I have been learning how to do this thing for more than 20 years now, slowly altering the patterns and imagery of my speech in hopes of being understood. And there are many translators out there who have quietly wondered to themselves if I will ever learn.
Gone are the subtle (and unnecessary) allusions to Chaucer, Yeats, and Donne, the recitations—lost on most—from my society of dead poets. All the cadences of language that stir my heart and make a line shine in my inner Hall of Fame at last collect like shavings on the workshop floor. In the end, the words whose feel and texture I so much prize get swept away in service to a greater good: that someone hear and love the gospel.
Each time I preach or teach where spoken English is a handicap, I’m reminded yet again how much we decorate—and thus, distort—the teachings of the Saviour. Unless advised, I’ll tend to speak as though my language is the dialect of heaven, with all its odd assemblage of terms, turns of speech, and untranslatable idioms. We put our phrasings in the Master’s mouth, as though He is best known through what turn out to be very personalized renderings of His Word.
I’ve come to know and inwardly regret the translator’s long pause as she searches for a suitable equivalent—soon matched by uncomprehending stares from those to whom I am supposedly “communicating.” “Could you say that again?” she whispers, covering the mike. And back I go into the simpler, clearer language of the heart to find the thing that Jesus meant.
Learning—slowly, and with help—how to usefully communicate to Spanish-, French-, Romanian-, Dutch-, Korean- and Swahili-speaking believers has taught me, in the end, to ask myself, “Whose word are you communicating?” Is this message I intend to share in fact congruent with the gospel? Or has it subtly become, like some medieval jewel-encased sliver of the “true cross,” an artifact of my devotion rather than the living Word of God?
“For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake,” Paul wrote 2000 years ago (2 Cor. 4:5, NKJV).* The goal of what believers say—in preaching, teaching, witnessing, and comforting—is saying something Jesus said as Jesus would have said it. The Carpenter still teaches us to pare down the yoke and sand it smooth, leaving our beloved shavings on the workshop floor.
All this is relevant in an age when “Jesus &” is all the rage, when every scrap of personal and political opinion is wrapped in gospel language. From some I hear that Jesus was the proto-socialist; from others, the ultimate libertarian. He is “for” every immigrant, or alternately portrayed as putting up a wall. His politics, so I hear, are just like those who speak His Word—endorsing supply-side economics, or radically redistributing all wealth. He voted in the last election to “Make America Great Again,” or—so some say—to publicly repent of U.S. arrogance before the nations of the world.
But Jesus was no politician, as His interviews with real ones like Pilate, Herod, and Nicodemus make abundantly clear. Committed to a kingdom “not of this world,” He spoke the language of both personal and societal renewal, but always in that order. He wouldn’t tolerate the lies or swords of those who claimed to use them to protect Him and His kingdom, nor did He tolerate the waffling of one who asked, “What is truth?” in the presence of the Truth.
This is a useful moment for His church, and especially its pastors, teachers, evangelists and leaders, to recollect how Jesus so adroitly walked among the issues of His day. “The fruit of that righteousness will be peace,” Isaiah long ago advised us. “Its effect will be quietness and confidence forever” (Isa. 32:17).
Our greatest calling as believers is to speak words not our own, on behalf of a kingdom we do not own, for the sake of a Lord who has graciously concluded to own us—in all our weakness and wordiness.
*Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.