Have you ever gone without speaking? Even if only for a short time?
From our first breath to our last we make sounds. We make data that conveys meaning encoded in various ways. Whether the vibrations picked up by the ears or scratches on rocks, indentations in clay or marks on paper… we speak.
The bible says we are made in God’s image and perhaps this is one of the prime ways in which we reflect our creator. Of course, we speak for a reason. We want to know and be known.
Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.
(Hebrews 1:1-2a HCSB)
We enter this world unable to speak meaningful language and unable to understand it but our first breath is followed by a cry. There is nothing quite like the cry of a newborn infant. It can wake a parent from the deepest sleep. It moves you to act. You may love the sound of the cry or you may hate it but you simply cannot ignore it.
The cry reminds us that unlike a creature born from an egg to anonymous parents we need each other. We won’t survive unless we learn to known and be known. From this very first moment we understand intuitively that we need each other.
The plain fact is that the need of relationship is not equal. The infant needs the parent so much more. The elderly need the young much more. The asymmetry of our relationship is never more clearly revealed than in our relationship to God. No relationship is needed more than this and yet God has no need of us yet has chosen to set his love upon us and in doing so He speaks.
Understanding refers to the fidelity of the communication. It means that the exact message as formed in the mind of the sender is received in the mind of the hearer. This is not a matter of understood or not understood but a matter of degree. It is doubtful than anyone has ever completely understood the exact message that I intended except perhaps when the message is very simple.
For understanding to take place, there must be a language and a common experience. This is why all our efforts to communicate with other species have proven to be so difficult. We naturally assume that our inability to communicate to animals is that they are intellectually deficient. However, animal scientists now tell us that they are much smarter than we had previously believed. Anyone who has a dog knows this to be true.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. “For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 HCSB)
Imagine the challenge of a being so great; so beyond us that there are no words in the hearers language to describe you. And yet like a parent who soothes the crying infant with a touch, an embrace; your compassion moves you to act so you speak.
Time and Communication
We live in time. It is a constant to us. The sun rises and sets. We live our days one after the other moments in time and yet when we entered a world in which we can leverage the movement of electrons to send a message across the planet time and season relative references now carry different shades of meaning.
For those near enough to hear sound waves vibrating in the air when I say that it is “Winter” you are experiencing the same season. Yet, if I communicate to someone on the other side of the planet their experience of the thing I call “Winter” would be decidedly different and more like the thing I call “Summer”.
Every time I board an airplane and in a few short hours make a journey that would have taken months or years to my ancestors I feel somewhat god-like. My perspective from thirty-thousand feet allows me to see a swath of land unimaginable to them. If I were to try and communicate this to someone from 500 years ago the possibility of being misunderstood would be immense.
Infinite speaks to Finite
As creatures get smaller, their experience of life in time and space is vastly different. Their lives are shorter and communication with them could potentially take longer than their lifespan. In order to avoid having to start the conversation over and over again you would have to get these very small and frail creatures to write your messages down and repeat the message to their descendants.
This kind of multi-generational communication carries its own challenges. Each generation would have to ensure that the original meaning is preserved while languages and cultural contexts change.
Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8 HCSB)
Could it be that all of the recorded history of God’s communication to man is to Him like a single conversation? The infinite communicator speaking a message to thousands upon thousands of generations of hearers?
If it were us speaking to bacteria for example such a conversation would be futile. Our inability to speak to creatures so different from ourselves in every possible way teaches us the great challenge that must be overcome and that if there is any possibility of truly knowing God and being known by Him it will take the power of the divine to do it.
And yet the bible asserts that God spoke and I believe it. I believe that this being who we simply refer to as God has chosen to reveal Himself to these frail, limited creatures known as humanity. How humbling this thought is.
Why should we think that we understand God? How could we possibly imagine that we can say God isn’t something or is something beyond what he has chosen to reveal to us? Our very language is wanting when expressing things that we cannot even imagine.
You had to be there
I know that this man–whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know, God knows– was caught up into paradise. He heard inexpressible words, which a man is not allowed to speak. (2 Corinthians 12:3-4 HCSB)
Have you ever tried to tell a funny story only to find that the person listening didn’t find it funny? In such moments we often say “You had to be there.” This is our way of saying that words fail to communicate everything about the situation. This is what it must be like when the mortal experiences immortality. Words and phrases like “streets of gold” fail to communicate everything about such a moment.
So how shall we listen to God?
Carefully… Thoughtfully… With faith trusting that if He is who he claims to be that like a parent who gathers an infant in their loving arms and speaks words which, though the infant cannot possibly understand, communicate love and care. The greater will speak to the lesser and the greater will ensure that what needs to take place will take place.