Haddon Robinson once quipped, “If it’s a mist in the pulpit, it’ll be a fog in the pews.” The idea is quite simple but is nearly entirely lost upon our modern mechanisms of communication. While Haddon was speaking to preachers like myself, his words speak prophetically into what I believe is one of the core reasons we have a consistent communication breakdown in our country (and perhaps more specifically within the Church) and a seemingly ever-increasing divide between opposing views. We have lost the ability to communicate with educated clarity. As I scroll through social media and engage in any number of conversations on meaningful topics, I find that more often than not the parties involved are consistently speaking past each other. In a sense, two different conversations are being had. In this post I want to explore why that is, and I want to exhort Christians to become better and more logical conversationalists, not for the sake of conversation but rather for the sake of effectively living as an ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).
One of the most important books (outside of the Bible) that I ever read was a book titled How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren (thrilling title I know, but you would do well to prioritize this book). In explaining how to understand an author’s ideas in order to critique the author, Adler writes the following in a chapter titled, ‘Coming to Terms with an Author:’
“Unless the reader comes to terms with the author, the communication of knowledge from one to the other does not take place… a word can have many meanings, especially an important word. If the author uses a word in one meaning, and the reader reads it in another, words have passed between them, but they have not come to terms.”How to Read a Book. Page 97.
Adler’s charge is that in order to be a good reader (and for that matter a good communicator) we must learn to hear another’s argument on their “terms”. Good authors will typically define their important terms so as to avoid ambiguity and build a stronger case. Communication breakdown occurs when the speaker is intending to use a term in one way but the listener receives and interprets that term in another way. It is worth noting at this point that if you as a communicator are not able to clearly define your own terms in your own arguments, then you are likely not prepared to make your case in any meaningful way (preachers beware!). Of course this means that if you are in a conversation and the person you are discussing with is using terms ambiguously, as a good listener you will push that person to define their terms – perhaps even asking them questions to help them define their terms. CS Lewis in his introduction to ‘The Four Loves’ masterfully puts it this way:
Of course language is not an infallible guide, but it contains, with all its defects, a good deal of stored insight and experience. If you begin by flouting it, it has a way of avenging itself later on. We had better not follow Humpty Dumpty in making words mean whatever we please.”The Four Loves. Page 2.
In the remainder of this post I want to engage with three terms that I have discovered are most often ambiguous in conversations today and which ultimately are source of much of irrational babble we find on the internet.
It might seem humorous that my top 3 list begins with Jesus Christ, however I believe this more than any other term is the source of great confusion within both the Church and society at large. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 11 are helpful at this point:
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.2 Corinthians 11:3-4
Paul warns that there are those who would dare to “proclaim another Jesus.” Floating throughout our communities are caricatures of Jesus. These caricatures are typically amalgamations of a few Bible verses, a lot of Hollywood’s imagery, with a sprinkling of our own imaginations. It is not uncommon for me while evangelizing on the streets to meet somebody who initially professes themselves to be a Christian, yet when I push them on who they believe Jesus to be will summarize Jesus as a, “great teacher sent from God with excellent moral teachings.” As Paul would say, this is simply “another Jesus.“
When the Christian speaks of Jesus, we are speaking of the second person of the Trinity. It is not to up to us to define Jesus as we please. He is who He is. This is not to say that we all do not have too small a view of who Jesus Christ is. It is to say however, that many people who use the name Jesus, are in fact speaking of a person who in no way shape or form resembles the Jesus of Scripture. We must not pretend we are speaking of the same Jesus just because the name Jesus is used. It is vital that we define our terms in order to communicate clearly. The Apostle’s Creed is a helpful and short statement summarizing the historic identity of Christ:
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to death*.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Does “love” have a definition? Of course, the answer is yes. Love exists in a real way in our world for the simple reason that its core and substance can be found in God. 1 John 4:8 reminds us that “God is love.” We note of course that God is far more complex than “love” but He is also not less than the fullness of love. John 15:13 states, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” while 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” These statements are true and unbendable because they have been communicated to us from the source of love, God Himself, through His Word. Further, since Jesus is God incarnate, Jesus is the embodiment of love. One need only to study the life of Jesus to understand the fixed boundaries of the definition of love.
Today we have any number of false representations of love floating through our culture. These false caricatures of love are like rotten fruit that appear tasty on the outside but are full of mold and sickness on the inside. Modern secularism believes love is subjective and boundless, and as a result unintentionally (at least we hope) have adopted an inconsistent and incoherent understanding of love. We are free to love however and whoever we choose so long as we don’t choose the Biblical definition. The irony here is comical. Modern secularism has popularized the phrase “love is love” to celebrate and popularize the LGBTQ+ movement. Their challenge for consistency is of course the ever increasing requests for new letters to be added to their own acronym. If “love truly is love,” should a new letter be added for Pedophilia, or Bestiality, or Polyamory? If the answer is “no” to any of those, then the logical conclusion is that the phrase “love is love” is factually false.
The point here is simply that as we have these conversations in the public square (or even in private conversations) we must be careful that we are not speaking past one another. We owe it to one another to hear each other’s arguments on our own terms in order to both fully understand it, and critique it through a Biblical lens.
Lastly, we arrive at the term “justice.” Again we begin with an awareness that justice does actual exist. In other words, “justice” is not a convention made by man to organize society. Rather “justice and righteousness are the foundations of God’s throne (Ps. 89:14).” Justice has a real definition and real boundaries. We are not free to redefine justice as we please. The Christian’s definition of justice is firmly rooted in the Word of God. We look to God’s law to understand what is just. We must note that this is not just a value system that Christians believe is true in a heavenly sense but is disconnected from Earthly life. Rather God’s law shapes how we process the real world of crimes and evil. The Christian’s moral compass is true so long as it points to God’s Word. We do not use unequal scales or show favoritism to the poor or the rich (Exodus 23:2-3). God sets the standard of judgment and we all fall underneath that standard equally.
Modern secularism (and unfortunately many Christians as well) have attempted to redefine justice without any consideration of God. A Pastor I spoke to recently described the modern “social justice” movement as the idolization of justice detached from Christ. This is precisely accurate. This redefinition of justice is littered with concepts and themes that are Biblically unjust and utterly absurd. The term “justice” is used in an effort to give women legal rights to abort their babies. The term “justice” is used to describe giving young children the “right” to take unalterable steps towards “gender transition” without their parents consent. The term “justice” is used to redefine marriage. The term “justice” has been used to permit and defend the plundering of property. The list goes on and on and on.
Once again, we note the simple fact that there are competing ideas of justice. As thinking Christians, we need to define our terms with clarity. The aim is not to become some Pharisee that loves the rigidity of the law yet fails to exercise mercy and compassion. As Calvin once said, “The Law is kept only when men are just, and kind, and true, towards each other; for thus they testify that they love and fear God, and give proper and sufficient evidence of sincere piety.” Yet if we don’t properly define justice and seek to understand the fullness of God’s law, the Christian will accidentally find themselves promoting and supporting ideas that are unjust and ungodly.
A Concluding Good Friday Thought
As I conclude these thoughts I can’t help but acknowledge that today is Good Friday. Good Friday is the day where all three of these terms find their fullest and deepest representation. It is at the cross on Calvary’s hill where love and justice collide in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus who knew no sin, demonstrated His great love and commitment to his covenant to us by willingly taking our place underneath the wrath of God. No other solution to the problem of sin and the resulting payment could possibly be found. The cross is God’s magnificent solution to upholding his covenantal love. Justice is upheld, and grace is freely given to the undeserving as the King himself dies in order to save the traitor. If you want to understand justice – look to the cross. If you want to understand love – look to the cross. And if you desire your soul to be shaken to its core, to find its deepest meaning wrapped up in a story only God could write – receive the grace & forgiveness offered to you by the King upon that cross.
Well written commentary on how carelessly the culture throws around these buzz words… and skillfully weaving it into a charge for Good Friday.
Good commentary, Raef, on the careless way these important words get thrown around. And skillfully linking it to a pastoral charge for Good Friday.