by Tim A. Dearborn
New lessons learned by following the example of Zacharias.
I thought language learning would be a breeze. Having already studied the language I was seeking to master, having read great books on language learning, and having taught courses to prepare others, I welcomed the challenge. But I fell flat on my face. Instead of a breeze, the blast of being unable to communicate effectively was more like a winter gale. I was unprepared for the spiritual shock of being unable to function fully in another language.
The following observations are not intended to heighten your fears of language learning, nor to correct my previous tutors. Rather, I want to look at language learning from another perspective: that of the spiritual fruit that it can bear. In this light you can discover new hope and additional reasons for plunging boldly into the travail of learning another language.
Language learning is not merely an intellectual or linguistic discipline. Nor is it only an encounter with other people, because it provides seemingly unlimited-and often discouraging- opportunities to encounter yourself. More importantly, if viewed as a spiritual discipline, you discover new depths of God’s grace. My eyes were opened to this during our first Christmas in our new country.
THE DISCIPLINE OF ZACHARIAS
In reading the Christmas story, our family reflected on the discipline of silence that God imposed on Zacharias (Lk. 1:5-25, 57-79). We were relieved to find many parallels between his experience and ours. Zacharias was finally engaging in a privilege that he had anticipated and for which he had prepared all his life-representing Israel before the Lord in the temple, and bringing the Word of God to Israel.
It was there that God revealed to him the awesome news that his prayers had been answered, and his life would bear fruit that would cause the world to rejoice. John was to be born to Elizabeth and him and he would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk. 1:17). But this was too much for the old priest to believe. Consequently, he would not be able to tell a soul about it, because God silenced him for nine months.
We, too, were engaged in fulfilling our life’s dream. Finally, we had the privilege of serving Christ in another culture, but where was the promised joy and gladness? Where was the promised fruitfulness? Instead of fruit and joy, verb conjugations and vocabulary lists, embarrassment and humiliation, and the dread of seeing our children treated like classroom idiots because they could not understand what their teachers or friends were saying.
Like Zacharias, we doubted. Had we accurately discerned God’s call? Did we have the ability to bear fruit? Had we too long delayed "giving birth" to life in a new culture, so that now our tongues were too thick to produce new sounds?
Fortunately, the story of Zacharias does not end in silence. We saw the fruitfulness that his discipline of silence produced. We gained new hope that our silence was God’s gift to us, not a curse. Instead of fleeing this discipline, that Christmas we embraced it with open arms and waited to see what God would do through us.
SPEECHLESSNESS TO INTERCESSION
Though the story doesn’t specifically say so, we can be sure that Zacharias wasn’t really silent for nine months. Even though he could not speak audibly, he could and do doubt did talk to God in prayer, interceding for Israel.
The spiritual discipline of silence during language learning can be redeemed by the Lord to confirm in us more fully our priorities. We know the old cliche that it’s far more valuable to talk with God about people than the other way round. But not until your lips are inhibited can you engage more fully in intercession.
God thus liberates you to live the truth that his word to others is more important than your eloquence. The Holy Spirit does not need our verbal cleverness to lead people to Christ. Our malformed phrases reminded us that the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Rom. 8:26). Our travail over verb conjugations and vocabulary lists pointed to the fact that Jesus is the Verb of God (as the French translate logos).
In my desperation, God repeatedly asked me, "Why do you value your words and your presence in people’s lives more than the privilege of participating in the guidance and presence I can bring them through the Spirit?"
Obviously, turning speechlessness into Intercession requires discipline. That’s not an automatic fruit of language learning. Talking with God is not our natural impulse when we can’t talk with people. Rather, we were tempted to fall into frenetic activities to break the silence with a barrage of words – reading books and magazines, listening to the radio and tapes from home. Without our highly treasured companions who could speak our language, it was easy to be trapped into a paralyzing, self-deprecating solitude. Forays into the foreign tongue became traumatic excursions to be avoided at all costs.
We had to redeem the temporary silence imposed by language learning and continually asked God to make us willing and able to deepen our communion with him. Speechlessness can thus be a spiritually fruitful discipline when God empowers you to treasure it as the deepest form of communication possible, which is prayer.
FROM HUMILIATION TO HUMILITY
Imagine the humiliation of Zacharias when he had to write with a tablet. To the people’s astonishment, he wrote of his son, "His name is John" (Lk. 1:59-63). However, this painful exercise no doubt deepened his humility.
Language learning is an act of submission and submission is always humiliating. You live as a perpetual child, surrounded by many superiors and teachers. When our neighbor’s five-year-old daughter had the audacity to correct my pronunciation and tell me that I did not speak French very well, I realized that humility does not naturally flow from humiliation. It took every ounce of graciousness I had to keep from screaming.
But, if you let it, your humiliation can lead you to a more profound encounter with Jesus. Suddenly, you grasp more of the painful humiliation he endured when he emptied himself, became a servant, and went obediently to the cross (Phil. 2:5-8). Those verses will never sound the same to me again. The agony of his humiliation made my frustrating linguistic failures pale into insignificance in comparison, and seem somehow far less all-consuming.
The times when it seems like you can do nothing but fail can be liberating reminders that your significance and worth are not determined by your productivity. We say we believe in grace, but we tend to live by works. When your best efforts fail, you can remember that your worth is given to you in Christ, not by your accomplishments.
Again, as with speechlessness, humiliation in language learning does not automatically produce spiritual fruit. It’s so easy to blame others for their inability to understand your perfectly formed words and phrases. Surely you can be understood if you say it again, only louder. Why can’t these people learn English? you wonder. After all, it is the international language. Yes, you can barricade yourself from further humiliation behind a wall of criticism of others for their ungracious lack of acceptance and patience with your foibles.
Instead of fleeing, you need to seize the opportunity to be empowered by God to learn the grace of submission, to receive the gift of being a student, and to recognize the glory of being a child of God who comes into his presence continually broken.
FROM POWERLESSNESS TO PRAISE
Zacharias garnered a third fruit of silence – praise. Once he regained his speech, he burst forth into one of the most glorious paeans of praise to God recorded in Scripture (Lk. 1:64-79). So, too, our humiliating powerlessness in language learning can issue in praise to God’s glory.
My students often said (and I was never sure how to interpret this) that they learned as much from my struggling with their language as they did from my teaching. The truth is that one of the great gifts that you can give people whose language you are trying to learn is the affirmation of their worth, which they receive through your efforts to get to know them. Your foolishness, weakness, and powerlessness can encourage them to take risks in their faith walk with God. But we must pray steadfastly for God to give us the grace to live our weaknesses openly before them.
In our Western preoccupation with giftedness, power, success, and strength it is easy to miss the liberating truth that God’s strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). One gift that you can give to those whom you serve is your willingness to admit your weakness and even boast in it so that the power of Christ can dwell in you. The powerless-ness of language learning can be another opportunity to learn afresh that we are never adequate in ourselves, but our adequacy is from God (2 Cor. 2:5-6).
But again, praise does not automatically turn on like a timer-controlled lawn sprinkler. It does not normally flow from powerlessness. How many times when I was told that my accent was "cute" did I want to scream, "Only little children are cute! I want to be heard as a wise adult!" Instead of hiding your weakness, you must ask God to give you the grace to be stripped of your pretence and to find your pride in his grace and power.
Yes, language learning can be a spiritual discipline, used by God to free us to be more fully his and to empower our lives to be lived more fully to his praise. Responding to the children’s praise, Jesus declared, "Out of the mouth of babes thou hast prepared praise for thyself’ (Mt. 21:16; Ps. 8:2).
Even out of our bilingually-baby mouths God can prepare praise. The discipline of silence is a source of liberty as we are set free to believe that God’s word will not return to him void, and that we also as his ambassadors will not come up empty, as he grants us success in the ministry to which he has called us.
Copyright © 1991 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.