Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Do Words Really Matter?

Last night I read this post at Justin Taylor's blog about using the word 'intoxicating' to define the state of heart and mind of a believer. As I read it, it made me think of something else I recently read in James White's The Forgotten Trinity. In chapter two What Is the Trinity?, even before he gives the definition of the Trinity, he explains why our language often fails us. When using finite language to define an infinite God, we already have a problem. It's a common practice then to use analogies, i.e. "this is like this" but even that falls short, especially when we're trying to define or describe the nature of God.

One of the other reasons he gives for why our language fails us, is because of the excess baggage words carry with them. He says it this way:

"Words often carry with them "baggage" that has become attached to the meaning of the word. The way we use the word may cause us to conjure up particular mental images every time we hear it."

He goes on to explain why especially in the use of the word "person", a word used in discussing the Trinity this word has excess baggage because we instantly think of a physical person with physical attributes such as height, weight and age - all associated with our common usage of the word "person".

I couldn't help of think about this, as I read the post at JT's, and the way modern society understands the word "intoxicated". Indeed this word does have the same "excess baggage" that James White refers to in his book. In our day, especially with the public awareness campaigns of organizations such as MADD, there aren't a lot of people walking around that wouldn't immediately associate this word with a physical impairment due to excessive consumption of alcohol. In communities all across the US and Canada, you've broken the law when you are charged with a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated). Some communities call it a DUI (Driving under the influence) but in either case, it means the same thing and no one with half a brain cell would be proud to boast of a DWI since it's rightfully associated with irresponsible and criminal (and sinful) behavior.

So like it or not, that is the "baggage" associated with this word, in modern society. This is what most people immediately think of when they hear the word. For anyone that honestly thinks we can "take back that word!" as I've read so many people write about other words like fundamentalist or evangelical (words that many believe have been damaged beyond repair and don't come close to meaning in our day what they originally did) I would suggest to you the word "gay" and ask if that's a word we can "take back" as well. It's just not going to happen. Words that might have once meant one thing, now mean another and there really isn't a way that I'm aware of, to "take them back". To be completely honest though, there is no taking back "intoxicated" since it has never had anything good associated with it like other words once did, as far as I can tell from looking in the dictionary.

Interestingly enough, the other thought that immediately came to mind as I read the post at JT's, was a saying I used to hear ALL the time in the charismatic church I once belonged to. That saying was "drunk in the Spirit", taken from this verse:
And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18)

You'll note, that no where in that verse does it say, suggest or even imply that we are to be "drunk" in the Spirit, but just the opposite. To be drunk is to be out of control of your thoughts, your words and actions. To be filled with the Spirit is to express the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness & temperance (self-control). If you've ever been around a drunk person, an intoxicated person, you know full well that they do not for a moment display these attributes. To be filled with the Spirit is the exact opposite of the person who is filled with an excess amount of wine.

Some might say that this is nitpicking, or making a big to do over nothing. I mean afterall, it's just one little itty bitty word, right? Well, while I am pretty sure I understand what is meant when someone says "God-intoxicated" - meaning consumed with the things of God, at the same time I also strongly believe that words matter, and matter very much. Words have meanings for better or worse, and words (like James White so eloquently stated) carry baggage when we hear them. It just seems to me we should be all the more careful not to use words that might have a horribly negative connotation. It may be a word others would use, but it's definitely not one I would use.