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Big Meanings of Little Words

Monday July 17

Life and Work's much-loved columnist, the Very Rev Dr James Simpson, has chosen some of his favourite pieces from over 10 years of meditations.

In his third selection, from December 2009, he explores how Jesus alters our understanding of 'little words' such as 'life', 'love' and 'death'.


Dr Halford Luccock recalls how, when he was nine years of age, along with American friends of the same tender age, he became an atheist.

Keen to prove they were atheists, they decided to burn a Bible.

Having got the fire going at the foot of the yard, Hal went up to his father’s study and brought down the heavy hard bound volume.

They were understandably upset when, having placed the book on the bonfire, they discovered it did not burn as easily as they had thought.

Their disappointment increased when Hal’s father returned home earlier than usual, and pointed out that the book they had on the bonfire was not his Bible, but his dictionary.

I share that story because connection between the Bible and the dictionary goes far beyond outward appearance.

The dictionary depends on the Bible for the meaning of many of its greatest words – words like God, love, life and death.

Whereas we need the dictionary to understand the meaning of big words, we need the Bible if we are to understand the all important little words.

We cannot throw away the Bible without doing something destructive to the dictionary.

The word God resembles a picture frame. All important is the mental picture we put into the frame. Our problem today is not sculptured idols or metal images. It is the false mental images many have of God.

In Les Miserables, Inspector Javert, in the hope of collecting incriminating evidence against Jean Valjean, relentlessly pursues him, noting everything he does and says. Prior to Jesus’ coming into the world, many thought of God like that: as an oppressive tyrant, recording in a great book people’s misdeeds and secret thoughts, a God who harboured grudges and plotted vengeance.

Jesus sought to free his contemporaries from such misleading mental images of God. When you think of God, He said, think in terms of a caring shepherd, or a forgiving father running to welcome his prodigal son. For the first time, his hearers were ‘glad about God’.

Jesus also gave a new meaning to the word ‘love’. For him there was so much more to love than romance, or the warm feeling that comes from helping those who are easy to like. Christ-like love is costly, caring love, shown not only to attractive people but also to difficult folk.

Jesus taught that, without caring forgiving love in our hearts, we have the worst type of heart trouble, that bitterness deforms us. An unforgiving spirit is in fact a boomerang.

Jesus also gave a deeper meaning to the word ‘life’. He taught that there is far more to life than two dates on a tombstone, more than getting and spending, that life is a trust to be used not for selfish gain or self-glorification, but in the interests of the great human family. Jesus believed that life is more about finding something worth doing and losing ourselves in it, than making something of ourselves. “He who would be great among you let him become the servant of all.” Service to others is the rent we pay for our room on earth. How easy it is to fall behind with the rent.

Jesus also transformed people’s thinking about death, life’s final mystery. He taught that there is more to death than dust and ashes.

Thomas Wolfe, a man of deep faith, who died aged 38, expressed well the Christian understanding of death. He wrote: “Death is to lose the earth we know for greater knowing; to lose the life we have for greater life; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”

I am not over-concerned whether people ever understand the big words, but throughout my ministry I have been passionately concerned that they should share Jesus’ understanding of the all-important little words.


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James A Simpson's books, written to raise funds for cystic fibrosis research, are published by Steve Savage and available in shops and online.