In our house, when someone says something that doesn’t make sense (to the hearer, that is; it usually made sense to the family member who said it), we’ll sometimes reply with the nonsense phrase, “The Dog Walks Slowly by Midnight”. This was originally meant to reflect old-school spies talking in code – speaking password phrases and counter-phrases to each other, whether to verify identities or to pass messages covertly. However, it’s just a nonsense phrase in our family, now.
In the same way, sometimes we are trying to communicate clearly – whether we are speaking to someone else, or trying to understand someone else – but the message just doesn’t come through. In the past, I’ve sometimes found myself stuck in a loop, trying to teach a technical topic, but finding myself just repeating the same point in different words (rather than looking for a different way that the student is wired to learn). My parents told me lots of things when I was a kid that I didn’t fully understand until I matured a little, and even more things that didn’t resonate fully until I had kids of my own.
When we are having trouble explaining a dream that we had (just the weird kind we get from eating spicy food before bedtime – not a vision from God or anything like that), it’s not a big deal. When we don’t effectively communicate directions to a friend, that can be a bigger problem (especially if we were so self-confident in our directions that we didn’t supply an address that could be entered into a GPS or smartphone).
However, when messages of major life importance – even truths that impact our eternal destiny – aren’t clear, the implications are significant. For everyone to live the abundant life that Jesus offers, it is imperative that all people understand the message of Jesus Christ, in terms that they can understand.
My thanks go out to tireless Bible translators, who strive to render the Word of God in the language of people who don’t have the message written out. I think that every follower of Jesus should consider supporting – financially and/or in prayer – missionaries who learn new languages, and speak the good news to people who haven’t heard it. (This is especially important for me, having essentially zero linguistic skills outside of my native tongue!) These faithful servants are helping achieve the promise of Revelation 7:9.
However, understanding isn’t just a function of language. Sometimes, it is the way that the message is presented. An analytical mind may wish to understand the history and context in which the prophecies of Jesus were given – and then fulfilled. A relational heart may want to appreciate the love and kindness of Jesus. A person whose earthly father wasn’t present, or didn’t act like the parent that God intended, may need to understand other attributes of God the Father, in order to appreciate Him and His relationship to His children.
Paul the apostle was an expert at this. He presented the same message in different forms to all sorts of people in his ministry. The good news about Jesus was never compromised, but the delivery and context was regularly tailored to his audience. (Read through the book of Acts for lots of good examples from Paul’s ministry.)
The following passage is best read in the larger context of 1 Corinthians 9 (and I encourage you to do so), but I think that it captures Paul’s goal, and his heart for the people with whom he wanted to share the truth.
Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.
When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NLT
I’m not prepared to prescribe exactly what this will look like in your life, but I offer the following ideas:
- Put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Think about what you’re saying might sound like to someone who doesn’t have your background. Take the time to explain terms and jargon that might not mean anything (or mean something different) to someone with a different collection of life experiences.
- Seek common ground. Paul did a great job of this, whether learning about the Athenians’ practices, speaking politely to Felix, or any number of messages he shared throughout his international journeys. Someone you’re talking with may have no interest in what a preacher said, or where you go to church; however, they may want to learn how to repair a relationship or make a good decision.
- Share, don’t just spray. The good news about Jesus is something that we [should] want others to know about, because we love them. But, if we’re talking about Jesus simply out of a sense of duty, or to bludgeon / embarrass / shame someone, there’s no love in that.
May you continue to learn and share with others the exciting information about Jesus – not just His teachings, but personally getting to know Him better over time. It’s amazing, but it won’t make a difference to others if they don’t – if they can’t – understand.