Lilias Trotter and the Language Nobody Knows

As I write this, my wife Noël is in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she went to speak to a women’s conference. Among her topics was a biography of Lilias Trotter. Trotter went as a missionary to Algeria in 1888 and founded the Algiers Mission Band. One of the most remarkable things about her is that she was an accomplished painter before she left for Africa, one of the best artists in the nineteenth century according to John Ruskin. She gave up this career in exchange for dangerous journeys into Muslim regions where she won converts among Arabs, the French, Jews, and Black Africans.

Noël pointed me to one of her penetrating insights. It has profound implications for the spread of the Christian faith in our very secular world. I will quote it and then make some comments. Hang in there, because it is not simple to grasp at first. She wrote in 1929,

When we want a word for humility or hope or holiness, we can only borrow from the classical, dimly to be guessed at by ordinary readers. We write for a people yet unborn spiritually; the words will be understood when the realities for which they stand come to need expression. We have to make a spiritual language against the time it will be wanted. (I. Lilias Trotter, by Blanche A.F. Pigott, [London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott Ltd, n.d.], pp. 129-30)

It is not the question of just giving a Gospel in words that the people can understand, but to give them the germ of a spiritual language in which the things that the Holy Ghost teaches can be expressed. The dearth of this seems in the inverse ratio to the richness of the tongue for all secular purposes. . . . The words for spiritual realities have to be grafted on to the colloquial, waiting for the sap of the new life to weld them in and flow through them. (ibid., p. 137)

Think for a moment about how words relate to realities. The word “headache” exists because the experience exists. A person who has never had a headache can only guess what the word refers to. He can try to make an analogy: Maybe it’s like nausea in the head. Or take the word “chivalry.” If a man has no such noble inclinations—no matter how many definitions we use—he will not really know what we’re talking about.

Or let’s ask, “Why does the word obsequious exist?” It exists because over time discerning people saw a kind of attitude and behavior that needed a word to describe it. If you have not seen and sensed this kind of behavior, then hearing synonyms like fawning, toadying, or sycophantic will not waken this discernment.

What Lilias Trotter said was that words referring to spiritual realities must be used even when the audience—the culture, the century—may have no experience with which to fill the words. “The words will be understood when the realities for which they stand come to need expression. We have to make a spiritual language [which serves] the time it will be wanted.”

Imagine trying to communicate the reality of “holiness” and “reverence” to a gang of hardened criminals who hold only scorn for religion, and have no religious background. Imagine saying to them that the word of God is “sweet,” or that the “meek” will inherit the earth, or that faith apprehends the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” These are absolutely precious and crucial realities. They cannot be easily contained or conveyed in language which has been created and defined without these spiritual experiences.

In other words, Lilias Trotter was warning us against thinking that all crucial realities can be communicated in the language and categories people bring to the gospel. To be sure, the effort must be made to help people see new reality by using the words they already know as pointers. As she says, “The words for spiritual realities have to be grafted on to the colloquial.” But what will make understanding happen is the awakening of the new spiritual life, filling the grafted words with reality. Then, as she says, “The sap of the new life [will] weld them in and flow through them.”

So, as she concludes, we can’t simply assume that secular language can carry the spiritual reality we want to communicate. Rather, we must “give them the germ of a spiritual language in which the things that the Holy Ghost teaches can be expressed.” There are concepts and words and categories that may have to be introduced (grafted on to something familiar) so that precious realities can be understood. “The words will be understood when the realities for which they stand come to need expression.” Where the “richness of the tongue for all secular purposes” is greater, she says, there will be poverty of the tongue for spiritual purposes.

Therefore, let us apply ourselves to know the reality behind all biblical language. And let us labor to build as many bridges to our world as we can for this meaning to cross. But let us not be afraid to use the spiritual language of the Bible where it is foreign. When all our efforts at communicating are done, God must create the reality and fill the words.

 

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