Posts Tagged Life

Life and Death and Language

I recently had a conversation with some friends about foul language: what defines foul language and why it is bad. I thought it would be profitable to share some of our conclusions and my own thoughts on the subject.

What defines foul language? There are few rules in the Bible that are culturally defined; adultery is adultery, no matter what your culture says about it. Language is different. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear”, he meant to them something different than it does to us; few of us curse in Greek. Nearly everything God commands is the same throughout every age: adultery is adultery, period. This issue of foul language, however, works a little bit differently.

The simple fact is that words have meaning. These meanings have changed over time and have been corrupted, to be sure. However, they have meaning to people, today. Every culture has words that are regarded with esteem, and other, crude language. Some words have originally true meanings that were not foul (one such word appears in the King James Version 90 times – I leave it to you to figure out which); others are simply crude words used to describe things in a crude way. In either regard, they are not words that in our culture “give grace to those who hear”.

Especially in our Southern-Bible-Belt culture, it can sometimes seem that foul language is a cardinal sin, worthy of capital punishment, or at least a good whippin’. However, as one of my friends pointed out that night, it does not matter how “clean” your words are. You may never say a single foul word in your life, but you will still violate the principle Paul gives us. On the other hand, someone who struggles with saying foul words could still impart great grace with their words. Neither is excused, but the one who acknowledges it is still better than the one who does not.

(As a random thought on the side, let me ask you, dear reader: is it stranger to you when a young lady utters a foul word than when a man does? It is to me, and I think it is because of the simple stark contrast between a beautiful appearance and a rotten tongue. I have often been tempted to say to such a young lady, “You know, such ugly words should not come from such a pretty face.”)

Why is it bad? The real question being asked here is, “Why does it matter?” First, because of all that I have said before. Words have meaning; they are like vessels that carry something to the recipient. We decide whether the vessels we send out smell like manure, are loaded with poison, or carry healing balms. As a writer, I understand that one small word can change the entire meaning.

More than that, however, it is because our words have great power. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”. James alludes to the tongue as the spark that can start a forest fire. When we speak, write, or use language of any sort, we are always either communicating life or communicating death. The reason foul language, biting words, or a deceitful tongue are so wrong is because they are imparting death to the hearer. It is as though a deadly miasma is proceeding from your mouth, and all within inhaling distance are catching it.

C.S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “The Weight of Glory” that everyone we meet is an eternal soul. Absolutely everyone, from that man who cut us off in traffic to the sour-faced cashier at the grocery store, will live on in eternity. They are on their own journey, either progressing towards life or death. Whether they may only enter into our lives for a short frame, or they will be beside us for many years, we will are either a help or a hindrance. We either bring them up to life in Christ, or down to death. This is why language is so important, because of the destruction it can cause.

But the emphasis is not just negative. Sure, death is in the power of the tongue; but so is life! What a miracle it is, that we can impart life and grace to listening ears! Our words could be the spark that burns down their idol temples, that are a breath of fresh air in a miasma ridden world. By the grace of God, our tongues can be used to bless. That does not mean that our words will never hurt; but when they do, it will be done like a gardener’s pruning: only to bring about more and more life and fruit.

It is an oft repeated maxim, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Too often those closest to us are the victims of our cutting words, and we the unsuspecting assassins. It seems that often any type of sin can be excused so long as it was “in jest”. Let us begin with those nearest to us: parents, siblings, children, lovers, or friends; then, we shall work outward to bless the whole world. Instead of a sarcastic insult, insert a kind compliment or encouragement. It may be an unexpected treat, like finding a dollar in your pocket. Unlike the dollar, however, it will be worth far more.

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The Vanity of Life

Lately I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s one of those books that many of us have looked at with a sideways glance, not quite sure what to do with it. It has gained the reputation of being the most depressing book in the Bible, and thus many avoid it. Yet even in just a week of studying Ecclesiastes, I have discovered great treasures. Often the hardest of grounds yield the greatest of gifts.

Most people accept the fact that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, King David’s son and some hold the belief that it was written after Solomon repented of his grievous sins before God. John Wesley held this view, writing, “Who was not only a king, but also a teacher of God’s people: who having sinned grievously in the eyes of all the world, thought himself obliged to publish his repentance, and to give public warning to all, to avoid those rocks upon which he had split.”

The premise of the book is stated in the second verse: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The word vanity here does not mean what it means today. Then it meant meaninglessness; Webster defined it as “emptiness; want of substance to satisfy desire; uncertainty.” And when the Preacher says “Vanity of Vanities”, he means the same as Holy of Holies (utterly holy) – utterly vain, utterly empty.

But what does the author mean when he says life is utterly pointless? He does not say that life isn’t worth living; what I think he means is that we cannot understand all of life. The Preacher says that he “gave [his] heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven…” In other words, Solomon was trying to understand all the purposes of God and everything that happened to men while they lived, including death, riches, oppression, and much more. He realized that he was far too small to understand it all. It reminded me of something Dinesh D’Souza, Christians author and speaker, said in a debate I heard. To paraphrase, “We must understand the limits of logic and reason. We are like little ants on a street corner, asking why the street corner is the way it is, when there is a whole neighborhood behind us we can’t see.”

Realizing that he was unable to find satisfaction in wisdom, Solomon turned to pleasures of every sort. He says in the second chapter, “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.” I emphasized that part specifically, because it shows what Solomon’s purpose was in doing all that he did: he wanted to know how people ought to live. In wisdom, in pleasure, and in materialism Solomon finds no peace and no purpose to his life.

Solomon comes to this conclusion, which is often repeated throughout the book: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy food in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” He exhorts the listener over and over again to enjoy his own lot; not to give himself to futile work which shall fade after death; but to enjoy the life that has been given him from the hand of God.

So how are we supposed to live, and what can we learn from Solomon’s travail? There are three main points he makes throughout the book that I want to highlight.

Enjoy the life God has given you.

Solomon tells us in chapter 4 of a man who, because of envy for another’s good, becomes a great workaholic. He says, “There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good?” He is working hard, but one must ask, for what? Why is he working? At the end of his life he shall look back and see that his whole life is pointless, because he sought to gain something transient and passing.

So often in our lives we are struck with a sort of discontent. It is not a holy discontent that makes us seek the more after God and righteousness, but the sort that makes us seek worldly goods. Instead of enjoying the things that God has given us, we are always looking ahead to something we don’t have. Instead, let us vigorously strive to enjoy and be content with our lot in life, and praise God for the life we have. He didn’t have to wake us up this morning, but He did; and may our lives be used to praise Him continually.

Live in light of man’s ultimate destination.

In chapter 7, Solomon says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to heart.” Every man must one day face death: old and young, man and woman, rich and poor, wise and foolish. Life is but a breath, here one day and gone the next. Solomon exhorts us that we are to live in light of death: “Whatsoever thy hand findest to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 10:31 – “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

God has given us this short time to live upon this earth. How will we spend our days? Will we spend them in the same vain pursuits as Solomon – pleasure and material goods – or in the eternal things that really matter? Whatever work God gives us to do, whether we are on the frontlines of the ministry or at home working a corporate job or flipping burgers, we are to do it to the best of our ability and give our all to it, because once our life is over, that’s the end. There is no more chance to work.

Live in light of God’s judgment.

The last two verses of the book end this way: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” There is not much more that can be said. Paul says, “… For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10).

The question we must all ask is, “How will my life weigh in the balance? Have I given my life to worthy pursuits? Or have I spent all my days pursuing pointless, frivolous things?” We all shall be judged.

What shall you stand upon? For I know that in me there is no good thing, and that if I were to be judged, I would be counted as evil. Solomon says that every secret thing will be judged. Perhaps you’ve done good deeds; but were the secret intentions of your heart any good?

There is only one hope for man to stand before the judgment seat of God, and that is Jesus Christ Himself. He offers to man His perfect righteousness, that we might be clothed in it, and not be found wanting in the scales of justice. Come, abide in Him today, give your whole life to Him, and allow Him to transform you inside and out. Only then will you be free from the vanity of this world and more, the judgment of God.

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Fantastic Friday’s Feature: Manalive!

G.K. Chesterton has gotten some attention on this blog already (what with Cheese and Fairy Tales as older posts); however, I feel the need to let you, my beloved reader, know that I have recently finished perhaps one of the most amusing, deep, and poignant books I have ever read.

That book, my friends, is Manalive. Recommended by my elder brother, who you may remember wrote a true Chestertonian essay called The Romance of Coffee, this short story captured my mind and ravished my attention. If a book can keep me awake past the midnight hour, dear reader, you ought to know it is indeed a good book; and this book is one such book.

The back cover of the Dover Publications copy my brother loaned me reads thus:

First published in 1912… Manalive celebrates on of G.K. Chesterton’s earliest themes: the joy of being alive. That principle is embodied in one Innocent Smith, who is taken up by a fierce wind one day and dropped on the lawn of a boardinghouse inhabited by a group of disillusioned young people. His arrival has a rejuvenating effect on this dull group.

In the course of the book, Smith courts and remarries his wife repeatedly, lives in various houses, which all turn out to be his own, and attempts murder, but only succeeds in firing life into his victims.

Perhaps the most lighthearted of all Chesterton’s “serious” books, Manalive is full of high-spirited nonsense expressing important ideas: life is worth living, one can break with convention and still maintain moral and ethical standards, and much of the behavior civilized man has been led to believe is wrong, isn’t wrong at all.

So often in life, we begin to see the incredible and amazing things around us as merely “normal”; we miss the beautiful sights and sounds that are all around us. So often we forget the beauty of this earth; and so with the beauty and radiance of Christ Himself. As one man in the book expresses, “Any habit is a bad habit.” Meaning this, that if anything we do becomes merely routine or normal or regular, we ought to check ourselves. We need to realize that the world around and the things that we do are perhaps the furthest thing from normal there is.

Professor Clyde Kilby, a professor of John Piper’s, said it this way in his list of “10 Ways to Stay Alive in the Beauty of God’s World” – I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.” (for more of this, check out this link: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/10-steps-to-stay-alive-to-the-beauty-of-gods-world )

This book is one that God has used in my life to remind me of the beauty and simple glory of the gift of life. Life is beautiful. And if this life is so wondrous, how much more that spiritual, abundant life which He gives us right here and now? How much more the eternal life we will one day have with Christ in heaven? In Him is life; and if you feel yourself dead today, if you feel yourself estranged from God, then find life today, now, in Christ. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; without Him, we all remain dead. But thanks be to God, that through Jesus Christ, He has made a way for us to have life, abundant life, and eternal life.

Blessings on your weekend!

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