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More Like Falling In Love Part 2: The Limit Of Words

(In which I revisit the thinking behind my song “More Like Falling In Love”)

Give me words I’ll misuse them Obligations I’ll misplace them ‘Cause all religion ever made of me Was just a sinner with a stone tied to my feet…

Verse two of my song “More Like Falling In Love” begins with a statement about words.

I have a deep affection for words and language and the truth they reveal as well as the stories they conspire to create, which is one of the reasons why, I suppose, I enjoy my vocation as a writer/arranger of words.And yet the older I get the more I’m aware of their limits. Take for instance the exchange of words in any conversation: there are the words you speak and then there are the words that the other person hears, and they rarely carry the same meaning.

I get discouraged about this and try to compensate by painstakingly choosing my words with great care in hopes of avoiding misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict. I do this in my blogs, in my songs, and nearly all of my conversations. It’s a form of control, I suppose – trying to manage things that are ultimately unmanageable.

I also have a deep need to be understood that borders on obsession. That’s why my blogs are always so long – I try to anticipate misunderstandings and preemptively address them. But no matter how many words I pile on top of each other, few will read my words as carefully as I write them and I’m bound to get emails or comments from concerned readers who misunderstand my intent. And even if they do read them carefully, they can’t help but bring their own history and life experience to bear upon them in a way that will inevitably color them differently than I intended.

So, though I love words, they fail me every time.

While it may sound admirable the way I speak of taking such care with the meaning I intend to convey, It can get ugly when I try too hard to control how people will hear my words and even uglier when I try to manage the biases, baggage, and personal interpretations they might bring to them. In my marriage this can look like meaningful conversations degrading into fruitless battles over what was really said or even what certain words mean. “No, that may be what you heard, but that’s not what I said…” is the way that I might try to answer Taya when her feelings get hurt over a misunderstanding. It’s an answer that – even if it’s true – really only serves to clear my name while doing little to make her feel love. My solution has often been to use more and more words to try and clear up the misunderstanding – but more words only mean more opportunities to be misunderstood. A simple apology, willingly validating the other’s feelings and perhaps even absorbing the misunderstanding rather than compounding it, accomplishes so much more.

My mentor told me once that when there is misunderstanding, he has learned to say less in hopes of avoiding more of the same. But I believe in words too much! I keep hoping they can save the day!

I’ve been thinking about Jesus as he stood before Pilate and said… well… nearly nothing at all. Could it be that Jesus knew that words and well-constructed arguments would not save the day? “What is truth?” Pilate asks. Jesus’ answer couldn’t have been more potent when he wordlessly stands there as Truth himself.

Ah words… I love them, but I hate them too. While they are a powerful resource I have for sharing my heart with others, they distort as much as they reveal the truth – and this is the way of it even when my motives are pure! Because of course there are other times when my motives are less than pure. We’re all familiar with the regret of saying things we wish we could unsay. In my anger and hurt I’ve used precious words to wound people. I myself have been wounded by vicious or even merely careless words. Sometimes we wound with the words we do not say.

While we know all too well of the obvious abuse of the power of words, there are subtler and I would say even more insidious forms of this abuse, like when we use words to gain power or to hide.

The Pharisees were lovers of words, and the words they loved and became skilled in appropriating were the very words of God. They became experts at pressing these holy, precious, and true words into the service of stroking their own self-righteousness, silencing their detractors, and gaining power over the people they were supposed to serve. What’s even more impressive is the way they managed to take these holy words that are imbued with life giving power to lay bare the human heart and twist them in such a way as to hide the wickedness of their own hearts. White washed tombs is what Jesus called them.

Indeed, words are easily misused to wound others, distort the truth, and serve personal agendas. Sadder still is how even when we have the best of intentions, our words are still just as likely to distort, wound, and alienate – especially when it comes to conveying love.

In my marriage, that Petri dish of sanctification, I can see how often I’m tempted to love my wife with the love of a Pharisee – hanging on her every word, cataloging them, cross-referencing them in an attempt to understand her, to be a good husband and get a handle on what’s expected of me. But just as the Pharisees knew the words of God inside and out but failed to recognize Jesus as the consummation of all those words, so too have I often heard my wife’s words but missed her heart.

Ah words… you fail me at every turn.

Lately I’ve taken comfort in the notion that maybe even God can relate to my predicament. In the Old Testament God gave us words to live by – ten holy commandments that were to help make us free and come alive.But down through the centuries these words have been misunderstood, maligned, and obscured as more and more words were added for “clarification,” only serving to confuse and leave us more fearful and guilt-ridden than ever.

Is this a failure on God’s part to convey his heart? Or merely one more example of the limits of words – the way the meaning of words (even the words of God) can get lost in translation when we hear them through the filters of our shame, guilt, and fear? Generations later Jesus would try to make it easier on us by telling us that really, there are only two laws to really worry about: Love God, and love others (including yourself), and still we’ve managed to misuse and misunderstand even these.

It’s comforting for me to think that maybe even God knows something of the frustration of the limits of words. But more than that, it’s inspiring to see His solution.

After centuries of words piled upon words, he came up with a new way of speaking, a new language that would speak louder and clearer than all the words that came before. He boiled it all down and spoke a single, living, incarnate Word: Jesus.

In the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh, the heart of God and the intent of the law is finally revealed. The Word of God now had hands to carry us.Love became less of a theory and more of a revolution.Or as I’d like to think our very own Ron Block might say, Love became less of a demand and more of a promise (what do you say Ron, would you have said that?).

Where written words had alienated us, a Living Word redeemed us. That’s not to say, of course, that we should disregard the written words that came before. On the contrary, Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law but to complete it. The Living Word – Jesus – helps us to better understand the written word. “Ah, that’s what God meant,” we say in wonder as we see the Mosaic law come alive in the life of Christ.

In other words (ha! Here I go again, hoping to mitigate misunderstanding by using more words!), I can use words to tell my wife I love her, but when I add to those the action of living out my love for her in a way that helps her understand what those spoken words mean (like cleaning up after myself :- ), she’s more likely to believe it when I say “I love you”. Love incarnated is more persuasive than love merely spoken.

I’ve used a lot of words to talk about the limit of words, but permit me a few more as I close with a parting story.

I have listened to the words of many prayers over my lifetime, but there is one that I remember above all the others, and it was prayed over me by my friend Andrew Peterson when I was going through a very difficult time in my life. He listened to my pain and shared some great encouragement from the story of his own life. At the end of several days of conversation, he asked if he could pray for me, and I said yes – grateful but expecting the usual kind of prayer that feels a bit like being preached at. But his prayer was like no other I’ve ever experienced.

We bowed our heads and closed our eyes as he put his hand on my shoulder. And then… silence. No words were spoken in his prayer, but I could feel him moving so I opened my eyes to sneak a peak and found Andrew earnestly praying words in his heart that I would never hear, with tears streaming down his face, his head shaking and bobbing emphatically with passion as he contended in prayer over my situation, in earnest conversation with God… It was not a prayer for the benefit of my hearing, but for the benefit of my soul and it reminded me that we serve a God who hears the deep unspoken groaning of our hearts. When he finished after several minutes, he finally said the one word he would speak of that prayer: “amen”. And I’ve never felt more confident of a prayer being heard as I did that one.


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