If you know Hannah James, you probably know that I love languages. I mean literal languages like Spanish. I also mean Biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek. I also mean love languages. Additionally, I’m talking about knowing someone well enough to pick up on the “language” that they speak – their favorite phrases, idioms, patterns of thought and speech, and the way they talk about things they love and hate. Let’s dissect these a little bit more.
Learning a language like Spanish or French is such a challenging and rewarding process. It’s interesting – you discover and preserve meanings in ways that are different from that of your native language. And it’s worth noting that learning a language is for the primary purpose of communicating. It is an opportunity to connect with people in a way that was previously impossible, or at the least, incredibly difficult. It’s no surprise that the more effort you put into the language, the more you are able to connect with a person who speaks that language. It is a discipline and a task that must be practiced daily if you want to remember what you have learned and continue to grow. Just briefly touching on Biblical languages, the same concept applies. When we get to know the original Hebrew and Greek that the Biblical text is written in, we become more connected to the Word of God in its original context, though it requires constant diligence and practice.
Zooming back out, I think learning a language is representative of how we connect with others on a more intimate level. On a more light-hearted note, here are some examples of the way language has played a formational role in my relationships:
>One of my friends at divinity school makes fun of me for using the phrase “good gravy.” I grew up in the South, so I’m guessing that’s where that comes from, though admittedly I have lost a lot of my Southern roots. From this same friend, I’ve picked up the sayings “you’re not wrong” and the use of the word “stellar.” When we both recognize that we are using a word or phrase that typically ‘belongs’ to the other person, we acknowledge that we are listening.
>I have a few friends who deeply enjoy coffee (my kindred spirits), and I know that I can get any conversation going by asking them about the type of coffee beans they have in their house at the moment or talking about particular shops that they enjoy.
>My roommate from college, Abbey, used to say to me all the time, “What’s the plan, Stan?” Eventually, this evolved into the saying, “What’s the plan-ly, Stanley?” which has now resulted in addressing the other and signing our own names as Stanley in all of our letters. In this kind of inside joke, we have another reference to a memory and established relationship.
These “languages” that we begin to speak with our friends and family create a unique bond with one another – an intimacy that has been developed through time spent together talking. Through that time, we begin to understand what topics are off-limits, what is important to keep asking about, and what you enjoy talking about with each other specifically. All of those things look different with different individual friendships. When you think about it, you are in the process of learning the languages of each person in your life. As said above, when learning a language like Spanish, the more effort you commit to learning, the deeper connection you have with a person who speaks Spanish. Never think you are done learning another person’s language. I would say I’m fluent in English, but I’m still learning new words in my studies and continuing to discover how to put words together that convey meaning in the most beautiful, good, and true ways.
What does this look like when we turn to our prayer lives? How do we learn the language of God? Well, it’s first refreshing to understand that He knows each of our languages intimately and perfectly. On my first (and only) missions trip to Quebec, Canada, I remember encountering a church service for the first time where our English-speaking team worshipped alongside a French-speaking congregation and recognizing the beauty of a God who understands and honors the prayers and praises we offer in both languages. Even more specifically, He understands the utterances of our own individual languages – the ones that surpass words and cut to the desires of our hearts. And what’s more, He cares about those.
But what can I say about getting to know the language of God? Well, if we commit the same principles to learning languages, we know that it is a daily practice and discipline to learn and understand and keep communicating and connecting. We know that it’s hard – that at some point, everything is foreign, though we can pretty quickly pick up on some basic ideas and fundamentals. These sorts of fundamentals are things like – we know that God’s words will be characterized by love, grace, truth, and goodness, which will also help us rule out the things that we will never hear from the voice of God. And my inclination is that the more we invest into learning this language and developing a certain intimacy and relationship, the greater our desire will be to keep learning and connecting and being in relationship. The learning curve might be steep, but it quickly becomes worth it with the connection we form.
So go learn a language. Do it. Commit to the discipline and let yourself see the challenges and rewards that authentically represent how we form relationship with other people. Don’t be intimidated by the number of vocabulary words you don’t know, but increasingly find joy in the connection you build with those who speak another language. It’ll be worth it.