The world is complex. Any way we slice it, no matter how many pieces, we will never boil it down to any single piece. Human language, however, is our attempt to communicate an understanding of this complex world in the form of mere sounds and shapes that are much simpler than the world itself. Additionally, these sounds and shapes are arbitrarily chosen (the sounds and letters in “dog” were not chosen because of any inherent resemblance to an actual dog). We then take these arbitrary correlations and make them into a standard (such as the Dictionary) so that there can be some organization to the system (definitions are “right” and “wrong,” and we base words on other words), because without a standard we would not be able to use these correlations to communicate in any way, as they are arbitrary. This whole tool of language is a great concept, but when we forget these pieces of the nature of language, and begin to think that words themselves somehow correlate directly with the ideas they attempt to represent, we arrive at many dangers.
The system of words is, at its core, a form of simplification. It takes complex ideas in our heads and makes them simple so that they can be worked with. We often attempt to communicate, however, without remembering that words are not guidelines but simplifications. Thus, not only would a completely agreed upon system of language by every human be wholly inadequate (and probably impossible because the number of words required would be infinite), but we regularly do not agree on the meanings of words. Worst of all, we often assume we do, or that our definitions are the “correct” ones. Appealing to the Dictionary can help, but words change too, and thus there is really no standard of language possible.
On Using Words to Encourage
As Christians using words, we need to keep these weaknesses of language constantly in mind. What seems to happen often is that we have an incredible, real, important experience, and then we sum up that experience in words, and we proceed to use those words as if they were as powerful as the experience itself. This tends to do much more harm than good.
We may experience a great loss of which our current experience and understanding does not equip us to deal with through “pure joy” as James calls us to do. We sit in grief, and maybe even self pity, not comprehending that there is a bright future ahead. When we walk that journey of pain and weakness with God, He does his usual amazing works and pulls us into a place brighter than where we were before, and we find ourselves much stronger. As we are called to do, we share this story with excitement.
A problem arises when we encounter another person in the stages of deep grief and potentially self pity, and we share the simplest form of our story with them in an attempt to “encourage” them. We say something like “just trust God” or quote a Bible verse. Our intentions may be good, but the reality is that what it took to pull us out of our dark place is not conveyed to them simply by the sounds coming out of our mouths. Unless that experience is in them to be stirred, those words will not stir in them what it does in us, because we speak those words from an experience we have had. Worse, we often shame them for not responding to our words the way we did to the experience.
Scripture talks about how some people need “milk,” basic and easy information, and others can eat solid food that is more difficult to understand and process (I Cor.). Even God uses this same idea when He deals with us and brings pain, journeys, and joy to our lives, as the different ways of threshing represents in the book of Isaiah. Likewise, we must remember that each person is at an entirely different place in life, and even if what a person needs is exactly what we have, we may not be able to give it to them. If we can, it will not be through words, but through giving them an experience of ourselves, and more importantly an experience of Christ in us. If our words are involved, it will more likely be by the telling of our story, which at the very least expresses to the person an understanding that life is complicated.
Strive every day to remember that, though words are useful, they are not adequate to convey the deepest needs of the human being. That can only be done through relational, spiritual experiences. Patience is probably what we need to give others more often than the “right” words. If you want to encourage, try to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans). That gives people the strongest possible experience of understanding that you can give. That’s the kind of thing that changes people’s lives.