Turn with me again to the world of lost words. I’ve been contemplating words of our faith which have fallen into disuse. My assertion is that with the changing of language—and thus the rise of new words and the disappearance of others—we must be careful that we do not also experience a loss of meaning. Language is always in flux. New words are wonderful for they can open nuances of meaning which we may not have considered before. But when old words flame out the new words that rise in their place may not shine with the same precise meaning. This can be hazardous to our faith. We should welcome the new while remembering the old.
In that vein, consider the word conversation. Here is an example of a word which has not fallen out of use entirely, for we use it frequently to refer to verbal communication, but one aspect of its original meaning now is foreign to us.
The English word traces its roots ultimately to the Latin word conversationem, which literally means “turn about with.” Thus the word described the “act of living with” and meant “to live with, keep company with.” It originally had the connotation of “having dealings with others” and the manner in which one conducted himself in the world. Our friends at Merriam-Webster now list this as an “obsolete” meaning of the word.
Things might clear up as you consider the following Scriptures.
2 Corinthians 1:12b
KJV: “… in simplicity and godly sincerity … we have had our conversation in the world.”
NASB: “… in holiness and godly sincerity … we have conducted ourselves in the world.”
KJV: “For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God …”
NASB: “For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure …”
KJV: “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.”
ESV: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
KJV: “Let your conversation be without covetousness.”
NET: “Your conduct must be free from the love of money.”
Scanning these verses, you may well be glad we don’t use the word conversation in this sense any longer. I’m with you. But, given its original meaning and background, you may be wondering how the word came to even be used as it is today. Apparently the word did not come to have the specific sense of “talking” until about 1580. How did the meaning move from how one behaves among or lives with others to one’s communication with others via speech? Does the transformation of this word’s meaning say more about my behavior (original meaning) or about my speech (current, popular meaning)?
As I contemplate this transformation of usage, I wonder if it doesn’t say something significant in both directions–about both how I live my life and use my words.
On the one hand, this means my behavior (i.e., manner of life) says something. My actions communicate. My manner of life declares and makes a statement.
About me! About who and what I am. About whose I am. My behavior declares something about my character, essence, core, and nature. It speaks volumes about my ultimate allegiances, the bedrock foundation of my life, was well as my hopes and dreams. All that I do is a statement–the question is, of course, what am I saying?
On the other hand, this means our words are more powerful that we may realize. They shape and define the nature of our relationships. They determine the tenor and flavor of our interactions with the world in which God has placed us. They possess the power to give life or to inflict death (Prov. 18:21). Words are not simply sounds made into vacuous space; not mere sound waves riding upon the winds of time. Our words do something. They are interpersonal connections. They are conduits of life and shappers of lives.
I’m not lobbying to return to the word “conversation” instead of “manner of life” or “conduct.” I am, however, reminding myself that both what I do and what I say (and how I do and say them) are the major connectors and conduits of Christ’s life within me to the people He has placed me among.
Actions speak louder than words.
Words do more than we know.
For this reason Christ has commandeered both our words and our actions for His divine purposes. We are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price–and Christ secured the rights to both our words and our works as part of the deal.