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When the Problem Isn't the Problem

Every time Abbot and Costello got together on the silver screen, they routinely embarked on adventures caused by words gone wild. That's what made them funny. Let's face it. We love to laugh at dolts who argue when "they don't even know what they're talking about!" Except when those dolts represent the kingdom of God. Especially when we might be one of them.

  • William Blankschaen,
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Abbot & Costello

"Hey, Lou! What are you doing sitting around?"
"Oh, nothin', Abbott."
"Well, I can see that. While I've been out looking for work, you've been doing nothing!"
"Wait. You got a job?"
"Yes, I did. At a bakery."
"Oh, good. Whatcha' doin' there?"
"I'm loafing."
"You're loafing? That's it? That's your job?"
"Well, sure. And it pays well, too."
"Wait a minute. You're tellin' me you get paid to loaf?!"
"Well, certainly. I wouldn't do it for free."
"Well, I've been loafing all my life and haven't got a nickel!"
"No, you idiot. You have to loaf in the union."
"You mean I have to be part of a union to loaf?!"
"Of course."
"Well, don't tell anyone, but I've been loafin' here all day without the union knowin'!"

And so the chaos continued. Every time Abbot and Costello got together on the silver screen, they routinely embarked on adventures caused by words gone wild. That's what made them funny. Let's face it. We love to laugh at dolts who argue when "they don't even know what they're talking about!" Except when those dolts represent the kingdom of God. Especially when we might be one of them.

If we are honest, we have to confess that often what passes for a problem in the body of Christ really isn't the problem. Not to downplay our many legitimate differences, but a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of our problems stem from a shortage of sound semantics. In short, we often argue because we lack the vocabulary and mental prowess to communicate effectively. We simply don't know what we're talking about!

Chaotic speech is nothing new. We need only look to the Scriptures for numerous examples of this phenomenon. God sent confusion to Babel when man abused the gift of speech, attempting to overthrow the Author of all words. The Apostle John recorded this account of Lazarus' resurrection and the disciples' misunderstanding:

[Jesus] said to them, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." Then His disciples said, "Lord, if he sleeps he will get well." However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.(Jn. 11:11-14 NKJV)

That wasn't the only time the disciples seemed confused by the words of our Lord. Lest we accuse the Son of God of lacking semantic clarity, we must lay the blame mostly on his disciples' ignorance (they were in training) and lack of effort to understand His words. Occasionally, their misunderstandings created problems such as in the following account, also by John:

Peter, seeing [John], said to Jesus, "But Lord, what about this man?" Jesus said to him, "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me." Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?" (Jn. 21:21-23 NKJV)

Apparently, some sixty years later, John was still dealing with the fallout of the simple misunderstanding of a few words.

Lest we be tempted to scorn the disciples too energetically, we have the same problem today. Some years ago, I witnessed an intense argument between two men over the meaning of the word for in the statement, "Christ died for all the world." Certainly, no one should belittle the theological implications of this argument that has divided the body of Christ for centuries. But the curious thing I observed in this particular heated engagement was that, after nearly an hour of arguing, the men finally realized that they were both saying the same thing! The alleged problem really wasn't the problem at all. Their problem was that they did not define their terms before leaping into the fray. It was all just a simple misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, although we may find it easy to dismiss such vain philippics as "simple misunderstandings," God does not see it that way. He calls it sin. "Every idle word" must be accounted for at the judgment. One author made the point more potently by referring to the problem as "idol words."1 For that is what they are. When we use our speech — a gift from God, an evidence of His image, an expression of His creative and sustaining power, a vehicle designed to praise Him — to satisfy our own egotistical drives, we are engaging in nothing less than idolatry.

Once we grasp these misunderstandings for what they are, we begin to see that the nature of the problem is often primarily not semantic, but spiritual. Misunderstandings and arguments are effective tools of Satan to further divide kingdom-builders. If he can't beat 'em, he can at least get 'em really frustrated and ineffective. The Apostle James noted as much when he claimed that such divisions in the church are "earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there" (Jas. 3:15-16 NKJV).

James was not the only one to observe Satan's deceitful use of words. William Shakespeare (an apostle in some critic's minds) also observed and captured this pernicious tendency in his macabre masterpiece Macbeth. In the opening scene, the Weird Sisters pronounce their Satanic theme, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," indicating the destructive chaos to follow. Honest but naïve Banquo sees through Satan's deceptive manipulation of words when he exclaims, "What! Can the Devil speak the truth?"2 Indeed, he can and does when it suits his purposes. The selfish Macbeth is ultimately destroyed by a series of "simple misunderstandings" induced by Satan's chaotic tampering with words.

So how can we avoid this snare of Satan? What can we do to keep our tongues from senseless wrangling that does not honor God or assist His kingdom? Here are a few suggestions that may serve to immunize us against this evil:

Develop a Relationship with the Divine Speaker
This point should be obvious, yet because it is vital to our purpose it must be mentioned. God is the Author of words. He made them to communicate His thoughts to us. He created and sustains the universe by His puissant vocabulary. (Heb. 1:1-4 NKJV) Hence, if our words are to be effective, they must reflect the clarity of His words.

Study His Words
There can be no substitute for examining God's communication to man if we hope to communicate effectively. An especially helpful study would be that of Christ's communication with His disciples.3 Understanding how He patiently interacted with His ragamuffin band should serve as a model in our dealings with other believers.

Remain Humble
Nothing helps more in a confrontation than a humble spirit, a spirit that is willing to admit error. And nothing is more lethal to the cause of Christ than a person convinced he can do no wrong. If "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," (Pr. 9:10 NKJV) we would do well to check our pride at the door of every conversation.

Build Our Vocabulary
If we are to avoid dissension caused by misunderstood words, we must make every attempt to understand words. Simple enough. But doing it requires discipline. We can build our vocabulary in three main ways:

By reading. Reading good books exposes us to words used in a realistic setting. Implied in this statement is the assumption that we would be reading books that actually stretch our vocabulary. (The latest Harry Potter simply won't do.) Likewise, words written by authors long deceased in ages veiled by time force us to expand our grasp of language beyond our cultural comfort zone.

By listening. "A wise man will hear and increase learning." (Pr. 1:5 NKJV) Listening is an art best practiced by the silent. In other words, the vocabulary student's ratio of speaking to listening should be heavily in favor of the latter. That is not to say we should never speak, for we are improving our grasp of words precisely so that we can speak effectively. But more arguments are won by first listening studiously, then talking distinctly.

By studying. Studying words is perhaps the most practical bit of advice one could give to improve communication. Understanding the etymology of words — origins, roots, prefixes, suffixes — will enable us to wield our words with both care and accuracy. A daily routine assists in this endeavor. Consider investing in one of the many excellent resources designed to build vocabulary on a daily basis.4

Take a logic course. I know what you're thinking. Who has time for that? But when we consider that logic is the art and science of thinking (and we all think occasionally) the question may better be: Who doesn't have time to learn how to think? Most community colleges offer courses in introductory logic that can be audited. If you prefer the self-help method, several good tapes, texts, and workbooks are available to learn in the comfort of your home.5 Think about it.

Rely on a dictionary. If all else fails. Consulting a dictionary is perhaps the easiest of these tips, yet it is often the most neglected step in any discussion. Time and again, speakers and listeners alike never take the time to look up the words they are employing to define their terms. Consequently, they spiral into a morass of mutterings that do not enrich the hearers and do make the speakers seem silly indeed. This quandary can be remedied easily by ensuring convenient access to a dependable dictionary at all times. And learn how to use it!

Anyone who still doubts the importance of words need only recall that when God chose to communicate His holy standard of righteousness, He chose words. In fact, the Ten Commandments are often referred to by their literal meaning of the Ten Words. Imagine the chaos that would have ensued if God's vocabulary had been hastily assembled, arrogantly spoken, and poorly constructed. Oh, wait I guess it would look something like the chaos we have created in the church today.


1. Tripp, Paul David. War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Our Communication Struggles. Available through Christian Counseling & Education Foundation, Glenside, PA (

2. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Act I Scene 3.

3. Fortunately, A.B. Bruce recorded an invaluable study on this very topic in 1871. It has been republished in a format conducive to daily studies. Bruce, A.B. The Training of the Twelve: Timeless Principles for Leadership Development (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications), 1971.

4. I have found the Word Smart tomes published by the Princeton Review to be effective and user-friendly, although every major bookstore offers multitudinous volumes to assist in this endeavor.

5. A classic and brief work is Logic by Gordon Clark, especially helpful when accompanied by his recorded lectures and more recent workbook by Elihu Carranza, although other able resources also exist.

  • William Blankschaen
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