Little Words and Big Words

Some very big concepts can be summarized in some very small words. “Great is the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” After all, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

I remember many years ago watching a young cousin singing in a children’s musical at a church. The lyrics to one of the songs included

Simple words, from my heart to yours
Simple words, to unlock heavens doors
Like “I love You,” “I need You,” “I trust You, Lord”

I was so impressed with the musical, and with that song in particular, that I asked for and received a copy of the score from the children’s choir director.

And Jesus even says that we must come to faith as a little child.

In the book of Hebrews, the writer is wanting his readers to understand about how Jesus learned obedience and how this ties into Jesus being the author of our salvation and a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. But then the writer stops and says,

…of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.  For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14 NKJV)

It is going to be difficult to explain it to them because they have become dull of hearing. The Greek word there, nōthroi, can also be translated “sluggish,” “lazy,” or “negligent.”

It is clear that the intended recipients of the author’s words were not people who had come into Christ last week.

It is a good thing to learn the alphabet. In kindergarten, or even before, you learn that certain symbols indicate certain sounds that your mouth makes. You learn all these symbols we call letters in a certain order. You sing the ABC song.

Soon you learn that putting the symbols together communicates the words that you have learned. You can see the words you hear. This is a really great moment in your life. Your parents probably even got excited as you demonstrated this new ability.

But what if you are in 10th grade English and you decide you don’t want to be learning Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë or how to parse past participles? It would be much easier to go back and sing the ABC song.

And of course 10th graders are nowhere ready to be teachers. Here the author of the book of Hebrews is saying, “You are old enough to be college graduates in the Faith and you haven’t gone any deeper than the first grade.”

They want to be bottle fed or spoon fed the really easy stuff. They are like the kid in school who thinks, “What does all this really matter? I know I’m not going to need all this complicated stuff.” He makes a sophomoric mistake. As a result he makes bad grades.

Of course the difference is that in the school of Christian growth, God is the superintendent, the principle, and the school board. He’s set the curriculum and He thinks you need it. And He’s the final examiner.

For everyone who says, “I don’t really need to know a lot. As long as I love Jesus, that’s okay,” the author of Hebrews says no, that’s good for babies. Grow up.

Does that mean we all need PhDs? No. It means we use every brain cell we have. Jesus said to love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. That word for mind, used in Mark 12:30 and Luke 10:27, is dianoia and it means your intellect, your understanding, your thoughts, and your imagination.

There is a difference between the things you can’t understand and the things you can’t be bothered to understand. The author of Hebrews – writing through the Holy Spirit who inspired him – is not worried about the former, but is very worried about the latter. In school, it was just your teacher who cared. Now it’s God who cares.

Everyone thinks a baby who makes little gurgling noises is cute. But the time the child is two or three, it’s not so cute. By the time she’s five or six, it’s a real problem.

Bigger, grown up minds use bigger, grown up words. It’s not that we don’t know the little words. We still need them to fill in the gaps between the big words.

We even need moments of simplicity. We need to be able to summarize all our big thoughts. We need small symbols to encompass larger ones. The Mystery of Faith. Jesus Loves Me. And even more powerfully, sacraments of Bread and Wine. Water. Oil.

At the same time we should never stop digging into the riches of these things. Sometimes they can only be explained with big words. That’s why we have big words. Sometimes little words can’t adequately explain things. Sometimes to grow in your faith you have to buy a dictionary.

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