OPINION: Learning the language of the soul

I recently found myself wishing I were more proficient in linguistics, as the life of faith sometimes feels like struggling to understand a language completely foreign to me. While I am fairly proficient in “the language of the realm,” my spiritual challenge at the moment is “the language of the soul.”

I’ve never been great at languages. I wish I were. A natural linguistic facility would have made my years of learning biblical languages (or living in foreign countries, for that matter) slightly less trying.

Language study, I understand, comes with ease to some people. I have great admiration for and not a small amount of jealousy toward people who can pick up a new language with ease and flair.

Amy Butler
I recently found myself wishing I were more proficient in linguistics, as the life of faith sometimes feels like struggling to speak and understand using a language completely foreign to me. How I wish, if I have to struggle like this, that I was learning Mandarin Chinese or even moving toward fluency in Spanish.

Nope. It seems that, while I am fairly proficient in “the language of the realm,” my spiritual challenge at the moment is learning to speak and understand “the language of the soul.”

This is, of course, just another way to say that the discipline of trying to see the world and my life through God’s eyes is hard, because I’ve long learned to view them from another perspective.

My custom is to express my deepest longings, hardest questions, and most essential part of who I am, not with God’s language -- the language of the soul -- but more often with the expressive tools of the world around me -- the language of the realm.

Here, for example, is the language most familiar to me: I want to succeed; I need to read more books/take more classes/get more degrees; if I do/be/accomplish (fill in the blank), then I will have lived a good life.

Sound familiar, anybody?

To be fair, speaking of my life in these terms has paid off, by most estimations. There are many parts of my life that seems successful: my resume is filled with bullet points that might impress at least some people; I often get the impression that folks think I appear to know what I am talking about; I have a family and dear friends surrounding me.

I can’t help speaking in the language of the realm when I talk about achievement. I credit much of what I have to the first words I learned in the language of the realm: accomplish, succeed, achieve. And, I can engage most anyone in a conversation about such things when I use the language of the realm.

But I’ve also noticed that that longer I walk on this path of life, the less the language of the realm seems to be working. Sometimes words and sentiments spoken in the language of the realm just don’t ring true. They’re shiny and promising on the outside but awfully hollow inside.

For example, you can walk across a stage and get a really nice-looking diploma, but you can work, day in and day out, in a job that kills your soul a little bit at a time.

You can fill your life with relationships, but you can’t force anybody to keep a promise.

You can project a public persona some would describe using words like: powerful, influential, handsome, eloquent, but you can spend lonely nights crying with the fear of not being good enough the next time.

This is what can happen if you only speak the language of the realm, if you narrate your life with just this language.

Learning the language of the soul, on the other hand, changes everything.

When you speak the language of the soul, you speak in terms like this: success in this life doesn’t always look like the world’s idea of success; grief and pain can be gifts…just think of everything I’ve learned by living through this!; loving God and loving my neighbor are the most important tasks I can put my efforts toward; I am a precious child of God.

What would life be like, I wonder, if I could gain -- if not a fluency, then at least a proficiency -- in the language of the soul?

Would I revel in the quiet?
Would I be overwhelmed with gratitude for the many gifts of my life?
Would I love better, deeper, more fully?
Would I hear the voice of God more clearly?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be truly fluent in the language of the soul. There’s too much conditioning that’s already happened, I’m afraid. But if I could just gain a small ability to communicate, the thought that I might narrate my life with new words, different words, I think everything could change.

Amy Butler is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. She blogs at Talk With the Preacher. This column was distributed by Associated Baptist Press.