Theology & Spirituality

Learning a New Language is Hard

Learning and mastering any new language is an extremely difficult task. Since high school, I have studied a handful of languages including Spanish, Czech, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, and German, though I have mastered none of those. This is, of course, my fault for having a short attention span and not sticking with one long enough to become proficient, yet I have greatly enjoyed the time spent learning each of them.

The study of foreign languages can enrich our minds by helping us to understand our own language more thoroughly. Many concepts and expressions that exist in English cannot be found in Arabic or Russian, and vice versa. In some languages, for example Turkish, words build up by adding suffixes so that one single word can contain the same thoughts contained in a short English sentence. By studying languages, we also learn just how important it is to choose the most precise words to convey our thoughts.

Still, the most difficult language I have ever attempted to learn is the one taught and spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

No, I’m not talking about Aramaic – the lingua franca of Palestine during the time that Christ walked the earth in the flesh.

I’m talking about speaking, and thus living, the teachings brought to this world by Jesus.

Jesus brought a radical new language to this world – one of peace and hope in a world of war and despair, one of righteousness in a world of sin, and one of salvation in a world of damnation.

Jesus taught a language of love unlike any tongue ever spoken.

Jesus taught a language that cannot be learned by following “grammatical” rules – it can only be learned by the heart. It can only be spoken by the heart.

Jesus taught a language that cannot be learned through university courses or by purchasing expensive computer programs. It cannot be learned by the intellect alone. It can only be learned through faith, prayer, contemplation, and love.

In a world of “eye for an eye” justice, this language teaches us to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39).

In a world of radical nationalism, racism, and xenophobia, this language commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39).

It is a language that many have attempted to learn, but few of us, if any, have actually mastered.

Is mastery even possible? How can we ever love our enemies the way Christ commands? It is indeed a mind-boggling task. We all struggle with it. Every single day, the best of us, the most disciplined among us, still hold grudges. We still judge. We still condemn.

When someone hurts us, how can we ever hold back the overwhelming desire to hurt them back? Often, this seems like an impossible task. I am not even sure I could hold back vengeance if anyone ever hurt either of my two beautiful daughters – the greatest gifts God has ever given me in this world.

Can we ever learn the language of Jesus?

Can we ever truly reflect the image of God, inscribed onto the hearts of each of us, to the world?

Can we ever be the men and women God created us to be?

Despite the difficulties of learning, speaking, and living the Christian language, we must try. We must strive to master it, regardless of whether we fully succeed or not. Our lives depend on it. The fate of the world depends on it.

We must practice and use the language of Christ everyday, or it will be forgotten just as I have forgotten many of the languages I have attempted to learn.

God, bless us all and forgive us as we struggle to learn your language…

Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

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