For those Americans who have had the experience of studying Japanese (or any foreign language), they can understand that is no easy task. Some would go so far to say that among the world’s most commonly spoken languages, there are no two tongues so different in grammar, form and use than English and Japanese.
With Japanese clocking in at an average of 2,200 class hours over 88 weeks (1.69 years) to gain basic proficiency (however researchers in this case define it) [reference], it’s easy to be tempted to look for any type of shortcut available.
Missionaries to all nations can resort to a number easy-road methods, for example:
- Skipping reading/writing to focus solely on speaking/listening (particularly for languages that use non-roman alphabets or Chinese characters).
- Bulking up on vocabulary to help them fake it with what’s really a limited understanding of grammar.
- Cutting short their education and study for the stuff of “real missions.”
Why do we do it? Because it’s hard.
After traveling how many thousand miles, who wants to sit in a classroom or with a tutor for 2+ years while they watch the people they came for walk by just outside the glass?
The Gift of Tongues
One particular favorite shortcut among we charismatics is praying for the gift of tongues, particularly the supernatural ability to speak a language. Friends have often asked me if I prayed for the ability to speak Japanese, and many have prayed or offered to pray for me to receive Japanese fluency supernaturally. Of course, I always accept these prayers—it would be foolish to deny such a gift if God offers it—but I’m not particularly keen on seeking it myself. I’m often reminded of a story from the biography of Hudson Taylor (a man credited for the being the first to successfully bring the Gospel to inland China).
Hudson Taylor & Tongues
At the time of the story, Taylor had already made huge strides in his ministry. He was known for his ability to fully submerge himself into the culture, being one of the few western ministers to adopt Chinese hairstyles and don traditional clothing. His humility towards the culture enabled him to preach the Gospel where none had ever done so before.
Language is More Than Words
What Taylor recognized that the Cambridge Seven didn’t was that communication is about more than just words. Language is about a deep understanding of the root culture—where the language comes from, why they choose the phrases they do, what is left unsaid. When it comes to Japan, it’s every bit as much about when or what not to speak as it is about what you say.
Taylor knew that if his new missionary brothers didn’t take the time and put in the hard work to learn the language, they would never understand the heart of the Chinese. Furthermore, they would never be forced to humble themselves in the same way that Christ did.
Jesus Learned the Language
For those in a hurry to “start their ministry” for whatever reason, it’s a good a time as any to remind you that Jesus wasn’t in a hurry, and he certainly didn’t take any shortcuts or use miracles to make things easier for himself. If anything his performance of signs and wonders drew harsh criticism and saw his ministry conclude in abandonment by everyone he loved. Indeed, the miracles and power Christ walked in were not for self-service and glorification, but for the benefit of those around him and the glorification of the Father.
We know that Jesus was about 33 years old when he was crucified and that his ministry was approximately three or four years long, meaning that he didn’t even start his public ministry until he was 29 or 30. This of course begs the question, what on Earth (literally) was he doing until he started?
Luke says this about Jesus as a child:
Then, covering the span of time between the age of 12 and 29, Luke gives us the following:
There’s two big things that jump out of this verse at me:
1) One that in both verses the scriptures say that Jesus grew, the implication being that he was not already but had to become the man that God had called him to be. It should be shocking to us that God, whose power knows no limit, took the humblest of roads and learned at home from his parents and at the synagogue just like the other Jewish children.
2) And two, that Jesus had to grow in favor with man as well as God. Certainly not even Jesus escaped the frustrations of childhood or the awkwardness of adolescence. Jesus needed to have this experience in order to be like us, as the scriptures state:
The long and the short of it is this: if Jesus had to humble himself to learn our lifestyle and language for thirty years, what makes us think we can do it less than two? Or for that matter, ten or fifty or a lifetime?
Language learning is in itself a humble ministry of the kind Christ demonstrated.
Understand the Gifts
It would be easy to read this essay and assume that my point is to criticize those who seek after the gift of tongues or by extension any spiritual gift. But to read it that way would be to miss the greater point. Of course we should seek after the gifts of the spirit, as Paul commands us to “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 14:1 NIV). However, it would be catastrophic for us to have the pride to think that those gifts were ever meant to be self-serving–a means to short cut real work. The scriptures say as much:
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)
These gifts are not for us to use to take shortcuts in life, but for us to serve the Body of Christ and the world to whom he sent us for the sake of his name.
I have no doubt that there will be those who disagree and would insist that praying for supernatural language acquisition should be eagerly sought after.
However, in an age where vacation-style short-term mission trips and highest-ever levels of missionary attrition clearly demonstrate western Christianity’s lack of any backbone, I can say confidently that the last thing any of us need are more shortcuts.