• When Words Fail


    As part of my studies in college, I had to take a course in linguistics. I remember a professor explaining the Whorfian Hypothesis, which asserted that our concept of the world cannot exceed the limits of our language to describe it.  In other words, only as we have the vocabulary to capture something can we truly apprehend that reality in its complexities.

    My cognitive psychology prof would probably give me a B- for that explanation, but it does serve my point.  Language limits us, both in our own understanding of things and in expressing those things to the understanding of others.

    If that’s true on a ordinary level, how much more true is it on a metaphysical level!  For example, have you ever tried to describe to someone how much you love them?  To the degree of the intensity and complexity of your love, whatever words you muster invariably fall short.

    To help in expression, you lengthen words into phrases or pile on the adjectives.  “I love you a lot, a whole lot, from the pit of my being.” Or, “I love you very, very, very, very, very much.”

    Or you may resort to pictures, analogies for your love. “My love for you is higher than the highest mountain, deeper than the deepest sea.”  “I love you more than a vulture on road kill.” (Maybe that’s carrion it a bit too far.)

    What about when we want to praise the God we love?  The psalms give us a vast vocabulary to do the job, each with its own nuance:  magnify, extol, exalt, lift up, glorify, bless, worship, etc.   The words are there, but they don’t do justice to what our heart feels, let alone to what our God deserves.

    Again, we employ phrases and analogies to assist us.  Like stretches before exercise, we’ll pile on biblical expression in an attempt to expand our view of God to help us magnify His name. “O Lord of hosts, You who number the stars, set them in their course and call them each by name. You hold the oceans in the hollow of Your hand.” But even these efforts, while making our expression more poetic, come up short of our goal.

    Perhaps that’s the genius of song.  I know when I sing words like these, my heart soars.

    O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder

    Consider all the works thy hand hath made,

    I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,

    Thy power throughout the universe displayed;



    Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,

    How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

    Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,

    How great Thou art, how great Thou art!


    And when I think that God his son not sparing,

    Sent him to die – I scarce can take it in,

    That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,

    He bled and died to take away my sin:




    God has placed a new song in our hearts, a song of salvation and deliverance.  He has tuned our hearts to sing His praise.  So maybe song is the way to break the bounds of vocabulary.

    Yet when it comes down to it, no words could suffice.   The truths our minds know about God cannot find terminology sufficient to the task.  On top of that, God is greater than our limited minds could comprehend—ever, even in glory.  Even the expressions of praise He gives us in the psalms and elsewhere reflect His accommodation to us to bring the words He uses down to a level we can grasp.

    Benjamin Whorf is right. Language is limiting.  But the inadequacy of our words does not diminish or deny the realities we strive to grasp.   Perhaps that’s one of the things Paul has in mind when he says that “the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).   We typically find comfort through that teaching in our angst, but maybe they apply to our feeble lisps of praise as well.  I’d like to think so.

Comments are closed.