‘I just want to hear my own language,’ she said in nearly perfect English.
I looked up from my book at my friend. ‘What?’
‘My language. My home language. I miss speaking my first language.’
I was startled. I think I just stared at her for nearly a minute, not really sure what to say. Her English was so close to perfect, that it hardly ever crossed my mind that English was not her first language; I’m actually not even sure if it is her second. The conversation didn’t last much longer, but her words never left my mind. There wasn’t much at all she didn’t know how to say in English. She could communicate her thoughts, desires, passions, likes, dislikes, emotions, jokes; and yet, something in her soul yearned to be able to communicate in her birth language- the language of her heart. Not long after that conversation, her wish was granted. She found a friend who was from her area of the world and spoke her dialect. I had the unique privilege of getting to watch the two of them interact over the course of the following days; they laughed and joked and talked like anybody does, but there was a light in my friend’s eyes that I had never seen; a vibrancy to her mannerisms. She didn’t change into a new person, but it was as if I had only known her in black and white, and now I could see her in color.
However, in the same moment, I began to sense something else as I sat with them, a distinct separation, a barrier. Even as they began to teach me words to help me interact in their language, I could not help but feel crippled. I once asked the two of them how to say a certain English word in their language, which stumped them. They talked just between the two of them rapidly, pausing only to ask me questions about the meaning of the word or when I would use it. Finally they turn back to me, only to say in English, ‘We do not really have a word for this in our language. We do not understand it.’ I think that is when it hit me. There were words in my language that could never translate to theirs. Words, phrases, euphemisms, and allegories that came from within the culture of my language, things that defined me, that were vital to expressing myself in revealing my passions, desires, humor, likes, dislikes, and quirks that I would not know how to express in any other way but my heart language. My language is not a tool that I used simply to communicate with others; it is deeply interwoven into who I am. It is essential to revealing myself to other people. Just like I cannot ask my friend to discard her language, she cannot ask me to discard mine. We can only learn to reveal ourselves in a new context, just as she has learned to use English to express herself and reveal herself, and as I am learning to reveal myself using her language (though, horribly, at the moment).
It makes me think of Jesus. He came to earth on a mission, to save humanity from their sin. His plan for salvation? To become like us in every way; to become mortal, to take on flesh within a specific culture, language, and way of life. He immersed himself into our world. He spoke the way the people of that time spoke. He dressed the way they dressed. He worked in a common way as a carpenter. He interacted with people and taught in a way that those people understood it. He did not come speaking in the tongues of heaven, dressed as a mighty warrior, in flames of glory and the radiance of the sun. Who could understand Him? Worship Him? Yes, perhaps. But know Him, be relational with Him, love Him? I think not. He came to bring the love of God to people and restore us to relationship with Him.
In Philippians 2, Paul says that the way Jesus came to us was in utmost humility. It says in verses 6-7 that he
‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’
In order for Him to become human, it says He had to ‘empty himself.’ He had to lay down His holiness, to leave behind the fact that He was God to become like us- broken, ruined creation. He lived in our imperfect bodies, spoke our sin-tainted language, and became a part of our broken, hurting families and communities. And He did it all to love us and for us, through his sacrifice, to love him. He revealed Himself in human terms, speaking in parables and allegories that the people of His time, and humanity in general, could identify with in their very souls. That is love. To seek to invest in someone else in their context.
I think of how Jesus called and taught his disciples. Most of them were fishermen, so he told them to come be ‘fishers of men.’ They identified with that. He calmed storms before them that, before they met Jesus, had probably ruined their businesses and killed their friends. They understood the power of a storm. He walked on water and produced money from the mouths of fish. He helped Peter catch more fish in a single throw than he ever had in a whole day. Peter understood the magnitude of Jesus’ miracles. Only a god could control the fish, the sea, and the weather like that. Jesus used what Peter knew to reveal to him the glory of His majesty.
So, what am I saying? My selfish heart has been checked. I claim to have the love of Christ in my heart, and yet I demand the world around me to conform to my language, my way of thinking, my pattern of life and then expect it to listen to what I have to say. How foolish! No one will see the glory of His majesty because of me. I am no Redeemer. I am the redeemed. Jesus has called us, who would want to be his disciples, to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow his life, step for step. (that’s Luke 9:23) He forsook everything to know me. He became sin, who knew no sin, so that through him, I might become righteous. Do you see? He took on my whole identity, He took on the entire weight of my soul, experiencing and knowing me in every intimate way, that He might stand in my place before the Father and say –
“I am her substitute. I have taken on her identity, gracious Father, that you might bear the wrath of your justice against sin on me, and the floodgates of your love and grace on her. I love her, because I know her. I have spoken Truth to her and she has believed, that she might know and love You, as her Father.”
How can I stand here, drenched in grace, and not treat the Chinese woman next to me in the coffee shop, or the Belgian, or the Russian, or the New Yorker in the same way? They yearn to be known, just as I yearn to be known. They long to be understood, just as I long to be understood. Jesus took the time to know and understand me. Take the time to know and understand others. Their differences are not bad; they are more precious than gold.
When I say ‘I love you’ to my friend, I say it in her language now. I really just memorized the sounds; it doesn’t actually mean that much to me. But, to her. To her, it speaks volumes because the heart feels its crushing weight and meaning when it is fully understood. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. Or your way of life. Be Jesus. Lay down your way of life to show love to the world around you. And then you will see the Kingdom of God.