When God speaks to us, church reformer John Calvin once said, He “lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children”. 

In other words, God speaks to us in baby talk. God does this, says Calvin, because He is love. God never forgets that no matter how old or how big we become, we are still helpless, dependent, unknowing babies as far as He is concerned.

In his book The Contemplative Pastor, theologian and author Eugene Peterson writes about the three languages that we learn in life: the language of intimacy, the language of information, and the language of motivation (or control and manipulation). 

The Language of Intimacy: Baby Talk

Our first language is the language of intimacy. This is what we learn from our mothers when they speak to us in baby talk and sing lullabies to us. This is the kind of love-talk that goes something like, “Oh, my darling baby, how Mummy loves you! You are so precious to me! Oh, my sweetie pie!” 

This language of love is associated with mothers because they speak to their babies the most, and it is from them that babies learn their first language. It is not accidental that this language is called “mother tongue”; we never refer to it as “father tongue”.

The Language of Information: Learning

As a child grows and starts going to school, he is introduced to the language of information. This is the educational language that teaches children what is “high” or “low”, and what is “green” or “red”. It has to do with letters and numbers. 

As the child goes through school, a growing vocabulary will be taught, enabling his interaction with the world around him. This language of information will take on greater importance than the language of intimacy; if the child is to successfully get through school, he must master this language.

The Language of Motivation: Control

The third language is what a child discovers when he becomes immersed in school culture. He will notice that when the teacher says, “sit”, “stand”, or “line up”, the children will follow her instructions. 

This is the point when the child discovers that words have the power to influence others and make them do things. This is the language of control or motivation: it is an important language that the child needs as he learns to interact with others. As he grows up, he has to learn how to use this language in the workplace.

Intimacy: the Forgotten Language

In the workplace, we have to master the languages of information and control. We need the former to make presentations or write reports, and the latter to motivate our colleagues or instruct our subordinates. 

In contrast, the language of intimacy tends to become a marginalised or forgotten language. It comes back when young people fall in love, during courtship, and in the early years of marriage. But even in the family, it can be largely discarded as life grows stressful and family members start to adopt a pragmatic approach in their communication.

When we speak to our children, the temptation is to use the languages we are good at—the languages of the workplace.

Even in our relationship with God, we tend to emphasise the languages of information and manipulation. When we pray, we often use the language of information. We bombard heaven with information, as if it does not know what is happening on earth. 

In fact, our Father in heaven already knows what we need even before we ask Him (Matthew 6:8). God’s promise is clear: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24). More than the pragmatic language of information, God wants to hear the intimate language of love.

The language of intimacy thrives on the ability to listen—not just to facts but also to feelings.

At other times, we may use the language of control in our prayers. We want God to act as we instruct Him. We try pressing earthly buttons to make heaven respond immediately. But this is not prayer, because prayer is essentially a relationship—a relationship that is nurtured mainly by the language of intimacy. 

This is why Jesus regularly prayed, addressing God as “Abba” or “Father”. The Lord’s Prayer that He taught is composed entirely with the language of intimacy. It is a prayer that focuses on the multi-faceted relationship we have with God (as Father, King, Lord, Provider, Protector, and so on).

Which Language Do You Use with Your Child?

The same principles should be observed when we communicate at home. Parents should learn to have conversations that use the language of intimacy. Instead of offering or asking for mere information (“Do you have any homework?” “When do you want me to pick you up?”), they can express feelings (“I appreciate what you have done.” “I missed you today.”), or say something about their relationship (“I’m so glad to have a son like you.” “I think we should spend more time together.”). Children observe their parents and learn from them.

In contrast, the language of intimacy tends to become a marginalised or forgotten language.

When we speak to our children, the temptation is to use the languages we are good at—the languages of the workplace. When we get home, we do not switch languages. Instead, we often speak the language of information to our children (“Did the teacher give you something for me to sign?” “When are your exam results?”). We also use the language of control (“Switch off the television.” “Finish your food.” “Share.” “Go to bed.”). 

If God our Father speaks to us with such tender love, should we earthly parents not do the same when we speak to our children?

Parents can be too tired or careless to try speaking the language of intimacy when speaking to their children (“Mummy and Daddy love you.” “You look tired, son; are you okay?” “How did you feel on your first day in a new class?”)

Intimacy: It’s About Listening and Relationship

The language of intimacy thrives on the ability to listen—not just to facts but also to feelings. It focuses on the relationship between those engaged in conversation. When a parent uses such a language, the child will feel that he is valued, listened to, and treated as a unique person.

More than the pragmatic language of information, God wants to hear the intimate language of love.

As church reformer John Calvin noted, it is amazing that God speaks to us in the language of intimacy even when we are adults. To His Son, he said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). To us, He says, “You will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5), “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10), and “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3).

If God our Father speaks to us with such tender love, should we earthly parents not do the same when we speak to our children?

 

Excerpted and adapted from Raising the Next Generation: Biblical Meditations on Parenting © 2019 by Robert M. Solomon. Used by permission of Discovery House. All rights reserved.

 

Bishop Emeritus Robert M. Solomon has served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2002-2012 and has an active itinerant preaching and teaching ministry in Singapore and abroad. He has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology, and has authored more than 30 books on a wide variety of topics, including Faithful to the End, Finding Rest for The Soul and Jesus Our Jubilee. He has also written several resources for Our Daily Bread, including the Journey Through Series and Discovery Series. Bishop Emeritus Solomon is married to Malar. They have three adult children and four grandchildren.
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