Have you ever stopped to think about how tremendous words are? Words, more than anything else, display our creation in the image of God. God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1) and when he created, he gave names. He called the light, “Day”; and the darkness he called, “Night”. But when he created the animals, he didn’t name them. He created a man in his image and commanded him to name the animals. What a tremendous thought!
Our speech is the connection of our soul, our ideas, our bodies, with creation (the molecules of the air vibrate with our vocal cords shaped by our tongues and lips). The molecules vibrate from our mouths and cause the same vibrations in the membrane of the ear of another image bearer and our souls and ideas and bodies are connected in fellowship! What an astounding thought!
And God himself speaks to us in his word, and we respond with hymns and prayers and he hears those prayers. Does not he who created the ear hear? (Psalm 94:9).
This was why the fall of man was so disastrous. That tremendous gift of fellowship between God and man and woman was torn to shreds when the man and the woman listened to the lie of the devil instead of the truth from God. Immediately, speech turned into manipulation and blaming. Speech was used – not for fellowship – but to tear down and destroy. Words became carefully chosen to destroy communication, shut down fellowship, and dominate people. Words became weapons of destruction, designed to enslave and destroy other image-bearers, and so gratify the lusts of wicked men.
And those destroyed, oppressed, abused, used and discarded, became silenced. It is the devil’s best work: to destroy fellowship and imprison men and women in the bondage of silence. The Bible calls it darkness.
But Jesus is the light of the world!
I have been teaching through Luke 8 in our Sunday Evening Bible Studies. Notice, in this chapter, how Jesus used words. He spoke words of life and tied eternal life and fruit-bearing to what we do with his words. Will we believe them and again enter into fellowship with God?
He said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Since the fall of man was centered on breaking fellowship with God through “breaking fellowship with his words”, if you will, then the redemption of man is restoring man to the family of God by restoring fellowship with God’s words. Hearing those words, and doing them. This is the essence of faith: believing the words of the Word of God, who became flesh and gives the words of life.
Are his words trustworthy? He shows us that his words are words of power and life. He silences the storm with his rebuke. He casts out the demons with his word. He heals the woman with the issue of blood. He raises Jairus’s daughter.
That is the context of what I want to say. When Jesus is confronted by the man possessed by a Legion of demons, he asks, “What is your name?”
This man’s voice had been silenced by demons. This man’s voice had been taken away by the power of wickedness and evil. This man’s voice had been turned to screams and groans and shouts of rage. But Jesus is about to return to him his name.
“Who are you? This isn’t you.”
Jesus is God, and knew what his name was. But the Word of God who created the world took upon himself our breath, our lungs, our tongue and lips, our ears. So he speaks, for he came to open the tongue of the silenced ones and calls them to shout for joy.
And this begins when he asks, “What is your name?” The demon answers, for they have not yet been cast out.
But when they are cast out of the man, we read that this:
35 Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. (Luk 8:35)
They were talking! Jesus was teaching his new disciple, who was sitting in the position of a disciple and learning. He had his name restored; he had his dignity restored. He had his voice restored.
The very next scene that Luke takes us to is the woman with the issue of blood. I have written on this before, so I will just mention it briefly. Jesus asked her “Who touched me?” And she told him everything. He asked her this because her story mattered. He asked her because he desires that his children speak to him. He asked her because he came to restore what we lost with our sin and misery – to give a voice to the voiceless and words to those who were silenced.
This is why the misuse of language is so deadly and hateful and destructive. This is why a reviler will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Reviling is the very work of the devil. To tear down and to destroy with the tongue, to silence the voice, to ridicule and mock is so very hateful to God. It strikes at the very heart of who God is and who we were created to be.
But Jesus came to restore to his people the image of God, as they were created. We are called to be as he is. We are called to begin to use our ears and our tongues and our lips to open the ears of the deaf and open the tongue of the dumb. Of course, we don’t work miracles. This isn’t what I am talking about. I am speaking about listening to those who have never spoken of their hurt. I am talking about learning to use words to edify and build up rather than confuse, destroy and silence. The connection between our soul, our ideas, our bodies and the soul, idea and bodies of our neighbor must again be made.
In order to do this, we must listen and learn. We must learn to be trustworthy and faithful listeners. We must cease with the gnat-straining and learn to hear, for that is what our Lord would have us do.
Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger opens with these words:
MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP. SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.
Do you see what he has done here? He took the matter of tremendous importance – the death of mother – and made it of the same importance as the timing of the event. Whether she died yesterday or today takes the center position. The death of his mother becomes secondary, and not important. By focusing on the trivial, he silences the import of the death of his mother. This sets the stage for the whole book. It is a bleak, but brilliant, read.
I think that we fall into the same trap. We who are pastors, who are trained to examine words and exegete scripture, are particularly bad at this. Recently, Oprah made a speech about how women have been sexually assaulted. She spoke of degradation and losing dignity. She spoke about how many women have just become used to being raped and silenced. They tolerate it because they have no choice. They cannot speak because their voice has been taken away. If they speak up, they are outcast and unable to work. So they suffer in silence just to put food on the table. She skillfully outlined the brutality of her upbringing and the tremendous suffering her mother went through, just to survive. She went on to encourage those who have been silenced to speak and not suffer in silence any longer.
And we focused on her words “her truth” and “their truth”, and didn’t hear anything else. We thought that she was giving a lecture on post-modern literature instead of speaking about the experience that so, so many of our wives and daughters and sisters and neighbors have to put up with daily.
We thought that what we were hearing was a college discussion about the merits of enlightenment thinking versus the philosophy of Derrida and Foucault, and we didn’t listen to the pain of our sisters, made in God’s image. The death of the women through assault and silence was trivialized by the emphasis on a mundane matter of grammar and philosophy.
Because evangelicalism didn’t listen, and still doesn’t listen, it continues to disbelieve. It continues to tolerate sexual assault and degradation of women by pretending it doesn’t happen. It appears as if the modern evangelical machine will use any excuse it can come up with to shut its ears to the cries of the oppressed – especially those with different politics, different backgrounds, different skin color, and different cultures that ours.
Don’t get me wrong. I despise the postmodern philosophy that denies all absolute truth, making moral judgment and even truth relative to the mind of the knower. By a denial of certain, objective knowledge, postmodernism becomes simply another tool of Satan to convince us that we are alone, not capable of communicating, and locked in our own thought bubble.
But I also really don’t think that anyone truly believes that outside of a university classroom. Regardless of the foolishness of the classroom, people still look both ways before crossing the street. I also don’t think Oprah was saying that.
Perhaps she was just saying, “Everyone has their own version of the story. The abuser has twisted and lied long enough. Speak your truth.” I don’t think that she meant that all truth is relative to the person, but simply that you know what happened. Speak it out.
The problem with the Christian community is that we think we know everything. When someone begins to speak, before the words even leave the mouth, we already have the answer.
And this is why we fail. We don’t listen. Perhaps someone needs a lecture on epistemology and the follies of the philosophy of Derrida, but maybe when you are being told of the horrors of the assault to dignity that our sisters face every day isn’t the time or the place to give that lecture.
I have a suggestion. Instead of focusing on our philosophy and apologetics classes that we took in seminary, maybe we should practice this:
“What is your name?”
Use words to open communication, not shut it down. Use words to encourage the light, not to continue to keep wickedness in the dark. Use words to connect, to fellowship – not to shut down.
And that’s not just me. That is what our Lord would have us to do.
11 And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them;
12 for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.
13 But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light.
14 For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.”
15 Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise,
16 making the most of your time, because the days are evil.
(Eph 5:11-16 NAS)