the power of words: fear and love

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

Thus wrote Shakespeare many centuries ago. And in once sense he is right. What name we give it makes no difference to the beauty of the flower – or indeed anything else in its true inner nature.

But words have incredible power, especially when divorced from a physical object, or when they precede the direct experience of the object. What I mean by this is that words – language – and our common understanding of those words, taken only at face value and in isolation from a wider context, can completely change our expectation and perception of a thing, person, or situation. If I describe someone whom you have never met as “eccentric” or “awkward”, you will immediately have some kind of picture in your mind. And yet those two words are often deeply ambiguous. Thus, your picture will depend on how you understand those words, and how you have encountered those words in the past.

The past couple of weeks I have been focusing on stories, and how the stories we tell ourselves shape us and how we see and experience the world around us. And language – words – are the bedrock from which our stories are built. Just saying certain words can change our posture, how we feel about ourselves or a situation, our entire sense of being.

Words are powerful. And they must be used wisely. For a word misunderstood or used carelessly can cause untold hurt and damage.

What has prompted this, you may ask. Well, it is Psalm 103, which we will be hearing in the service this Sunday. There is at least one psalm set to be read in every formal service of the Church of England each day, whether morning or evening prayer, or the eucharist. Psalm 103 is sometimes entitled “The Love of God”, or “Thanksgiving for God’s goodness.” And it is a song of praise and thanksgiving for the goodness of God, acknowledging all that God gives us, and trying to explore a little of the nature of God.

But there comes a couple of points where, to the uninitiated, to the unwary, to the person not used to the old-fashioned phrasing and language of the Church (and certain Bible translations), you would be forgiven for reacting in shock, or perhaps more.

As high as the sky is above the earth, so great is his steadfast love for those who fear him.

As a father is kind towards his children, so is the Lord kind to those who fear him.

Fear? God is only kind and loving and compassionate to those who fear him??

Where did that come from?

Well, there are a lot of answers to that, and I would suggest that nearly all of them are cultural, and more to the point belong to a culture and form of language which is very different to our own; certainly for those under a certain age. For the majority of us, fear and love do not mix. Indeed the bible itself says (in the new testament, in the first letter of John) that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4.18). So how on earth do we reconcile these seeming contradictions between the old and new testament?

In my previous life I studied and then taught Classics, and translating from English to Latin or Greek was something I especially enjoyed. It helped me to understand the complexity of language which simply rendering from Latin or Greek into English did not convey. Words have so many different meanings or uses according to their context, and according to the time or century in which they are used.

The author of the Psalms writes in a culture and context where both God and the father of the household were figures of authority to be feared as much as respected because of the authority they wielded. But love, as we understand it and use the word, was (I would argue) not really something that was widely understood. Compassion, yes. Kindness, yes. But the psychological construct and concept of unconditional love – maybe not so much.

And the writers of the new testament, in seeking to express this very facet of the nature of God which they had come so clearly to understand and experience, had to struggle to find words for it in a culture that simply did not recognise the primacy of love, which is arguably why Christianity was so very counter-cultural. Power and authority and fear were the primary forces of society and religion; but certainly not love.

And so, when I encounter this kind of translation, I must see it in context, instead of just accepting it at face value. Before I allow these words to shape me or even hurt me with their rawness and sharp edges, I must pause and see that perhaps this is not my language, this is not my native way of expression.

And so whenever I come across fear in this context, I stop. Is this the story I want to live in? Is this the nature of the God I believe in, the God who has supported and upheld me all these years, even (and perhaps especially) when I turned away from Him.

No. It is not.

The God I believe in is Love. He is seen in the actions and teachings of Jesus. I honour God, I respect God, I am totally in awe of how great He is, and I love him. But I do not fear him.

The inner nature of a thing may not be changed by the words we use to describe it. But when it comes to our stories and how those things and our understanding in turn shape us, words matter.

As high as the sky is above the earth, so great is his steadfast love for those who honour and love him.

As a parent is kind towards their children, so is the Lord kind to those who honour and love him.

with love, light and blessings,
Revd. Talisker