Monthly Archives: September 2018

Faithful and Just

You have probably heard someone quote 1 John 1:9, perhaps in its immediate context:

8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
(1 John 1:8-10 ESV)

I’ve often thought of this as a “Jesus forgives” sandwich on “we sin” bread. That is, I saw verses 8 and 10 as saying basically the same thing, with the sole purpose of supporting v9. But I looked at it more closely recently, and I think John is saying something important here, that we don’t want to miss.

I think this point has to do with two basic human desires: to be right, and to be in relationship. Looking at verse 8, we might see the following structure:1John 1:8 mapThat is, we have a basic if/then structure (with an implied then). The if clause contains something we may say about ourselves: we have no sin. This is maybe not something we would say straight out like that, but I think a decent summary would be “I’m right”. Have you never said this? I have. “My condition/position does not contain flaws.” This is a statement about who I am, which is very important in these days of identity wars.

So what is the consequence of saying “I’m right”? In this verse they are twofold. First, we deceive ourselves. This is, I think, the most fundamental flaw with a worldview that states “I decide/declare who I am”; there is no way to handle self-deception (which is visible in the most basic understanding of human psychology).

The second consequence of saying “I’m right” is that the truth is not in us. Or, you could say we are wrong. In this way, a direct consequence of insisting I’m right is proving that I’m wrong. My insisting that my personal status is “correct” or “OK” makes my personal status “incorrect” and “Not OK”. So much for my desire to be right.

Verse 10, on the other hand, deals with actions and relationship:1John 1:10 mapAgain we have an if/then structure, and again the if clause has to do with something we say about ourselves. But this time the statement is not we have no sin, but we have not sinned (or perhaps “I have not done wrong”). While the difference may seem trivial, I think it interesting that the if clause in v10 is talking about what we say about our actions, whereas the if clause in v8 was talking about who we are, or our status. Yes, there is a sense in which if we do right/wrong, we are right/wrong, and vice versa, but they are not exactly the same thing.

So what are the consequences of saying ”I have not done wrong”? Again, they are twofold. First, we make him [out to be] a liar. (The words in brackets are present in other translations, and are correctly implied even in the ESV, I believe; the verse cannot mean we succeed in changing God’s status to “liar”.) Given that this verse is talking about our actions, what are the implications of this action? I cannot think of many people who would bear being called a liar when they are telling the truth. Claiming that you tell the truth, and that God lies, must have repercussions on your relationship with him.

The second consequence of saying “I have not done wrong” is that [God’s] word is not in us. That is, not only am I personally insulting my creator, but I’m also showing that I don’t speak for him when I speak —since his word contradicts mine. I think this point is aimed at people who want to be seen as doing right on their own terms, but also to identify with, speak for, or somehow represent God. But John says you cannot insult God and claim to speak for him in the same breath. When you say “I have not done wrong”, you represent yourself, not God.

So we have two kinds of misrepresentation here. The “I’m right” claim about my status, which shows that my status is in fact wrong, and the “I have not done wrong” claim about my relationship with God, which shows that I am in fact not representing God (but rather in rebellion to him and his word).

So how does John address these two misrepresentations? This is where we get to v9(a):1John 1:9a mapAgain we have an if/then clause, though here the then clause is not about ourselves, but about God. The if clause is we confess our sins, or we agree about our wrongs. This is incompatible with each of “I’m right” and “I have not done wrong”. What is interesting about confession/agreement here, is that God’s truthful position doesn’t change in these three verses. He knows and declares that we are sinners who sin. The only question is, will we agree with him, or will we insist on our own “truth”?

If we confess our sins, God is two things for us: faithful and just. These two attributes account for our failures as described in verses 8 and 10. That is, while v8 says our insistence on being right shows that we are wrong, God remains right/just. And while v10 says our insistence that we have not done wrong shows our rebellion against God, God remains faithful to us. So if we have two great desires, to be right and to be in relationship, we fail at each of them when we insist on our own terms. But agreeing with God about our sin results in God’s justice/rightness and faithfulness/relationship to be expressed to us.

So how is that justice and faithfulness expressed? Verse 9 continues:1John 1:9b mapThat is, God’s justice is not expressed only in his wrath against us (as Martin Luther thought before his conversion), and his faithfulness to us is not expressed in simply overlooking our sins (as many people seem to think today). The two things he does to express his justice and faithfulness in this verse are to forgive and to cleanse. Each of these is done to us. But again, we see the binary issue of status and relationship addressed. That is, God forgives our sins, addressing the things we have done. But he also cleanses us from all unrighteousness, addressing the question of our status.

So the justice and faithfulness of God come together to make us just and faithful to him, when we confess our sin. I think it is crucial in understanding this, that we accept the following:

  • Sin is real.
  • Sin is a problem.
  • Attaining a desire either to be right or to be in relationship requires solving that problem.
  • We cannot solve the problem by simply asserting that it is solved, nor by denying it.

The value of what God promises in v9, then, is that there is an answer to the problem of sin, which avoids denial and proclamation of self-godhood, and which provides for the desired rightness and relationship. That answer acknowledges sin, and it requires us to acknowledge sin, too (v9a: If we confess our sins). Furthermore, that answer addresses the problem of sin directly, by cleaning us from it, and by removing our “unrighteous” status.

So where do we go from here? Based on the above, the first step to fulfilling your desires is to confess your sin, and trust God to clean you off. See his promise of cleanliness as a good thing, and ask him to make you clean. Stop depending on your own efforts to feel good about yourself; admit your denial, self-worship, and rebellion, and ask God to make you right and in relationship with him, as only he can.

A bit of a post-script: as I think about this passage as applied to my life, I identify with the desire for right standing much more than with the desire for relationship. I find it natural and easy to sacrifice relationship in defense of a just standard. But I know many people who seem to most naturally operate in the opposite manner, sacrificing a just standard for relationship. You may be one of them. But the good news for each of us is that in Christ, we don’t have to pick either justice or relationship; we get both. I get the confidence that God cares about my natural bent, but also the correction that his will for me includes not just my natural bent, but much more.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you.

(Matt 6:33 ESV)






Assignment Details

Francophone countries in blue; LST works in darker  blue countries
The LST domain is the central African Basin (darker) subset of the francophone African countries (blue). Yaoundé (captial of Cameroon) is starred.

We recently accepted an invitation to work in the Cameroon, on the Linguistics Service Team (LST). We’ve already begun sharing some of this informally, but I’ll describe the LST here, rather than leave anyone out. The basic facts are that my work won’t change, though the location and level of that work will.

The LST has been described as “a fairly loose association of linguists who work together on specific activities and come together to encourage each other”. I find this rather loose description encouraging, first because I have not worked in a team of linguists before (recall that I’m a missionary linguist). Everyone in Wycliffe has some knowledge of linguistics, but so far my interaction with other professional linguists has been limited to conferences, which I have attended maybe once a year. So I look forward to having other linguists look over my work, and to being able to help other linguists improve their work.

What will stay the same

The basic paradigm for my work will stay the same. As indicated in past newsletters, and in the Africa Night post, a lot of what I have done (and will continue to do) involves helping people get involved in the analysis of their own language. We use what we call Participatory Research Methodology, often sitting around a table sorting cards as a group. The purpose of this work remains twofold: to understand the sound system of a given language in order to develop a writing system for it, and to train a group of people who can take that writing system and do something with it.

What will change

While the basic paradigm of my work will remain the same, the geographic and academic scope will involve some changes. As the director described the Linguistics Service Team (LST) to me recently:

The vision of the team is to provide linguistics services that will help meet the needs of language communities, and translation projects, both SIL and with partner organisations, both in Cameroon and in the Central African Basin zone. A secondary vision is to help in the development of linguists, both expat and nationals at various levels and to provide a place where each linguist can belong and pursue their interests while working in a team.

I like this quote because it deals with a change in scope, in two dimensions.

Geographically, we’ll be working in Cameroon, but also in surrounding countries which have French as a national or official language (i.e., Francophone Africa). We plan to live in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, but we will help linguists and translation projects in other countries, such as Chad, (RO)Congo, Central African Republic, and maybe some day western DRCongo.

Administratively, I will also be working more actively to develop, train, and mentor other linguists, in order to multiply the people ready and able to do this work. This will involve bringing along assistants to workshops and identifying and mentoring leaders in each community, but also teaching at a university and seminary level. The goal, again, is to work more effectively to get more of the work done faster, without sacrificing quality.

Participatory Research Methods

I just realized I don’t have an article to refer to on this topic, while I’ve been using and talking about these methods for some years, so I’ll briefly describe what I mean here.

The term comes from “Participatory Research in Linguistics”, by Constance Kutsch Lojenga (1996). Others have used it, but the basic idea is to involve people in the analysis of their own language, as much as possible.

While this may seem a weird thing to have to say, many Field Methods courses in linguistics involve asking a naive speaker how to say things (or if saying something is grammatical), while the researcher takes notes. Those notes are not typically shared with the speaker, and it is relatively unimportant whether the speaker has any idea what is going on.

This is the paradigm that we are turning on its head, when we want to involve as many community members in the analysis, as much as possible.

Involving as many people as possible is good for our data, because it means we aren’t basing our analysis of the language on what just one person says. I join many in believing that language is a community property, not that of a single person. Yet it is not uncommon to have claims about a language made on the basis of a single person’s production. Involving more people can only increase our confidence that our data represents the language as a whole.

Involving as many people as possible is good for our analysis, as well. When I sit on the other side of a clipboard, and leave the “naive speaker” out of my thinking entirely, I’m looking at only half the problem. Sure, I can see how things look from the outside (etic), but I cannot see how things look from the inside (emic) anywhere near as well as can a native speaker of the language. Even if my analysis could be completely right without that inside perspective, its presence can confirm the rightness of that analysis. But working from both inside and outside the language allows more perspective to push the work forward faster, and on a more sure footing.

Involving as many people as possible is also good for the community of people who speak the language. I have no interest in finding out a lot of cool things about a language, publishing them and becoming famous (as if), and leaving the people who speak that language ignorant of the work. On the contrary, I think the community is best served by being as involved in the work as possible, so that as the work progresses, those who are most closely involved in the work can explain it to those around them —and typically in terms that might escape my attempts to do so. This accomplishes two things: it builds a cadre of people who are able to teach the analysis to others, and it increases the number and kind of people within reach of that teaching.

Consider the implications for literacy work. The above might not mean much to you if I’m dealing with some obscure syntactic phenomenon that you couldn’t even point out in English, like “Successive Cyclic Movement and Island Repair” (which is a real topic of conversation between some linguists, btw). But if I’m producing a booklet that should help literacy teachers teach people how to read, but no one understands the booklet, how will they teach people to read? On the other hand, when I finish a workshop, anywhere from three to fifteen people have a good idea what we’ve done, and could explain it to someone else. Maybe they’re not ready to be literacy teachers yet, but they are at least on their way there.

So involving as many people as possible is good for our data, for our analysis, and for the people we work with. Because I am strongly invested in all of these,  I use these methods almost exclusively.

There is a caveat: I’ve put “as much as possible” hedges above intentionally. I have a couple graduate degrees in linguistics, and I shouldn’t assume that everyone can understand everything I have figured out in a language, or even what I’m trying to figure out, or why. There are times where I have to accept the limits of the people I’m working on, and use what I can get from participatory methods. There are lots of things in my dissertation that I wouldn’t bring up with almost anybody, without some serious background conversation (and for some not even then). Rather, as I consider what is possible, I seek ways to simplify and explain what we’re doing so a subsistence farmer might be able to grasp it. This is why we use papers in workshops, rather than computers. This is why we stack them in piles, organizing them visually on a surface to show the differences between them. To invite and enable more participation, will only increase the value of our work.

Fluent Reading Makes Powerful Bibles

As we have thought through our messaging lately, one thing we saw friends do was develop a personal ministry hashtag. This is not just to try to be trendy (though hashtags are integral to communication these days), but to communicate a particular repetitive theme in a terse manner.

I think this was a good exercise, because it forced us to think about how we would summarize our Wycliffe Ministry in a few words, even if it was in the format #MyHashtagIsLongerThanYourHashtag…

So we came up with #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles, and I’d like to take this post to explain why. First of all, as a full sentence, I hope that it doesn’t require much explanation. 🙂

But to explain our thinking in any case, #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles makes a connection that I often find myself communicating face to face. That is, what do I do as a missionary linguist, and how does that connect to the larger Bible translation movement?

Thinking about #PowerfulBibles, something that has plagued some Bible translation projects is the question of whether the Bible will be used once produced. I think we all agree that a Bible on a shelf is not the point; we want Bibles in use, powerfully sustaining, encouraging and growing the church for the people who speak the language of that translation.

There are certainly many reasons why a Bible translation might get less usage, but the one that impacts my work the most directly deals with the fluency with which people can read the translation (#FluentReading). If people stumble over words they’re not sure how to pronounce (e.g., because a given spelling could be pronounced multiple ways), or if they have to read a sentence to understand it before they can pronounce all the words (therefore reading parts multiple times to pronounce the words correctly), then we should not expect reading or listening to be very enjoyable.

Such a lack of ability to clearly and fluently communicate meaning translates almost directly into a lack of power. If your mom calls you to the table, but stumbles over the words, would that mean the same to you? Or again, if your father corrects you, but stumbles over his words, would that mean the same? When we hear God say

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
(Isaiah 55:1 ESV)

This should sound as a mother calling children to the table, with power to provide, and pleasure on the other side for all who respond. And when we hear God say

let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
(Isaiah 55:7 ESV)

That should sound like a father disciplining a son, with power and fear for the rebellious, and compassion and pardon for the repentant.

We are, of course, not denying the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate in spite of a bad writing system. But He typically chooses to communicate through the written word, that written word is contained in one writing system or another. And that written word is turned into the spoken word by people more or less able to do so well.

The goal of my work developing writing systems is to remove as many barriers as possible to fluent reading, that the path of communication between God’s word and peoples’ hearts would be as clear and direct as possible. And this is why I’m going to keep talking about how #FluentReadingMakesPowerfulBibles.