Speaks Your Language
if you will hear His voice...” (Hebrews 4:7)
wants us to know Him. He wants us to hear His voice and experience
His presence and power to live. Jesus came into the world to open up
a conversation with the human race. The essence of Christianity is
going beyond ourselves and living in right relationship with the one
true God, who is “here and now”. Until that happens in
human experience, men and women will always be incomplete, their
faith will reside in dead works or secular humanism (man as god),
their notions of truth will be relativistic and their hopes will lack
eternal anchors or reference points. If Christian faith is to be
relevant to modern man it must be real and attainable.
about the some of the questions people ask about God.
do I find God? What is His address? Is He hiding? Perhaps I am
looking down the wrong streets. Does he even know I exist? Wouldn’t
it be ironic to discover He had given up on the human race and gone
on a galactic safari and left us to our own devices (as some cynics
suggest)? On the other hand, if He only lives in fancy cathedrals He
must be getting pretty lonely, as attendances of traditional churches
is God’s language? If I don’t know, how can I talk to
Him? Is it ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Chaldean, the languages
of the Bible? I have visited towns in Syria where people speak
Aramaic and boast they communicate the way Jesus did. Muslims
believe God’s words can only be read in Classical Arabic,
effectively placing them beyond the reach of scores of millions of
adherents outside of the Middle East who only speak and read the
vernacular. If God cares for our race, why can’t we
communicate with Him? How can we expect to understand Him if we
speak another dialect? For hundreds of years professional priests
were the only people in churches who were permitted to read God’s
book; until Vatican II, everyone else in the Roman Catholic community
had to take their word for it. Does God use the out-of-date
vocabulary in which some Bibles are written and clerics pray?
understands God’s nature? Have all religions recreated Him in
their cultural images? When I was a child, my sister and I drew
sketches of God, using crayons and coloured pencils; we then put our
efforts to our bemused parents to choose who was right. If God is
invisible maybe he is offended (or amused) by the caricatures we
draw. Is He like Santa Claus? Or is He a stern patriarch with a
long white beard? Is my God the same as yours? What colour is He?
Can knowing Him be judged objectively? Do all roads lead to God, as
Universalists claim, or are we playing silly mind games? If, as some
believe, He is inscrutable and capricious, are we simply pawns in His
hands, subjects of egregious predestination? If so, why make the
a day passes without news broadcasts relating stories of immense
tragedy. For example, look at what has been happening of late on
God’s green planet. In the past century the population of the
world has multiplied by a factor of three; fresh water consumption is
up by six times; however, 20% of the world lacks access to fresh
water. Some 40% of the world does not have access to electricity.
Nearly one billion people are under-nourished. Nearly three quarters
of the major fishing zones are in decline. Half the world lives on
less than $2 a day, while nearly $US900 billion is committed to
military expenditure. Climate change threatens the viability of
several small countries, such as Kiribati. The ozone layer is being
depleted. The world’s rainforests are disappearing at a
frightening rate. The world’s leaders will not commit to
effective sustained development and climate management. Sadly, the
damage has already been done and many of the trends cannot be
reversed. In this environment people demand, “Where is God?”
Is he an absent landlord? Why doesn’t he step in and say,
“Guys, enough is enough”?
are so many variations on the same theme, but enough differences to
raise the question of who is right. Given major (and often
conflicting) differences between faiths, we can’t all be right.
Maybe we have missed the point. During the Middle Ages theologians
debated the number of angels that could fit onto a pinhead. Hardly a
salient issue, when armies fought protracted wars across Europe in
the name of religion. Umberto Eco posed a similarly effete question
when he asked (“The Name of the Rose”) “Does God
laugh?” The debate divided an entire abbey. Will our lives be
enhanced by knowing the answers? Isn’t there more to life?
Who’s right? What is prayer anyway? Mental gymnastics?
Chatting to lifeless statues? Talking to oneself? Following voices?
Maybe God sees us trying, and wonders what on earth the chatter is
about. Is there a correct posture? A best time of day? What if we
miss an appointment? Does it matter if we don’t turn up? What
if He is so busy doing something else that our needs escape Him
above questions are not meant to be flippant. In fact, in one form
or another, they pepper books like Job, Psalms and Ecclesiastes in
the Old Testament. People ask them for a variety of reasons, not
merely because they are innately hostile or reductionist. For some,
the questions are theoretical, or philosophical, an exercise of the
mind. Others try to explore the hard issues because the answers to
existential questions hang on knowing the fundamental meaning and
purpose of life, and their efforts prove disappointing or confusing.
David Livingstone was growing up in Blantyre, Scotland, he was
subjected to “a thrashing” because he refused to read
William Wilberforce’s book on Practical
Christianity. He called it
“dry doctrinal reading”. How can a guide to practicing
faith, written by a great reformer (Wilberforce was instrumental in
eliminating abuses in English prisons and abolishing slavery) be so
have read Practical
Christianity. I ordered it
because I liked the title (it is still stocked by Christian
publishing houses) and was keen to know how give practical effect to
my faith. When the mail came I was disappointed because Practical
Christianity read more like
a complex credo than a “how to” of Biblical truth. It
was written for another time, in the language of another time. The
“uninitiated” man or woman on the street would have
difficulty understanding it. If people do not understand, they
usually give up.
report that “How to” books (or “Dummies”
guides) predominate in the publishing market. Take titles such as:
“How to Speak Urdu”, “How to Keep Canaries”,
“DIY (Do It Yourself) Vehicle and Home Renovation” (be
prepared for left-over parts). People want hands-on examples and
explanations, written in language they can understand, not textbooks
written by experts for experts. We are all wired differently. I,
for one, have difficulty understanding exploding diagrams. Give me a
demo any day, in words I understand and then I’ll have a
modicum of understanding. Likewise, simplicity is essential when
exploring eternal issues.
speaks your language. You may have difficulty understanding
Churchese. You may not grasp the more complex elements of exegesis
that go over most peoples’ heads. That’s OK. As
Spurgeon once told his Bible College students, Jesus instructed Peter
to “Feed my sheep”, not “Feed my giraffes”.
In fact, God’s message is very simple. The Body of Christ is
diverse and rich with cultural expression, but the bottom line is
straightforward. Read God’s words with an open mind and the
Holy Spirit will help you understand and apply them. The Gospel is
good for every generation and applies to every generation, every
language, and every culture, regardless of age, gender or social
status. It is not ethnocentric. While words alone cannot describe
the greatness and the nature of God (He cannot be neatly analyzed;
the Bible says His ways are “past finding out”, Romans
11:33), He has chosen to use ordinary languages to communicate with
us. The Gospel is so simple it can be explained in all of the
world’s 6,500 languages (plus dialects). Only men have made
God’s words sound complicated.
how much more complex the world is compared to when the New Testament
was written. Jesus didn’t speak English. He never used a
microwave, never logged onto a computer, blogged or sent an SMS
message. He never watched a movie on an I-pod, never heard of AIDS,
Avian Flu, or DNA; he never discussed stem cell research or the
ethics of euthanasia. Yet the message He proclaimed continues to
resonate in villages and cities, palaces and prisons in thousands of
languages and dialects around the world, arresting people, changing
lives, meeting needs and giving hope. It is timeless.
Superficially, we have nothing in common with people who lived in
Jesus day, yet we have everything in common. Man has not changed.
The problems we face, the questions we pose, the fears, joys,
disappointments and relationship difficulties that existed in His
day, are ours.
came to us
involves sounds, movements, symbols, nuances, communicated meanings
and understandings. So, how does a far-off God communicate with His
creation? How does He break the language barrier? He does so by
coming to us. Let me illustrate what I mean.
father was a very pragmatic man. He worked in the railways for 46
years, so he had to be down-to-earth. He and my mother established
the local Baptist church under our house and he was my Sunday Teacher
for years (which meant that I had to listen to him and behave during
lessons). When I asked about on one occasion how God speaks to us,
he didn’t try to explain it in esoteric language. He didn’t
talk about “transcendence” or the “three Os" I
heard preachers talking about (omniscience, omnipresence and
omnipotence, all of them characteristics of God’s nature), but
took me out the back of the house to a mound of ants near the chicken
shed. Standing above the nest, he called out to them and told them
he cared for them. The ants, in response, scurried away in the
opposite direction. It seemed those with food took refuge
underground, while the fighters came out and glared up at him. The
more he tried to reason with them, the madder they became. After a
few minutes he stopped trying. Clearly, he was not on their
wavelength. They feared him and his presence upset their
equilibrium. I’ll never forget his conclusion. Turning to me
he said, “The only way to communicate with this colony of ants
is to become an ant”. That’s how God did it. Look at
the way it happened.
speaks to us. He spoke face-to-face with our first parents after
creating them (until they thought they knew better and went their own
way). He speaks to us through creation and its order. From the
smallest sub-atomic particle to the vast expanse of the universe, the
greatness and majestic work of God are evident (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans
1:19, 20), if we will not lapse into patterns of rejection. He did
this so that we would see His hand at work and seek him. Instead we
focused on the created elements and worshipped them instead of their
Maker. God speaks to us through the conscience he has given us
(Proverbs 20:17). His law is “written on our hearts”
(Romans 2:14, 15), reflecting His moral character and teaching us
what is right and wrong. The problem is that we can harden and
deaden our consciences, rendering them ineffective to moral
responsibility. We can shut our ears to His voice. God spoke to the
world by judging sin through a flood (Genesis 6). Having ceased
pleading with men’s’ hearts (Genesis 6:3), he allowed the
consequences of sin to take effect; the majority perished. However,
it wasn’t long before the survivors reverted to drunkenness,
immorality and idolatry. He then spoke to a smaller group, giving
them deliverers and lawmakers who taught them His ways. But miracles
only last as long as the “Wow!” factor. Next he sent
them messengers, so that they might seek after Him (2 Peter 1:20,
21). The prophets were invariably rejected; some were killed
(Matthew 23:37). God did all of this so that we would seek Him.
he sent His Son (Hebrews 1:2). Like the analogy of the ants, He
became one of us, so that He could communicate His message in a way
we could understand. Many of the world’s religious systems
involve man trying to reach Godhood. The Christian message involved
God taking up humanhood instead (Philippians 2:5-11). Look at Jesus
and you will see what God is like. Jesus said that He and Father
were one (John 10:30). “He who has seen me has seen the
Father” (John 14:9). He told His followers that knowing God is
the key to eternal life (John 17:3). One God; one revelation. This
puts an end to religious pluralism and requires that inter-faith
dialogue recognize the centrality of Christ when it comes to the way
of salvation. This goes way beyond scrolls and tablets. The Bible,
as we know it, is the Word of God. More than 2,000 times in the Old
Testament this is affirmed, as well as in the New Testament.
However, the Word of God is also a Person.
Saudi Arabia there are no official churches. The Kingdom is the
official custodian of the two key sites in Islam (in Mecca and
Medina) and the Wahabi sect keeps the country in an iron grip. I
have seen people being beaten by the “Mutaween”, or
religious police, in the capital, Riyadh, for arriving late at a
mosque for prayers. Christian gatherings are illegal. However, I
have discovered this does not mean Saudis are not interested in
spiritual things. I was reading my Bible on a flight from Riyadh to
Dubai one night (because of my particular passport it had not been
confiscated) when a fellow-passenger in a dishdash saw what I was
doing and told me he was interested in knowing more about how Islam
and Christianity compared. He told me he was a sheikh. His four
(veiled) wives and two of his children were settled across the other
side of the Airbus, so we talked. We discussed the histories of both
faiths and I outlined what I believed, as a Christian. I explained
that one of the main differences was that, whereas Muslims believe
the Koran is the word (or “recitation”) of God in a book,
for Christians the Word came out of the pages, became flesh and blood
and lived among us (John 1:1-14). I told Him Jesus was more than a
prophet; he showed us what God is like. We parted friends and I was
glad of a brief opportunity to tell someone how God can be known,
because He came to us, not on the pages of a book, but in person. If
we stop at the book we end up mired in Bibliolatry; the text is
important, but the key to understanding it is one-to-one relationship
with the Living Word.
met Christian friends on the Ucayali River in Peru they told me the
joy they felt when they heard portions of the New Testament in their
Campa dialect (courtesy of Wycliffe translators). “We knew
that the God who made all this had come to our village. Through His
words we came to know Jesus.” Paul says that God is not far
from any of us (Acts 17:27). He expressed it this way: “In Him
we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is
standing in front of you. All you need is the connection. Faith,
the Holy Spirit’s enabling and the grace of God make it happen.
still speaks to us
still speaks. Through the Bible. Through our circumstances.
Through the wisdom of other Christians who know Him. Through the
voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Through the “foolishness”
of preaching, not relying on human wisdom (2 Corinthians 2:1-6), but
using human agents to explain His word the way Jesus did (whether in
pulpits, books or over the Internet).
is near us, why do so many people miss Him?
the Bible says they do so because they are unable to discern
spiritual things (2 Corinthians 4:4). All explanations fall on deaf
ears, because the capacity to see, hear and understand is hampered by
unbelief and indifference. Secular epistemology (the way thinking
about ideas and knowledge takes shape and forms belief patterns) is
without God (a-theistic) or without knowledge of him (a-gnostic).
When a non-Christian claims he or she “can’t see”
what the Bible is all about, they are telling the truth. Only when
the Holy Spirit opens our eyes do we grasp what is going on (Acts
26:18). This is called “revelation”, which means,
“pulling aside a curtain”, or “disclosure”.
One minute we can’t see; the next minute the veil is withdrawn
and everything is obvious. Everything we understand as Christians
comes to us by revelation. Anyone can have revelation; all it takes
there are things you don’t understand, ask God to give you
clarity. Don’t give up and say that it is all “too
hard”. He can say it in your vocabulary. Your willingness and
God’s faithfulness will enable you to grow in understanding.
As you relate to other Christians on the same journey you will be
able to check out the more complicated parts, sort out fact from
fiction and remain objective. It will all make sense.
people are not taught to listen to God. In church settings we are
often taught to listen to sermons (or to watch PowerPoint slides),
but not to tune into the Holy Spirit speaking through those messages.
When I was growing up I was told that, with the completion of the
Bible, God stopped speaking. That’s weird. You mean, God just
shut up? That he has not been speaking for two thousand years? No
way. He is just as real today as He was to the first church. He is
still the creator (Revelation 4:11). He still upholds everything
with His word of power (Hebrews 1:3). He is still involved in human
affairs. He still has something to say to all of us (Hebrews 4:7;
Mark 4:23, 7:16). The problem, as we have learned in the mobile
telephone age, is that we can miss calls because the unit is switched
off or we are busy with other interlocutors and the message bank is
full. If you want to hear God you need to keep the line open.
spending time alone with God. At home, in the car, wherever you are
least distracted. He will be there. Ask Him to talk to you, in your
heart, by the voice of the Holy Spirit. Schedule your time to open
your Bible and let him speak to you from the record (make sure you
get a version you can understand). Spend time with other Christians
and learn how they recognize when he is speaking to them. You will
quickly learn how to tune in.
you are coasting through life or experiencing deep personal crisis,
God loves you and is speaking to you. Open up to Him. If you will
hear His voice and determine to live in accordance with His will,
your life will be full, you will have a new sense of confidence amid
hassles or fears and your circumstances will make sense, in the
context of His eternal purpose. God speaks your language. Use it to
speak back to him.
is God? He is all around us. Where does He live? At your address.
What language does He speak? Your language, jargon and all (why not,
indeed?). The Day of Pentecost confirmed that people from every
corner of the globe will one day hear His voice and understand the
message (Acts 2:1-11). What is God like? He is like Jesus. Why
doesn’t He come and fix up this mess? He has, and He does,
through Christians and the exercise of His dynamic power in
transforming the lives of those who reach out to Him. Who worships
Him the right way? Those who do so in Spirit and in truth (John
4:23, 24), with the heart and mind engaged in relating to him as a
person, rather than a concept or a distant being.
is the role of relevant Christianity? To connect people with God.