Language and Its Uses: The Difficulty in Communicating with a Heavenly God
Have you ever wondered why people pray to God? I mean, we understand why people pray — to communicate our thoughts, concerns, hopes and fears to God so that he will overcome, fulfill and heal according to his will. I think most people can understand the impulse to ask God for those things, the desire to communicate with God. But why do we talk to him? Why is it so important to speak to God with sounds from our mouths? Why must we even communicate via the physical? In fact, the Bible says that God knows the thoughts of man before they are spoken, certainly implying that we don’t speak to relay unknown information. And even if we did have something to offer God — perhaps some secret he didn’t know — we are utterly inadequate communicators who, many times, can’t even properly explain our own thoughts. Yet Scripture is littered with evidence that our voices — our interaction with God through language — have divine importance and implication.
C.S. Lewis, as both author and Christ follower, wrestled with this quandary in his thoughts and writings. In his novel Perelandra, Lewis (who establishes himself outright as the writer, narrator and, therefore, a character within the story) relays the strange yet fascinating expedition of Dr. Elwin Ransom who has just returned from a journey to Venus, and previously to Mars. As Ransom begins to explain his journey, Lewis assures him, “Of course I realize [the journey is] all rather too vague for you to put into words…” when suddenly Ransom interjects, “On the contrary, it is words that are too vague. The reason why the thing can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language.” There is so much about human language that draws us close to heavenly powers and yet simultaneously keeps us distanced from those powers, much of the time resulting in a mixed feeling of awe and frustration. Yet with intentional design (a view Lewis would profess) comes intention in the components of the design, leaving us to conclude that there must be some greater reason for language.
1. Speaking of God…
To begin: “Does God the Father talk to God the Son?” “Talking” here would first imply that the Father and the Son each have the instruments (a mouth, ears, a voice box, lungs, etc.) to accommodate speech, sight, and hearing, as well as the physical components (space, oxygen, light, etc.) and a shared language. And if God is omnipotent, from where does he speak? Is his mouth everywhere? Are his ears everywhere? Does the Father speak in a direction when he speaks to the Son? Many of these specific questions could be circumvented by the principle that God is outside of space and time and therefore does not have to exist in physical space as we do. It’s very possible that God doesn’t need a mouth to “speak” or ears to “hear.” I guess we could understand that. But does the Father use language when he speaks to the Son? Or in other words, does God need a language? If he does, it would seem we have found something greater than God; God is bound by language. Even if God was able to convey something with perfect precision and speed, he would still be unable to communicate but through language.
So there are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this fact: either God establishes/ creates language specifically for us, to use with us and through us, or language is a reflection of God’s own dependence on a force greater than himself. However, we can only conceive of God using language when it directly involves humanity, his creation. We read in Genesis 1 that before the forms of the earth and the universe existed, God was there; before there was anything — man, birds, trees, shapes, air, gravity, space, time — there was God. How, for instance, could language have existed before time (in the broadest sense)? Does language not function as a progression of sounds, thoughts, expressions, or movements over a period of time (even if that amount of time is indescribably small)? Yet before time existed, God was. Therefore, God also precedes language and places it in submission to his will. God must have some greater, fuller way of communicating with the Son and the Spirit (who both existed with him before the creation of the world) that does not answer to time, does not depend on form or space, and yet could touch a human being.
2. Liars and Stutterers
So if God created language for humanity, how do they function in relation to each other? For example, why can we believe one thing and say another? Or, to put it more bluntly, why can we lie?
The Biblical answer would be “Because sin entered the world through Adam and Eve,” which is true. We lie because we feel shame, we want to protect ourselves, we want to hide our actions, and we foolishly do all of this before a God that sees all things and knows all things. So what if you lie unintentionally?
This is important for one key reason: we understand that language is an independent function, a vehicle, which is used for explanation, not creation or destruction in the physical realm; our bodies, souls and minds are not directly determined by language (the vehicle). If a person asks me for directions to the library? I give the directions, and we go about our business. However, because my mind was on other things or because I accidentally mixed up my right and left, I ended up giving him/her the wrong directions — so I lied, technically speaking. This of course does not mean that I really did not know the directions to the library or that I had malicious intentions. It reveals the simple fact that we are able to say things we don’t “mean” — things that contradict our true thoughts and knowledge and even contradict our reality. Now we do say things like “His speech really moved me” or “Her words hurt me,” but no one believes it was the wind that came out of the person’s mouth or the vibrations of his/her voice box that had the effect. Language itself is only the vessel in which our meaning is transported. The weight of language lies elsewhere.
But this is also not to say that language is inconsequential. The Book of Romans says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”; and in Jeremiah: “Because you have spoken this word, behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall consume them”; and in Joel: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Throughout the Bible there is evidence that a great importance rests in speech and in the act of speaking.
But how could anything in the physical realm have anything to do with the heavenly/spiritual? How much eternal implication do our words really have? In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” The critical element is what Scripture many times refers to as “the heart.” It is the center of the physical life as well as the center of all things mental and spiritual. But more often than not it concerns the thoughts of man. As we read further in the passage from Romans: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” So it is the heart that believes and roots the body and it is the mouth that reflects the heart and spirit.
But therein lies a paradox: how does a “pixelated” system of language accurately represent a high-definition heart with any level of truth? It makes sense to first ask why a physical realm exists at all; why earth exists, why we exist in bodies in time in space. Of course no one knows the answer to that question with any amount of certainty, but we can wager that our physical world has divine implications (the converse would be that nothing on earth has implications in which case the issue is irrelevant). So also then must the components that make up that world be of divine importance. If we define “divine” as something beyond humanity, beyond what we understand, and even beyond our use, and if God established language to physically reflect the hearts of man to God, then language should be seen as a divine establishment. So could it be that when language seems to fail we actually perceive our own limited ability to wield a divine tool? Perhaps this is why “the Spirit helps us in our weakness…For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Perhaps it is the formation of sounds or words that is divine and the words themselves are unimportant; perhaps although words and sounds change across cultures and countries, the inward reflections remain the same?
3. The Consequence of Time
There are few thoughts more sobering than human mortality. Our lives on earth begin and then they end, the day and time are unknown to us. But that amount of time, however long or short, is finite and final. There are no do-overs and no retries after death. Although we can recollect past events and even plan into the future, the fact is that we only exist presently. And to further complicate matters, we will perpetually have more things to say than time to say them.
During this past election season, perhaps you were able to watch the two candidates duke it out during one of the debates, or maybe you watched one of the thousands of campaign advertisements. If you are like me, you might have wondered why one of the candidates doesn’t spend a whole speech devoted to correcting all the half-truths uttered by his opponent? Granted, the candidates spend energy and time addressing factual mistakes in the interest of damage control, yet the best defensive measure is action in the present. Each candidate knows that if he addressed every instance in which his opponent “massaged the facts,” told half the truth, used a quotation out of context, or flat out lied, then he would lose. In most cases, to focus on the past is to disregard the present.
If you consider that time progresses linearly (the past no longer exists) and that we only exist finitely, then we are left with precious little time to speak. But here is where we are deceived. One of the greatest deceptions is that time is at the disposal of the subject, that time is not of the essence, that decisions can be put off for tomorrow which could have been made today. And this does not just occur over the course of a day, a week or even a year. By remembering past events and planning into the future we assume that our time is greater than it is, but, in reality, time marches onward unapologetically and our allotted time to impress our words upon this physical earth lessens every second. Lewis writes in “The Screwtape Letters” from the perspective of the demon Screwtape:
Our job is to get [people] away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or scholar) to live in the Past … It is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity make all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.
What if a person was deceived into allowing an entire lifetime pass by without speaking out or making a meaningful spiritual decision? If a choice can be put off until death, then a choice has been made — inaction is itself an action.
In C.S. Lewis’ novel “Perelandra” (the second book of the Space Trilogy) the protagonist Dr. Ransom witnesses these implications of human mortality firsthand in his travel to Venus, or Perelandra. Upon arriving, Ransom discovers an evil presence, the “unman”, has set out to corrupt and destroy the planet, not by force, but through manipulation and deception. Ransom finds himself interceding on behalf of the planet’s only inhabitant — a pre-fallen woman called “the Green Woman” — providing rebuttals and arguments in order that she might not submit and be destroyed. Frustratingly, everything the unman says is subtly misleading, only partially true, and sometimes purely inaccurate. As the days pass the situation seems increasingly futile; once Ransom has corrected one errant statement, the unman has already spewed forth twenty more. Ransom begins to grow weary so also does he begin to realize that he has reduced himself to participating in a struggle in which there is no possible victory. The Green Woman could never withstand the unman and his evil plots for an eternity — time is eroding everything but the unman. So what is Ransom’s response? Action. He rises up in all of his corporeal glory, all of his physical essence, and strikes down the destructive machine in the unman. Ransom understands that the only reason his enemy was not destroyed was that he, Ransom, had not chosen (or chosen not) to take up the power he had been given and to act upon it.
The words we speak, the silence we break, these are divine actions, and, as I discussed above, this is because words reflect the “deep waters” of man’s heart. So if time was of no consequence to us there would be no need for action and no need for choice. But time advances mercilessly and in it, we are pushed ever closer to an end of life and the beginning of eternity. The greatest emphasis must therefore be placed upon the present decision, the present physical act.
If there is anything that language has taught us about ourselves, it is that humanity alone is insufficient. In the gaps of understanding, in the attempts of discovery and explanation of the human psyche, there is space for completion and a need for conclusion. Yet the promise of both those things will not be found in the world. Bodies wither and fade and voices will one day cease. But there is a promise of completion which lies in the hands of the one that created the divine connection between us and Him. I think Lewis describes this idea best in his final chapter of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle”: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now … Come further up, come further in!”
1 All Biblical citations from ESV unless otherwise indicated.
2 Psalm 94: 11; Isaiah 66:18; Matthew 9:4; 1 Corinthians 2:11, 3:20; Hebrews 4:12
3 Perelandra 30
4 I say “talking” to denote communicating with sounds, words, noises, images, or gestures as we know them.
5 Romans 10:9
6 Jeremiah 5:14
7 Joel 2:32
8 Matthew 15:18
9 Matthew 13:15; Proverbs 23:7; 1 Samuel 9:20; Isaiah 46:8; Luke 2:19
10 Romans 8:26
11 The Screwtape Letters 76