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Comments on How to Address God
All Christians will surely agree that our approaches to God should be with reverence and in good taste. It may be that these can exist in the abstract, but when they are expressed it can only be in some suitable attitude or form of speech. Kneeling, bowing the head and closing the eyes are ways we have of expressing reverence when engaged in prayer. And the type of language which for centuries God’s people have used in speaking to Him or of Him is still generally felt to be suitable and appropriate. It has an atmosphere about it that is suggestive of reverence and is conducive to it. This accounts for its still being adhered to even in very “modern” translations and paraphrases of the Scriptures.
It is true, of course, that the terms, “Thou, Thee, and Thine” are no longer usual in every-day conversation. Years ago they were commonly used forms of the pronoun in the second person singular. Today, in ordinary usage, the plural forms “You, your, etc.” are generally used as singulars. The earlier usage has, for ordinary purposes, been abandoned.
But these are not the only expressions that have come down to us from the past which, in spite of an ancient flavour, are still in use. Such titles, for instance, as “Your Majesty,” “Your Honour,” “Your Excellency,” are still in good standing. (It is Scriptural to use such terms in their proper places; see Luke 1:3; Acts 26:25). To dismiss them as mere relics of the past, and use in their stead terms used in greeting the man in the street, would mark a man as ill-bred and ungentlemanly. If, as an excuse, he were to plead that the “old” terms were not part of his accustomed vocabulary, he would be told, in no uncertain terms, that it was time he learned to observe the proprieties. And if such proprieties are expected to govern our speech when dealing with human dignitaries (even in a democratic country!), shall we be less deferential when addressing our God, who is “greatly to be praised” and whose “greatness is unsearchable?” Let us be slow to adopt a way of speaking that is out of keeping with hallowed associations, and that seems to smack of too great familiarity.
Some will not too readily agree with these conclusions. It is quite understandable, for instance, that a man who has been but recently led to Christ, and whose former associations were altogether of a worldly character, might not be acquainted with language which, to most Christians, is familiar. (Some, however, seem to learn very quickly!) Others again are impressed with a supposed need to make the Christian’s vocabulary conform in every particular to that of every-day conversation. They expect that this will ensure a readier understanding and acceptance of the Christian message. But has not this “problem” been overstated?
We should not brand our brethren as wilfully irreverent because they do not express themselves in the manner that has long been accepted and that appeals to us as still fitting. But it may well be urged that, before committing themselves to a new vogue, they give the whole matter careful and prayerful study.
—F. W. Schwartz
Dear Brother G:
I received today the March issue of your magazine, and the correspondence in The Forum has solidified some of my thinking and prompted me to express some of my thoughts on the same subject, that is, How to Address God.
To me, in the present day, the formality of the forms ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ has replaced the familiarity of these words as used some centuries ago (as Dr. E. J. R. points out). When these were used in the Bible translation of the seventeenth century, they corresponded to our present-day term ‘you’ and were in common use.
Even more important is the fact that the Scripture was originally written (at least, the New Testament) in the common, everyday, idiomatic, commercial language of the people, not in the so-called classical Greek. ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ can scarcely be farther from this.
Thirdly, I feel that this use of outmoded language in our Scriptures, our hymns and our prayers tends toward departmentalizing our lives so that the things of God are left to Sunday and to a language ‘turned on’ for the purpose, rather than being a reality in all that we do. This has been a problem in my own life, and in others’, as well. It has become important to me to be free and natural in my conversation with God, which the archaic forms of expression and common cliches used, prevented. I most heartily agree with your statement of the need of reverence in talking with God, but I feel that the use of one word over another does not necessarily impart that reverence to the communication. This reality is the whole subject of Mr. Phillips’ book, God, Our Contemporary from which is taken the quotation on the first line of the inside cover of the March magazine.
In conclusion, and perhaps by way of explanation of the above views, I should state that I am a young man and am seriously concerned over this question. In any ministry, I find that the use of ‘you’ in reference to God so startles and offends the listeners (especially older ones) that the effect is lost from what has been spoken, and therefore I refrain from using it. In conversation with some elderly people on this subject, I am aware that it would be a major upheaval in their thinking to institute such a change after fifty years of communication with the Lord in this manner, and as a young man, I would respect my older brethren and sisters needs in this respect. However, there is a very noticeable change of attitude in some of the younger people, who seek this natural but reverent communion with God, and it is on their behalf as well as my own that I have sought to present our side of this discussion, and to present it for your comment and criticism, that in our lives as well as our conversation and our prayer, we might give to Him that “honour and glory for ever and ever” which is His due.
I would also add my appreciation to that so often expressed in The Forum for this magazine and its challenge to thinking Christians who would honour their Lord. Please continue to “provoke us unto love and good works.”
Prayerfully yours in Christ,
R. N. T.