In the American South, children are taught to address their elders as ma’am or sir. It can sound endearing to my more casual northern ears, but there is a special term for this type of appellation. It’s called an honorific, and it can make or break relationships in some cultures. In Japan or Korea, two individuals need to know their relative age and social status so they can use the correct language when talking to each other, particularly in the context of commerce. Anyone trying to do international business will hopefully get a cultural crash course in such things as how low to bow, whether to bow or shake hands at all, what kinds of gifts might be expected upon meeting, and the proper titles that should be used to address someone.
Where I live, people tend to default to Mr. or Sir, or if they’re in a shop or restaurant; “Boss.” I had an experience while traveling recently where the owner of the bed and breakfast I was staying at asked me to call him “coach” instead of “boss.” It turned out he’s a dive instructor, and led our group out snorkeling. It created a sense of respect—or even trust—on the excursion, because in my mind I was already thinking of him as the coach.
On that same trip, our group ate at this hole-in-the-wall type restaurant run by a lone elderly man who took great pride in the 10-course feast he cooked up for us. In chatting with him later, he asked us to call him “cousin” instead of boss. It seemed fitting, as the experience really did feel more like a family meal than a quick service transaction.
Another jewelry vendor I chatted with turned out to be a mother tongue instructor at the local elementary school. Suddenly it was not a transactional relationship anymore, but we could converse as educator to educator about things of interest to us both. I thought of each of these people I met briefly on my trip cultural informants, but their stories stayed with me because I did have a name (or title) to pair with that experience or conversation.
While these “island life” stories might serve to highlight some fun experiences, the deeper truth they reveal is something I’d like to explore. The names we choose to use when talking about others, or even just in our own minds, significantly alter how we approach our relationship to them. In the Bible, there are so many names for God, each revealing different aspects of God’s character. A quick Google search reveals such results as “72 names of God in Hebrew,” “900+ names and titles of God,” and “Seven names of God which are so holy they cannot be erased once written down.” Thinking on these names is a helpful spiritual practice at different times, but even the word God can mean very different things to different people.
Stepping outside of Christianity for a minute, we might hear people referring to the universe, or the forces of good, or someone up there. But what does God ask us to call him? His answer sounds surprisingly similar to these things. The first story that comes to mind is Moses and the burning bush. When faced with this consuming fire, Moses wanted to know whom he should tell the people he’d heard from. Maybe he was hoping for something like “The Destroyer” or “The Breaker of Chains” (after all, this was the God of a slave nation). Maybe he was expecting it to be the God of the sun, moon or stars, since he’d grown up in Egypt where such things were worshipped as deities. Instead the answer is, simply “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). But the words and context are loaded with meaning that is anything but simple. The very source of existence is not impersonal after all, but cares about the plight of the oppressed. God is a relational God, and in this passage reminds the people of his promises to the forefathers of the nation. This God is a God who does not forget.
This article is not meant to be an exercise in Old Testament scholarship though. In addition to asking what we should call God, we can also ask what does God call us? Jesus answers this question in John 15:15 (NIV) when he says “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Songs are sung about this. Sermons are written about this.
But what would our lives look like if we let this title of ‘friend’ dictate how we relate to Jesus? A friend is someone who we trust, love spending time with, can’t wait to share things with, and much more. As I illustrated in the beginning of this post, language can be used to create—or keep—a proper transactional distance or it can bring about a closer relationship based on trust, intimacy and common ground. Maybe this is why the Holy Spirit helps us when we pray and cry out “Abba, Father,” bridging the gap between our sin, our suffering, and the forgiving God who is longing to bring is near to him.
Spend some time this week thinking on what words you use in your conversations with and about God. What do they reveal about you and your relationship with God? I have a theory that different denominations and generations have preferred terms for the Lord that they use in prayer or talk but it’s speculation based purely on patterns I’ve observed. However, if there are certain terms that elicit negative associations for you, be comforted that the Creator goes by many names. Remember, the words we choose to sing, say, and think create meaning and reality deeper than our awareness, defining the way we act and relate.
P.S. I used the word God 19 times in this 900-word article. Perhaps that reveals something about me.
Charlotte is on the Editorial team at boldcupofcoffee.com and currently works with a non-profit organization in Taiwan where she teaches, leads English Bible studies, writes educational materials, trains teachers, poses for pictures, and a bunch of other stuff too. She is originally from Canada, spending significant amounts of time in all three westernmost provinces and the idea of home has become quite fluid. She has learned that life overseas is not as exotic as people may think, but life with God is a daily adventure.
CONNECT WITH US
SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL
Privacy: We hate spam as much as you, so we will never share your e-mail address with anyone.
SUBSCRIBE TO THIS BLOGS RSS FEED
AND GET ARTICLE UPDATES