When the words don’t fit

The Gospel is universal but the language we use to share it is not.
And that can at times make it difficult — so difficult that only the very grace of the God we’re trying to explain makes it possible.

This has been most evident during a recent trip to Cambodia, where the translators hired to help were stretched as far as their limits. Not because they were poor at their jobs, but because of their language’s difficulties in translating Christian theological terms.

We don’t often think of the origins of large words related to the theology of our Christian God. Words such as “incarnation,” which explains how Christ became fully human while remaining fully God — a key tenant of the Christian faith.

But when no such word exists in a language, the job of explaining suddenly becomes harder than nails.

Cambodia is a country built upon Buddhism, as is much of this part of Asia. Maybe 3 percent of the population is Christian, despite in recent years a wider acceptance of other religions.

Because of this, words like “omnipotent” aren’t needed in the country’s vocabulary. Sure, you can simply say, “Our God is all powerful, and no one and nothing has ever been or ever will be bigger.” (That’s exactly what was said!)

But in trying to strike a point that’s memorable, it’s nice to use the three O’s in describing our God: omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent (all powerful, all knowing, all places). Perhaps it’s not truly an irony (in fact, I don’t think it’s an irony at all), but the latter two terms do exist in Khmer, the main language of Cambodia. And they’re about a mile long in the language’s alphabet, as if to say, “You’ll never need this word, don’t worry about it.”

The goal anywhere is to give church leaders a better understanding of the faith they call their own. While in some ways the Gospel is extremely simple (Jesus Christ came to redeem us from our own sins), a lesson on the Trinity isn’t for the fainthearted (the Lord is one God in three persons and three persons in one God).

Finding substitute words for what you already know, well, it can be a challenge — some days fun, some days tiring. When your translator collapses, saying in her language that she has a mental block and can’t see the words in her head anymore, someone else steps in and you keep going.

When the smiles start to appear on the faces of the people you’re trying to serve, you trust you’ve transferred a bit of something that hopefully will enrich their faith and be used to disciple others who call Christ their own.

A willingness to change directions mid-stream because the example you’ve used for years is culturally irrelevant goes a long way. But at the end of the day, you rest in the knowledge that regardless, you’ve done what God has called you to do, trusting that He will do the rest.

2 thoughts on “When the words don’t fit

  1. I so enjoy trying to keep up with the Schwarzens! Thanks for your dedication to God & willingness to share your experiences!

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