Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Antidote

“And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
(Colossians 1:17)
The words “hold together” here are most frequently translated “commend”, or literally “stand with”, and are used of a confirming testimony; that which supports or substantiates something that might otherwise be less solid or demonstrable. The KJV says, “in him all things consist”, which is fine, as long as we don’t conjure the image of the Lord Jesus as some vast being with everything else inside him, because that is not what the apostle is emphasizing here. Rather, he affirms here what is said in Hebrews about the Son; that he “upholds all things by the word of his power”.

He is the “confirming force” of the universe; what makes all things cohere. Not being a scientist, I’ll stop there, though I’m quite sure scientifically trained Christians (not Christian Scientists) might have much to say on how that works out practically.

No, I’m thinking about human relationships and the way we communicate.

I used to take great delight in my facility with language, a skill developed largely because my father read to us incessantly as children: Lewis, Tolkien and other writers consistently ‘above our level’. As a result, we paid little attention to grammar lessons in school; they were largely redundant. We didn’t need to know a word was a gerund or an adjective to use it aptly in a sentence or to spell it correctly. Such things were innate.

You know the old saw: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I figured language was the key to pretty much everything. If one were only logical enough, if one could only make a convincing argument, then everything was potentially within one’s grasp. You could manipulate, coax, coerce or persuade anyone to do just about anything you wanted.

The power of persuasion worked on my brothers. Sometimes. It worked on a few of my more impressionable friends. But try to imagine my disappointment when I began trying to relate to girls. There are, quite literally, no words to describe the magnitude of my failures in that arena as a teenager, largely because I’m too embarrassed to think them, let alone write about them.

I came to understand eventually that employing words, however ably, is very different than communicating.

The Limitations of Language

The older I get, the less and less stock I put in language. Oh, language can be a supremely effective communication tool. It might be the best tool we have. But it has limitations:

·         People must agree on the definitions of words or we talk right past each other.

·         In order for an intellectual argument to be effective its hearers must be taught or intuit basic principles of logic.

·         To certain listeners, tone and manner are often more important than content (**cough** President Obama **cough**). The wrong tone or attitude can be so off-putting that the speaker’s argument remains unheard while a more appealing manner can often successfully soft sell utter rubbish.

·         Unless we constantly question our own assumptions about meaning, and unless we listen more than we talk, those assumptions can deafen us to what others are actually saying and make what we say next to impossible for others to follow.

·         Education makes some people entirely incomprehensible to anyone but their peers (or perhaps just plain incomprehensible).

·         People don’t always say what they mean. In a sense, House was right: Everybody lies. Not so much that we all actively seek to deceive at all times, but that considerations like social graces, political correctness, polity or fear of disapproval often cause us to say things we don’t mean and to fail to say what we do. This is especially true even in the most intimate relationships. The higher the stakes, the more difficult it is to risk telling the exact truth.

Given the potential stumbling blocks, how humans communicate at all, even in the limited way we do, is genuinely astonishing.

Where am I going with this?

Christ and Relationships

Well, unsurprisingly, in Christ “all things hold together”, even relationships. Sadly, this is not always true of our relationships with those who do not know the Lord Jesus. He himself said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

It is understandable that it would be this way: Outside of Christ, there is no real way to communicate effectively beyond that which is simply natural. We may for a time feel like we’re connecting. Sometimes Christians and unbelievers get lucky and actually find common ground for a few moments. But then the word of God comes up and we realize we’re talking to a person with, well, something missing; an inability to grasp that which is basic and intuitive to us as followers of Christ. We are told, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”.

The things that mean the most to me get no traction in the hearts of my unsaved friends, apart, that is, from the working of the Spirit of God.

But in the hearts of believers, by his Holy Spirit, the Lord has placed a common language: “He will guide you into all the truth”, the Lord told his disciples. In Christ there is a means by which two or more believers may speak to one another intelligibly, with genuine shared understanding.

The Spirit of Christ is the antidote to the Tower of Babel. In him all things become coherent.

That doesn’t mean Christians always communicate perfectly. Sometimes, sadly, sin, culture, self or stupidity intrude and we miscommunicate horribly. But in Christ the potential for true understanding is always there just waiting to be allowed to illuminate our minds, hearts and emotions.

I’ve had some phone conversations with Christians in the last few weeks that made my heart sing (forgive the antiquated image, but there just isn’t a better one; I was actually feeling music).

Because we were talking Christ, in whom “all things hold together”.

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