‘Pass me the thingamajig.’
‘I am feeling something, but can’t put it into words.’
‘We should all respond by doing something!’ (What does the speaker want us to do?)
Vague, imprecise language is hard to follow. It can result in poor understanding, which in turn allows people to be swayed from truth to pursue a lie. If I left a plate of cookies on the table and told a child not to touch the plate, could I complain if I returned to find the plate untouched but the cookies gone?
Of course this is a trivial example, but teaching theology to children is no trivial matter. Does it matter if we teach children to say sorry to God rather than to repent? Do we need to introduce children to Biblical language that is not in everyday use in their world?
In his novel, 1984, George Orwell tellingly describes a dystopian society that seeks to control people’s thoughts in a number of ways, including the control of language. By gradually eliminating words they plan to control the conversation. One character states: ‘In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’
A word contains an idea, a concept, that can be universally known. Small nuances cause it to differ from other similar words.
To see the importance of words in Scripture we simply need to note that God spoke to bring creation into being and that Jesus himself is described as the Word: the expression of God in all its fullness made visible and tangible for all.
God’s word provides us with direction, but only as far as it can be understood. As believers we should be careful of the trend to erase words that hold a spiritual concept. It’s easy to shy away from words found in Scripture with the desire to make the message contemporary. This is to be applauded, yet in our attempts to make a message relatable we must be careful not to make our speech ambiguous, allowing people to hear almost whatever they want to hear.
For example, God is love. Pure, perfect, holy love. But this does not mean that he does not have standards and expectations. God’s love for humanity does not lead to a moral vacuum, but to a moral framework that frees us to live our best lives as God created us to live.
If we do not teach the meaning of key words, we risk diluting the key concepts of our faith and we ultimately risk hiding the real Jesus from our children. If our children only hear that God loves them and cares without hearing the Gospel of repentance we risk replacing the King of glory with a comfort blanket and turning the crucifixion from a place sacrifice and restoration to a nice story from the past.
Euphemisms replace Biblical language and if we are not careful we will end up the spiritual poorer because of it. Repentance means more than saying sorry and sin means more than doing things wrong. Holy is more than doing things right and righteousness goes beyond being kind (it involves our standing before God). Being loving is not the same as being kind (as we think of kindness today). If you are not sure on this last comment, take a look at perfect love in Jesus, who sometimes sought to provoke a response from people in a way that would be considered unkind by modern standards. See Matthew 15:21-28, 21:12-13, 23:13-39 for some examples of this. The motive of love meant the ultimate act of kindness was to call people out from their sin and provoke people to repent.
The hard teaching of Christ must be presented to our children, this is an act of love towards them.
I am all for making our teaching accessible and easy to understand. I’m not just for this, we must aim for this, but not at the expense of using the ‘harder’ words. Rather it can be done alongside these words to grow understanding.
I love digging into words from the original Greek or Hebrew with children to develop their understanding of key concepts. From redemption to salvation, from worship to praise we grow in our understanding of God and can learn to worship not only in spirit but also in truth.
This in turn will help them to frame issues in life that require us to speak up for justice and speak out for the oppressed.
Let’s teach our children a spiritual vocabulary. Let’s define words for them and use words in our teaching that will develop them. Let’s encourage them to immerse themselves in Scripture and frame answers about God with scriptural language.