04 Oct War of Words
James says that words create problems more often than they solve them and so he calls the tongue an ‘unruly evil’. This seems to put all the blame on the speaker and to absolve the listener. But James 1:19 makes it clear that sometimes the problem is that we aren’t really listening.
To avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation, a word must be seen in context. For example, a bow could be a ribbon, a part of a musical instrument, an action or the pair to an arrow. It is the context that determines which of these meanings should be used. The meaning of words is often lost when they are taken out of context.
This principle applies when interpreting the Bible as well. Wisdom literature, like Proverbs, often does not have a context and each verse appears to stand alone. This makes it difficult to understand and Proverbs 26:4-5 is a good illustration of lack of context resulting in statements that appear contradictory until a context is imaginatively supplied to create a varied understanding of the same verse. For the rest of the Bible, however, every verse has a context and without the context is meaningless jabber. That is why I find the Bible refreshing – it is scripture in context and not scripture without context like much of the scriptures of other faiths.
However, many Christians treat the whole Bible like wisdom literature and try to interpret it without using the context. We take words and phrases in isolation thereby creating utter confusion with proof texting and claiming promises that don’t really exist. And when uncertainty about the context results in differing interpretations, we scream heresy at each other instead of obeying James 1:19 – listen.
In the theological world as well, theological statements made in a context are often cast in stone for all other contexts leading to war instead of peace. Luther’s sola fide statement was given in a particular context and applying it to all contexts has created much travail as Christians try to explain why life is important if it has nothing to do with salvation.
Words are not absolute, they are always in a context.
Words are meant to communicate and to create peace by creating a ‘common’ mind between two persons. Instead they often create wars. Imagine the following scenario. A husband tells his home-maker wife that he intends to be back early from office and they can have a romantic outing over dinner in the evening. He gets delayed in the office and the outing does not take place. The wife cries and says that he has lost his romance and does not think of her. He responds that he must earn the money to keep the house running. She responds saying that they spend more on his gadgets than on what the house needs and soon we have a war.
Where did the words go wrong? They were hearing each other’s words and not the context in which they were being spoken of. Let us step back. What was the context of the wife? A day spent in day-dreaming about what would happen in the evening, an event long overdue, and the crushing disappointment of it not taking place. This disappointment is conveyed in the statement “You have lost your romance”. Since the husband does not hear the context, he begins to defend his lack of romance, which is irrelevant to the context.
The context of the man is his frustration that his work extended and his frustration with his office. When he says “I have to earn the money to keep the house running” his intention is to convey his frustration with his work not his wife, but that is not heard.
Whether it is reading the Bible, listening to God, communicating at home or at office, those who can hear the context win. Others lose through unnecessary fighting. Romans 12:2 says that to understand God we need to transform our mind from the mind of the world to the mind of Christ. To understand another human we need to transform our mind into his or her mind by listening. We listen not to find fault with his or her mind but to change our minds.
Read this story from China.
King Tsao’s desired that his son Prince Tai learn leadership. So he sends for Pan Ku and asks him to train Prince Tai. Pan Ku sends him to Ming-Li forest for a year and tells him to return after a year and tell him what he had heard in the forest. After a year he returns and shares how he had heard the river brooks and could identify the sound of different animal life, and the wind in the trees. Pan Ku says that he has not heard what he needs to hear and sends him back for another year. This time he returns and tells him that he heard the sound of the petals of the bud opening, and the sound of the sun’s rays warming the earth and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew. Pan Ku tells him that he is now ready to lead.
My challenge to you is to be sensitive to context – both when interpreting the Bible and when interpreting the words spoken by the people around you. You get the context when you listen and hear the non-verbal and unspoken nuances of the person speaking. Then words will bring peace and not war.
Mr. P. K. D. Lee served as an Engineer with the Indian Government for 20 years. Taking an early retirement as the General Manager of the Indian Government, he worked with Haggai Institute in developing Christian leaders around the world. He is now retired and lives in Chennai. He can be connected through firstname.lastname@example.org