The Preacher and Language
Pastor Jack Hyles
(Loyal Pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana for over 42 years)
There are several things that should be sacred to a nation: (1) Its flag, (2) Its National Anthem, (3) Its landmarks, (4) Its Pledge of Allegiance, and (5) Its language. We cringe at the thought of profaning any of these. Nothing raises to a boiling point the blood of a patriot like seeing his flag abused or profaned. A number of years ago a group of rebels gathered across the street from our church, took an American flag, dipped it in soapy water and washed a car with it. I organized a posse of our men, and we went over and captured the flag from the rebels. We were infuriated, and justly so!
All patriotic Americans are alarmed when people remain seated during the playing of the National Anthem. One fellow mentioned to me that he was at a ballgame. The person next to him did not stand during the playing of the National Anthem. My friend grabbed him by the collar, jerked him up and said, "You stand up, fellow, while our National Anthem is being played!" Whether or not this is the action all of us would have taken, it is the action that all true Americans would like to take!
Not many years ago some hoodlums defaced the Statue of Liberty. All of us who hold the United States dear were shocked and angered by this defamation.
We are equally alarmed when someone refuses to pay homage to our country by refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.
All of the above abuses are abhorrent to those of us who love America and its heritage; yet people who would not dare profane the flag, the National Anthem, our landmarks and the Pledge of Allegiance, think nothing about defacing the fifth of those things which are sacred to us-our language. Now I am in no way a grammatical Pharisee, nor do I feel superior to those who have not had the opportunity to learn the language, nor do I condemn in the least a faithful preacher of the Gospel whose grammar is imperfect because of interrupted or denied training. Dr. Bob Jones, Sr. used to say, "I would rather a man say, 'I seen,' who has seen something than to say, 'I have seen,' who ain't seen nothin'." I agree with him; yet I believe that the man of God should equip himself with the best tools available. I am not criticizing a person who drives a nail with the heel of his shoe, but a hammer would do better. I am not criticizing a person who eats with his fingers, but a fork and a spoon would be better; nor am I criticizing a sincere man of God who because of circumstances has not been allowed to acquaint himself with the English language as he would like to have done, but I do feel that the best equipment available should be used in the proclamation of the Word of God! If a person is using the best tools that are available to him, he certainly will have me in his corner cheering; and regardless of what language he used to proclaim Christ, I will pull for him and in no way criticize him; but as we have opportunity as God's men, we need to polish our tools as much as possible. One of these tools is our language. The English language is the preacher's trowel, his hammer; his scalpel, his chisel. The English language is the conveyor of his feelings. The more words and phrases that the preacher knows and the more proper his grammar is, the more effectively can he convey his true feelings to those who hear him.
Not only is the language the means of conveying the preacher's feelings, but it is also his means of thinking. We think in the English language, so the better that we know it, the better we can think. Not to know it well limits our minds, for the language is not only a tool with which to convey thoughts and feelings, but it is a tool with which we exercise and improve the mind.
The language is also the way of communicating truth. It is the vehicle by which truth is passed from one mind to another, so the more of the language we know and the better we know it, the more able we are to communicate truth.
Someone said to a famous preacher one time, "God doesn't need your education." The preacher replied, "God doesn't need your ignorance, either." Bear in mind, we are not talking here about the person with limited opportunity. We are talking about the person who refuses opportunity or squanders it. We are not being critical of those with limited vocabularies; we are simply encouraging God's men to learn better how to communicate, how to think, how to transfer truth and how to express their feelings.
Language is one of the greatest unifiers of people. When the tower of Babel was built in the book of Genesis, it was done so in order that the people might become one, but God looked down and did not want them to become one; that is, He did not want them to have a one-world government, a one-world religion, etc. So God went down and confounded the language. Because of this, they were scattered abroad upon the face of the earth. Their method of unity had been taken from them.
Because of the aforementioned reasons, English is probably the most important subject for a ministerial student to study in college. Immediately the reader may think that the Bible is the most important, and he may be right. However; a successful preacher will study his Bible. A good Christian will read his Bible. God's man will search the Bible for truth and in the years following his college training, he will continually live in his Bible, but he will not continually live in his English book. Certainly he should take all the Bible in college that he can, but he should give unlimited emphasis to the learning of the English language. With it he will preach the Bible. With it he will tell of the grace of God. Whether by pen or tongue, every sermon he preaches or writes will be done in the language. Not to know it and use it well will limit his opportunity of adequately expressing the love of God and transfer- ring from his mind to the minds of the people the great truths of the Bible. If the preacher does not know it well, he should use it in the best way he can, but his best should continually improve! This is not just in order to reach a few educated snobs and grammatical Pharisees. This is so he can more effectively proclaim the greatest truths in all the world-those that God has revealed to man!
Thank God for the English language-that beautiful heirloom handed down from our fathers. May we guard it carefully and hand it down in its purity to those who follow us, and may I while I am its custodian learn it to its fullest so that I may properly express the real "me" to you, and may I so preserve it that I can express to you what I really am, what I really know and what I really feel.
Let me show you the crime of profaning the language. Read John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was John." John 1:14, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." Revelation 19:13, "And He was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and His name is called The Word of God." You will notice these verses have at least one thing in common. In each of them Jesus is called The Word of God. Why was He called the Word? Because He was God's way of expressing Himself to man just as our words are our way of expressing ourselves to man. Since Jesus is the Word of God, or God's way of expressing Himself to man, I rebel when He is not expressed properly and when someone mars the perfection of God's expression of Himself to mankind. I rebel when someone refutes and rejects the virgin birth, for the virgin birth is one of the letters in God's Word. It mars God's expressing of Himself to man. I rebel when someone rejects the sinless life of Christ; they are marring God's Word, or God's expression of Himself to man. I feel equal disdain when people deny the vicarious death, reject the bodily resurrection, verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, etc. Why do I have this rebellion and disdain? I have it simply because God's method of expressing Himself to man has been marred.
Man has a way of expressing himself to man. This expression is done through his word, or his language. What a tragedy to mar it and to profane it! Just as a sinful Jesus would be an inadequate expression of God, the man; even so a misused and abused language limits man's expression of himself to man. If one person really loves another; he should have all the tools possible with which to express that love. If a preacher really wants to convey truth to his people, he should have all the tools possible with which to convey that truth.
Now what can the preacher do who has not had the opportunities that he would have preferred? There are several things he can do.
1. He should Learn to spell. He can get a spelling book, just like a child in the first grade, get with a friend who understands, and learn to spell! For the preacher to say, "I never could spell very well," is not a shame. For the preacher to say, "I never will learn to spell very well," is a shame.
2. The preacher should learn new words on a regular basis. Learn a new word a week. It will be another weapon in your arsenal, another vitamin in your menu, and another tool that you can use in the expression of yourself and in your revealing of God's truths to your people.
3. Read. Nothing will substitute for it. One of the reasons we do not know the language is that we do not see it enough. One of the reasons that we do not spell properly is that we do not see words enough. People who read extensively will soon learn how to spell properly. People who read proper grammar will one day use proper grammar. Read, read, read, read, read! Of course, choose carefully what you read, but read! Of course, do not read heresy, but read!
4. Write. Write sermons. Write essays. Write poetry As you write, use a dictionary When you doubt the spelling of a word, look it up.
5. Do not use improper words. It is a shame and a tragedy what this generation has done to its language. Money is "bread"; a good time is "a blast"; an uncooperative person is "a square"; a nice person is "cool." We call young ladies "guys," and in general, we have profaned one of the things that should be most sacred to us our language.
I was in Jamaica preaching. On Monday I checked into the hotel It was a small hotel, so the owner and his wife and five-year-old daughter were at the desk when I arrived. They were so gracious to me. I had never been treated with any more hospitality and courtesy After chatting with them for awhile I looked to their little five-year-old daughter and said, "My, you are a real little sweet- heart!" Immediately their attitude toward me changed! Their treatment of me became cool and distant, and sometimes bordered on being rude. I couldn't understand it. All week they treated me that way While the pastor was driving me to the airport on Friday, I told him what had happened and asked him if he had any idea what caused their treatment of me to change. The pastor said, "Dr. Hyles, you don't know? I thought you knew. When you checked in on Monday and called their daughter "a sweetheart," you were actually calling her in Jamaican language a prostitute! You thought you were saying, 'You are a little sweetheart.' What you really were saying is, 'You are a little prostitute.' "Think of it! A week of my life was lived in misunderstanding because of a misuse of the language!
On Monday night of that week I preached to a group of Jamaican preachers and missionaries. I kept stressing a truth that Christian people should get out, knock on doors and tell folks about Christ. I noticed that there was a subdued response on the part of the Jamaican people. I could not understand it. I did understand, however, when after the service I was asked by a Jamaican, "What is this thing that you preached about tonight called "knocking on doors"?
I was stunned! Then I told him that that means that we should go out where people are and visit their home and tell them about Jesus. He said, "Oh, you mean hold-doggin'." I said, "What in the world is hold-doggin'?" He said, "That is the same thing to us that knocking on doors is to you." He proceeded to tell me that not many of the homes in his neighborhood even had doors. It was not a door that kept the family safe; it was the dog in the entrance of the house! So when you go up to tell someone about Christ or visit in the home you simply holler; "Hold the dog!" They call that "hold-doggin'." The next night I preached on, "Go into all the world and do hold- doggin'." It was quite humorous as I challenged them to go hold-doggin' and scolded them because they were not going hold- doggin' enough!
The language is important. Of course, no one should be critical of another or think himself superior to another because his grammar or use of the English language is superior to that of his friend, but each of us should do the best that we can to learn the language and its use in order that we may better convey to those whom we love our true feelings and to those whom we preach a proper presentation of the truth that God gives us for a message!
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