Language is like water. It’s living, moving, and changing all the time. Sometimes it freezes for a while and is written down in dictionaries but soon it dissolves and changes again until we need a new dictionary. Words have a proper meaning until they get used for code words or slang. Then the meaning changes to the new connotation and the new meaning becomes the proper meaning. Only to get picked up and changed again in a generation or two. For example, ass used to mean donkey, now it means someone’s rear end. Gay used to mean happy or joyful, now it means someone’s sexual orientation. I don’t think it’s bad that words are fluid and change. The nature of living people interacting with language creatively is what keeps a language alive. What troubles me is when some words are kept frozen unnaturally, not allowed to dissolve and move with the rest of language.
Specifically I mean “Christianese.” The Christian lingo that is frozen at the heart of Christian language. These words are heavy with meaning, but foreign to the modern ear. That other-ness combined with two thousand years of emotional baggage turns the Christian message into something that most find untrustworthy.
I’ve been participating in the Bible in One Year (BiOY) app that Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in London puts out. Nicky Gumbal is the pastor of HTB and author of BiOY, and I love what he has done with the word “righteousness” this year. In fact I’ve borrowed his new way of saying it once or twice on this blog. Early in the year he re-phrased the word “righteousness” as “right-relationship.” With the stroke of a hyphen the term “righteousness” was washed clean of the connotation of condemnation, and the other-ness was removed to something a person could understand. The whole point of righteousness is the restored relationship with our loving God who hasn’t stopped pursuing us and redeeming us from sin since the beginning of time.
This idea of re-phrasing in order to redeem our Christian language got me thinking. Are there other words that could be reclaimed from the brokenness of time and frozen other-ness? God asks us to sing unto Him a new song (Psalm 96:1), why not speak unto Him a new language as well?
How about “sin”? There is a Christian term loaded with negative connotation and misunderstanding. The word sin instantly brings a chill of guilt into one’s heart as if the back door has been left open in January allowing the cold to seep in a grip into your very bones. Who can see or hear the loving and joyful message of the gospel when they are wrestling with an icy giant of a word like sin?
Let’s look at what sin means according to the Ten Commandments. When you remove the term “sin” from your interpretive lense, and just look at it, isn’t the Ten Commandments just a list of ways to hurt each other? Let’s break it down.
- “You shall have no other God’s before me.” When we put other god’s before God it hurts God and puts a break between us.
- “You shall not make images of created things and bow down to them.” (abbreviated) This again hurts God, and hurts us because God put people in authority over all of creation in Genesis 2:27. So when we bow down to creation we are degrading ourselves.
- “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” This is the third and final way listed to hurt God and create a breach between Him and us. When we take His name in vain it’s degrading to Him. To take the LORD’s name in vain is an attempt to be superior to He who is Superior. In a way the degradation just slides off God and lands back on us. We can never be superior to God, especially through words, so we end up looking like a bichon frise challenging a pit bull.
- “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” When we don’t keep the Sabbath it only hurts us. Think of seasons in your life that were non-stop. Eventually you reached your limit, exhaustion took over, depletion made you run down, sleep deprivation turned into insomnia. God built in a break to give us time to remember Him, but also as a mercy because He knew we would need rest at regular intervals. When we ignore that mercy we hurt ourselves.
- “Honor your father and mother.” No parent is perfect, some are less perfect than others. However, a soured relationship between child and parent is painful, no matter if the reason is justified or not. I think that God knows that often brokenness related to parents can be some of the deepest hurt we experience. So God suggests safeguarding that relationship or seeking reconciliation and forgiveness.
- “You shall not murder.” Murdering someone hurts them to the point of death, so big hurt there.
- “You shall not commit adultery.” When a spouse or partner cheats it is a painful betrayal that often leads to divorce or break-up. All judgey connotations aside, adultery just hurts.
- “You shall not steal.” Stealing hurts the person who got robbed. They paid for that item or food but they end up paying twice to replace it. Or they can’t replace whatever it was and have to go without. Their finances are hurt, their trust in their neighbors is hurt. Ultimately, their sense of well-being is hurt. Stealing hurts the person who is robbed.
- “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” This commandment is often mis-quoted as “thou shall not lie” but the bible does not actually say not to lie. It says not to give a false testimony or false witness in a legal setting in order to get your neighbor falsely accused or convicted of a crime. In a way I think this gets to the heart of lying in general. To bear false witness is to manipulate a situation through lying. So really you could almost paraphrase this to say, “You shall not manipulate your neighbors for your gain and their loss.” Lying hurts, falsely accusing hurts, manipulation hurts. Everything involved in this commandment is so hurtful when you find yourself embroiled in this sort of conflict.
- Lastly, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, house, land, staff, or transportation.” (abbreviated) This last one is subtle. You might say to yourself, “What’s the harm? I’m not hurting anyone by being jealous.” But you are hurting someone, you’re hurting yourself. When you covet, aka: unhealthy desire, you poison your own ability to be content. You deflate your own joy. Often this comparison and jealousy of the people in your life – what they have that you don’t have – can lead to a breakdown in the relationship. The real hurt is the damage you do to yourself though.
There are other “sin lists” in the bible, and if you look them up I think you will find most of them are lists of ways that we hurt each other, God, and ourselves. So next time you encounter the word “sin” think to yourself the replacement “hurt” and receive the good news of the gospel, the message of redemption and love from your Heavenly Father who will not stop until you know that He loves you.