipleship Changes Things - The Words We Use

When we become disciples of Jesus - or become serious about following him - all kinds of things are supposed to change. The Jesus way of life is a new way; a way of thinking, believing, and doing that is often radically different than other non-Jesus ways of doing things. So it would follow that discipleship to Jesus begins to transform our lives in ways we may expect, and in ways we may not expect. So, what kinds of changes might we expect if we begin to authentically follow Jesus? Over time I want to flesh out several changes, but here is one you might not expect.

Our vocabulary changes, and I don't mean we stop swearing. We may very well stop swearing when we become disciples, but I am thinking of a much more significant shift in the way we understand and use words. Words are powerful things. Language is more life-shaping than you probably think. At the very least, words signify things and ideas. When we use words we are verbalizing what is going on around us or within us. We express relationships between things in the world and we express what is going on in our inner states. We say, "The light is green," and we mean to say something about not only a certain colored light, but to also convey meaning. We are saying, "it is your turn to drive." We can say, "I feel anxious," and reveal something going on within us that another person may not know unless we say it, and we may be communicating a need for sympathy or reassurance. In either case, we use words in ways that we believe will communicate with other people.

So it is with our use of words and ideas that appear both in Scripture and in the common culture. What do you think of when someone tells you they spent Thanksgiving with their "family"? What ideas and images are conjured in your mind when someone talks about their "anger"? What about "friendship," "work," or "love"? The images and ideas that arise in your mind when people use those words with you are the result of years of contextual content-filling. In other words, those words have already been defined for you (in large part) by your background, education, language, culture, and so forth. Exaggerating a bit, you might say that whoever or whatever filled your vocabulary with meaning has also given you your view of how the world works.

There is an unavoidable tension here for the disciple of Jesus. Christian theology and practice wants to use words one way and the rest of the world wants to use them in another way. We live in a pluralistic culture, becoming more so all the time, and each corner of our culture wants to use words in different ways.  The more ways a single word is used, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a straightforward belief in the way "we" think that word ought to be used. To put it another way, if the church teaches you one thing about "love" for one hour a week, and media teaches you a very different thing about "love" 40-60 hours a week, which meaning will be easier to believe? And if you want to believe what the church teaches about "love" then you will need to work harder at it.

But then, it seems this is one thing the follower of Christ learns to do if they plan on being genuine disciples. If we are discipled by someone or something, we are taught a view of the world by them. The disciple is striving to learn the Jesus way of life, including the Jesus way of using words. This means that we learn how to begin with sound biblical ways of understanding words and their respective concepts and carry them into our respective niches of society. What normally happens is the reverse is the case. Church and Christian theology often feel odd or antiquated to us because we have let other things define the terms for us.

So, what does it mean for you to robustly learn and absorb the biblical meaning of "love" or "forgiveness" or "work" and then engage your world? We are all waiting to see, and we will all be better for it.

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