When words lose their meaning

PandaA panda walks into a café and orders a sandwich. He eats it, then draws a gun and shoots the other patrons.

A surviving waiter, quivering as he looks up from the carnage, asks, “Why?”

Before walking out the door, the panda tosses the waiter a poorly punctuated wildlife manual and replies, “Look it up.”

The waiter searches for the relevant entry and reads aloud: “Panda. Large, black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

This joke serves as the namesake for Lynne Truss’s best-selling book, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”

It also reminds us how easily our language may be mangled – or manipulated – so that two people using the same words can intend totally different meanings.

Consider this

This is an important truth in apologetics, where our defense of the Christian faith often focuses on the correct – that is, the biblical – meaning of words.

Take, for example, the word “salvation.” For historic Christianity, the term describes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ provided through His death, burial, and resurrection and received by God’s grace through faith, resulting in forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.

Our Mormon friends, however, describe two types of salvation. First, there is general salvation, which essentially means resurrection and is given to nearly all people. Second, there is individual salvation, which is a level of life beyond the grave earned through works, the ultimate goal of which is godhood.

Or consider the name Jesus. The Bible teaches that He is the eternal Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit; the virgin-born God-man who lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, rose physically from the dead, is seated today at the Father’s right hand as our Mediator and Intercessor, and is coming back one day physically and visibly in power and great glory to set things right. Because He loved us first, we love Jesus.

Well, our Muslim friends love Jesus, too. They say the Qur’an teaches that Jesus was a great prophet, a miracle worker, and a sinless person. But He is not the Son of God, is not divine, did not die on the cross and therefore did not rise from the dead.

Our Hindu friends love Jesus, and many accept Him as one of their gods, or even as the primary god they worship. But He is not the exclusive Son of God.

Our Mormon friends also love Jesus but believe He is the spirit brother of Lucifer and acquired deity in His pre-earthly life. His death did not pay our sin debt, for each person must pay for her own sins.

Even our Jehovah’s Witness friends love Jesus but deny His deity, death on the cross, and physical resurrection.

A stone in the shoe

The bottom line is that words have meaning. It’s important for us to understand what other people mean by their words so that we may earn the right to be understood ourselves. There are three reasons to ask for definitions.

First, it shows respect. It shows we value the people with whom we are speaking, and we sincerely want to know what views they hold.

Second, asking for definitions provides clarity. If I love a Jesus who is divine and my Jehovah’s Witness friend loves a Jesus who is not, then obviously we don’t worship the same Jesus.

Third, seeking definitions gives us an opportunity to share our faith. Once we have earned the right to be heard, we can say something like this: “May I share with you what I believe the Bible teaches about …?”

You may not come to an agreement with your friends, but you have listened to them, clarified similarities and differences, and had an opportunity to leave a lasting impression.

In “Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions,” Christian apologetics instructor Gregory Koukl, writes: “All I want to do is put a stone in someone’s shoe. I want to give him something worth thinking about, something he can’t ignore because it continues to poke at him in a good way.”

A simple biblical truth – Christ’s sacrificial and substitutionary death, the certainty of future resurrection and judgment, the reality of heaven and hell – may be just that tiny stone that leads an unbelieving person to deal with the uncomfortable reality of his need for Christ.

The end result may be that your friend becomes a brother or sister in Christ.

This column first appeared April 23, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.