By Matt Mikalatos
When you’re talking on a cell phone and you start to lose bars, noise is introduced to the signal. Your friend on the other end is still talking, but you’re only catching bits and pieces. Although their message hasn’t changed, and they’re still doing the work of communication, you’re not able to understand because the noise drowns out the signal.
Anyone who has been on a conference call has experienced the comedy of errors that occurs with noise in the signal. Someone hasn’t muted their call; they’re sitting by their gate at the airport, and we keep hearing announcements not to leave our bags unattended. Someone else’s call keeps dropping. Another is driving in their convertible, and every time they UN-mute, all we hear is the wind and a distant murmuring. Meanwhile, your doorbell rings and you’re getting urgent text messages.
We’re all desperately trying to understand each other, but no one can hear anyone else, because there’s too much noise.
It’s easy to introduce noise into the signal when we’re talking to someone else. And when we’re communicating something as important as the good news, we need to be aware of what we’re doing that might prevent someone from hearing it.
For instance, I knew a man who never tipped his servers at restaurants. He would, instead, leave religious tracts along with the exact change for his meal. “I gave them the good news of eternal life,” he would say. “What could be a better tip than that?”
There are multiple issues at play here, but one is that this gentleman’s actions have introduced noise into the signal. The message hasn’t changed—it still has all the power of the gospel (if the server should happen to read through the tract). But refusing to tip (perhaps intended to communicate that Jesus is more important than money?) is not communicating the good news.
Anything that corrupts the signal is noise—for instance, leaving a generous tip, yet the server spills left-over cola on the tract; or a printing error that leaves out the final page.
The Holy Spirit Overcomes the Noise
When we confronted my cheapskate acquaintance about how his miserly interaction corrupted the signal that carried the good news, he said, “The Word of God does not return void.”
In other words, God will deal with this. He’ll make the message clear. And, yes, sure, there’s some person somewhere who came to Jesus despite a cheap tipper. The good news with a corrupted signal is better than no good news at all. God does what he wants. He can translate a terrible, corrupted message and make it clear if he chooses.
On the other hand, this man was using that particular verse out of context to say something Scripture does not. I was taught by well-meaning people in my faith community to do the same thing when I was growing up.
So let’s take a minute and examine the context of this verse. The reference is from Isaiah 55:11. The way my acquaintance was reading it, that verse tells us that God’s Word (meaning the Bible) is a magic cure-all. If you quote a Bible verse, it will work its magic on your communication partners no matter what and be understood exactly as it should be understood.\
Ironically, this interpretation does not understand the verse in the way it’s meant to be understood. In Isaiah 55, God is talking about making a covenant with his people. As he says in verse 3, he has made an agreement with his people. And God always does what he says. He’s talking about how he keeps his promises, not saying that quoting Bible verses will always be effective in a supernatural way during evangelistic conversations.
” If we can trust God to translate the message, can we not also trust him to keep the message pure? “
So while I absolutely believe the Holy Spirit will gladly pick up the slack when we communicate the good news, that particular verse isn’t telling us Bible verses are magic spells and will always work if we quote them right.
Okay, Matt, but I don’t treat the Bible like a spell book! Who does that? you may be thinking. And my answer would be . . . More of us than you might think, Gandalf.
The impulse emerges out of good motives. Growing up in evangelical culture, I’ve always been taught that my most important job as an evangelist is keeping the gospel pure.What this means is, without a doubt, protecting the message. And if our job is protecting the message, the “safest” way to share that message is through quoting Scripture. I need to make sure the gospel meets a rigorous theological test, that people are hearing it correctly.
But what this means in practice is that I am going to spend my time focused on the message, not the translation. Because I’ve decided that my job is primarily to protect the message, I’m going to trust the Holy Spirit to do all the translation. With this perspective, it doesn’t matter if there’s noise. It doesn’t matter if the signal is weak. It doesn’t matter if I do a terrible job translating the message or say things in a confusing way. The Holy Spirit will take the magic Bible verses and make the message clear regardless, right?
This kind of thinking leads to conclusions like “My job is to share the gospel, nothing more” or “I posted a Bible verse on social media; now it’s all up to God.”
But I have to wonder: If God wants us to be his coworkers, do you think he wants us to stop working before things are finished?
He gives us the message.
He tells us to share the message.
Does he not want us to participate in translating the message and making it understandable?
If we can trust God to translate the message, can we not also trust him to keep the message pure?
Leaving a tract on a table may be sufficient for someone to come to Jesus. But what if God wants us to be more involved?
1. Have you ever had a miscommunication with someone? What was the core issue in the misunderstanding? How did you eventually come to understand each other?
2. When someone shared the good news with you, did they help with the “translation,” or were you left on your own? (For instance, did they use easy-to-understand terminology? Did someone explain complicated or unfamiliar words to you? Or did you have to figure it out on your own?)
3. Can you think of a time when you saw, heard, or participated in a “gospel presentation” that left people confused or disinterested? What was that like? Was it because of “noise” or a problem with translation? Do you think the response could have been different if that had been addressed? How?
1. Watch for poor communication this week, whether it’s from a sign, in an email, in the media, or in personal interaction. What is causing the communication not to work well? How could it be improved? How would you do it differently?
2. Tell a friend you want to practice poor communication. Have them send you texts without fixing auto correct. Have them call you with a towel over their phone (or put you on speakerphone while driving in a convertible). Have them do their best to drive you crazy with noise in the signal. As they do this, do your best to understand and respond well to their communication. How does it make you feel? What do you learn about how others might feel when there’s noise in the signal?
Taken from Good News for a Change by Matt Mikalatos. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Nav Press. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Matt Mikalatos writes books (surprise!). In the past, Matt worked as a high school teacher and a clerk at a comic-book store. Currently he focuses on nonprofit work devoted to helping people love one another despite their differences. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and three daughters, two unicorns, a gryphon, a dragon, and three brine shrimp.