I can remember the moment I realized how much Jesus loved me as a unique and precious individual. What is curious is that this was not concurrent with my earlier understanding and acceptance of His amazing death and re-emergence to life. I knew, even then in my child’s mind, that in doing so, He had exhibited a marvelous and patient love; and that it took care of defects in my being that required supernatural intervention. Yet, I somehow had not grasped how very personal this love was. For a while, I felt like one of the adoring masses of a clearly benevolent, but far-removed caretaker.
Since then, I have heard much discussion of what vocabulary is most useful in conveying the truths of God. Some people argue that inadequate or culturally distorted vocabulary hinders understanding, for both those who say they follow Jesus and those who are repulsed by His claims. As can be seen from my Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day series, I think the study of the real meanings and assumptions of words can be interesting. However, consider these things:
- We are admonished to have faith like a child.
- Vocabulary is person and context dependent.
- Vocabulary is not as important as genuine love.
Jesus had the “unfair” advantage of knowing just what people needed to hear. Even a true follower of His can obviously never be Him. Still, the infusion of His love and the inexplicable guidance from His Comforter open up many possibilities for improved communication. Particularly if the idea of programmed style, formula “evangelism” is abandoned.
The only constant in Jesus’s interchanges with people is that He always astounded them. Whether they disagreed politically (as they saw it), wanted to kill Him, were looking for a free meal, were desperate for physical healing, or ached for acceptance, no one ever bested Him in a verbal exchange. Yet, He did it differently every time. Sometimes, He used religious terms of the day. Other times, His conversation was stunningly common place. He could be gentle and leading, or He could be shatteringly condemning. He would often invite discussion to make a person think, but He could also be very abrupt. Some people needed to be tenderly approached, while some needed to be madly shaken from their arrogance or exposed.
Looking at the ways Jesus interacted with people, the case could be made that He had “instant” relationship with them, whether they knew it or not. That is not so far off from my story. It is also not unlike the relationship a parent has with a child. At first, the infant has little awareness of what, exactly, a parent is, although if proper attention is not bestowed the child complains or languishes. Over time and with maturity, the child realizes increasingly how much the parent loves and can be trusted. (Yes, this is the ideal, but it is still broadly true.) Sometimes, not until parenthood is experienced does fuller comprehension of sacrifice dawn. Do any of us remember precisely when we knew we had parents; or, additionally, when we completely appreciated them? I know I learn to understand the love my parents have for me more with each passing year, and they are but mortal. My basic use and understanding of vocabulary hasn’t changed. The dictionary remains the same. Somehow, my intuition of the concepts has blossomed. How much more is there for me to know about Jesus and how He represents God. How much more I realize that all I can really hope is to be like one of those dancing pizza signs on the corner. People have to choose Him on their own.
There are also the relationships between people to consider. I am an advocate of building meaningful relationship, but not to “convert” people. It has to be because I want to know them, if they will agree to engage. If there is not that level of honesty, there is no real relationship. However, a bonus is that many times real relationship smooths out presumptions or problems with how people use vocabulary. Working out issues in any relationship expands understanding of each other’s use of vocabulary, making communication of beliefs more organic.
That being said, there are many examples of inspiring belief in Jesus without significant relationship between the people involved. One of the first is the scene at the temple, right after the Pentecost following Jesus’s ascension. Another example is those who share the good news apparently in hopes of furthering a desired relationship, but that is not what happens. I know a case where this was the attempt, but the fellow went on to marry a different girl, who was not connected with the first girl, but was a follower of Jesus. This example is noteworthy for another reason: The first girl used one of those dreaded, much maligned “evangelistic” formula tracts! The key was that the fellow in question had a ready heart, not that she really knew that. He was quite prepared by the tender hand of God. God gets those who are willing to be humble before Him, no matter the vocabulary and presentation.
One frustrating aspect of vocabulary pertaining to Jesus is that those who are opposed to following Him or those who misrepresent Him have a propensity to redefine and distort hitherto perfectly good words. Words that should be wonderfully appealing, like “faith,” are derided or manipulated. Sometimes it is not malicious, but only ignorance or laziness of cliches. Sometimes words just get overused and vocabulary needs to be refreshened to give the fellowship or disagreements proper perspective and life. Sometimes people talk too much and should be quiet. Sometimes people don’t speak up when they should. There is no “one-size fits all” for dealing with the evolving challenges of language as vocabulary takes on certain connotations or people speak in cliches that might risk decreased understanding.
Fortunately, no one is responsible for another person’s conclusions. While a good turn of phrase or explanation can possibly seem to lead to enlightenment, enlightenment is an inner soul phenomena that cannot be forced. Who is to say that the person was not at a place in their own search for truth that it was going to happen no matter what? Each individual is free to allow or block revelation. Defining exactly when another person responds to God’s call (read that “invitation”) is neither easy nor necessary for an observer/friend to do. What a fellow follower of Jesus benefits from is the encouragement of recognizing the mutual humility of devotion for a God-Man who loved us to death and brings unearthly joy to life. Feel free to use your own vocabulary to describe it.