Keep Speaking These Unspeakable Words
We’re discovering some words which used to be fine to talk about, but which now have become increasingly unspeakable. These aren’t cuss words; rather, they’re Bible words.
One of these increasingly unutterable Bible words is sin. The culture might still talk about sin as a guilty food pleasure or as a periodic habit of gambling. But when it comes to dark sins of the heart, it’s become taboo to call it sin—unless we’re recording a podcast about the axe murderer next door. We’ll talk about illness or disease or systemic oppression. But sin as presented in the Bible has become an increasingly unspeakable word.
Another growing taboo is the word hell. Hell is safe as a swear word, but scandalous even from pulpits—when it’s referring to a place. Another increasingly unutterable word is the word the—when used in the phrase “the way to God.” If Jesus is presented as a way to God, then fine. But the way—such as when Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV)? That’s the kind of thing we just can’t say anymore without feeling the need to apologize for our language.
“That’s the kind of thing we just can’t say anymore without feeling the need to apologize for our language.”
Do you notice the underlying reason we often feel sheepish about using Bible words such as sin, hell, and the way to God? It’s because these words make God seem like he’s not loving enough. If God so loved the world, we figure, why would he make us feel guilty about sin or threaten us with hell or present one way as the way to God?
What’s interesting though is that there have always been unspeakable Bible words. During Jesus’ first-century ministry, it wasn’t words like sin or hell which were taboo. In fact, it was a volatile and violent time during which people took sin and hell as commonsense concepts. Unlike our rare peaceful time in history, theirs was an era out from under the illusion that humans are basically good. In the first century, they knew what it meant to have enemies. They knew what it was like to be hated and mistreated and even killed.
So, what was the unspeakable Bible word for them back then? I’ll tell you a story from the Bible and let you discover one of these unspeakable words.
“What’s interesting though is that there have always been unspeakable Bible words.”
In Luke 10, Jesus was trying to explain love to a religious leader who knew the Bible well but who clearly didn’t want to love people who were different from him. So Jesus told the story about a Jewish man who was beaten up and left for dead. Two of his Jewish countrymen—a priest and a Levite—walked by without helping him. Then a Samaritan man passed by, felt compassion, and helped the man. This was very strange, for Samaritans and Jews had long been bitter enemies. Nonetheless, the Samaritan man bandaged the Jewish man’s wounds, took him into town, and paid whatever was needed to get him back to health.
Now, get ready for the unspeakable word. Jesus finished his story and then asked a question to the religious leader. Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man?”
Now, the religious man had three choices. There was the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. And what’s more is that Jesus had given him the easiest question in the world. Obviously, it was the Samaritan who had proved to be a neighbor to the man.
Yet, listen to the religious leader’s answer. He answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” Get this: the religious leader couldn’t even bring himself to say two words: “the Samaritan.” What was the unspeakable word for him? It was the word Samaritan.
“The religious leader couldn’t even bring himself to say two words: ‘the Samaritan.'”
Back then, it wasn’t God’s wrath against sin that was unthinkable. Rather, they saw his excessive love as unthinkable.
They heard Jesus speaking well of Samaritans, and they literally couldn’t believe their ears. They heard Jesus say things like, “Love your enemies,” and they wondered how this guy could utter such unutterable words.
There may be Bible words which you have trouble saying—words like sin or hell or “the way to God.” It’s good to remember that God’s ways will always stretch you farther than you feel comfortable with. God hates sin more passionately than you do, and God loves more deeply and widely than you do. It’s precisely what we should expect from a God of infinite holiness and love.