Language gets us into trouble when we fail to understand that all words are symbolic. The richness of symbols is that they deal in nuance and multiple meanings; they are not precise and seldom command universally shared understanding.

If I say chair in Tokyo, the person to whom I speak might picture something like this:

chair Tokyo

If I say “chair” to a person in North America, they might imagine this:

Lazy Boy

In Africa, “chair” might point to this:

“Chair” is a relatively simple concept. So, as different as these visions of “chair” might be, they have a lot in common. The more complex the concepts, the more difficult it is to find common ground and easily shared understandings.

When we attempt to speak of the hidden mysterious realities of life, we are driven to extend our imagination beyond simple concrete nouns that carry a relatively shared meaning.

When we use language to speak of the deepest mysteries of life and faith, we do well to keep in mind the challenge God gave Job after Job had spoken so many ill-considered words about God.

God finally addressed Job in chapter 38 asking,

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? (Job 38:2)

God went on to ask another 62 questions all of which were a variation of this first question – why are you talking so much when you do not know what you are talking about?

The words we use in speaking about God may be true, but they are profoundly limited. Human language can never exhaust or encapsulate the deep truths to which they point.

William Johnston captured the paradox of language when he wrote,

definitions, being expressed in human language, are imperfect; they are inadequate to contain perfectly the great truths that they express – the dogmatic expression of the Trinity, for example, is a weak and stammering, yet true, expression of the great reality that is the life of God. It is precisely the light of faith that enables the believer to see in these human formulations the tremendous truth of the triune God.  Therefore these conceptual formulations are little, insofar as they cannot exhaust the reality they express; they are great, as truly pointing to something that is infinite…words and sentences used about God in theology and Scripture are great because they are true, but they are little because so imperfect….the things of God are totally removed from any concepts or images we may have of them. (The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing 62, 63)

Language is both true, because it points to deep realities, and at the same time, not true, because it is limited in its ability to contain those realities to which it points.

The Psalmist says of God,

Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. (Psalm 77:19)

We falter when we think we have nailed down those “footprints” that are “unseen”.

The prophet Isaiah says,

Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel the Savior. (Isaiah 45:15)

Even Paul puts a check on the presumption of human arrogance that believes it can capture the reality of God when he affirmed,

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:33, 34a)

The Greek word translated as “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” is the same word. Paul uses the word “anexichniastos” to speak of our ability to know God’s ways; it means “that cannot be comprehended”.  God’s judgements, God’s ways, God’s mind cannot be “comprehended” by our lesser minds.

All language is a signpost pointing beyond itself to the deeper reality it seeks to signify. To settle down and revere the signpost believing it is the end of our journey, is to settle for less than the empowering presence of the living God to whom the Spirit prompts us to open our hearts.