If you stay long enough in a country you will soon speak the language and pick up the accent. I lived in Italian-speaking situations for many years and I realised I had really learnt the language when I started praying and thinking in Italian. I think that’s where I also picked up using my hands a lot when I speak. The Italians like to gesticulate!
We also pick up other languages. If you are a scientist, you know how to talk science. If you cohort with thieves, you will pick up the jargon they use. Think also of how the media give us language, much of it politically correct.
The thing is that language never comes alone. Behind language there is a mind-set, an outlook on life, an ideology or philosophy, if you like. Sometimes those who speak the language are not aware of that. At other times, they are all too aware of it, and use the language to influence the way we think and the choices we make. Words express ideas and concepts, and before we know where we are, we are talking and thinking accordingly. That can sometimes be good, and sometimes not so good. Think how many young people in recent years have had their minds poisoned by terrorist ideology. Their parents are aghast when they hear their own sons and daughters speak and think such hate, something they certainly did not get at home.
When Jesus rebukes Peter in today’s Gospel, He takes to task Peter’s way of thinking which he had expressed in trying to persuade Jesus to avoid the Cross. Probably to most of us, what Peter was saying was more than reasonable. Who would not try and stop someone they loved from putting themselves in danger? But Jesus is peremptory with Peter: “The way you think is not God’s way but man’s.”
Jeremiah had something of a similar experience in that first reading. He bemoans that being a preacher of God’s word only ever gets him in trouble. So, he decides not to think of God again. But God was having none of it. It’s very powerful how Jeremiah describes the way God brought him back in line: “You have seduced me, Lord. You were the stronger. I said I will not think of you any more or speak in your name. But then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. I could not restrain it.”
The way each of us thinks is the result of the many languages that have influenced us across the span of our lives. But it is also the result of the choices we have made about which ones we allowed to get beyond our ears. Just as some of the languages will have been good, bad or indifferent, so our choices of whom or what to listen to will have been good, bad or indifferent. But the key question we must each answer is whether the language of God has become the determining language in our spirits. To use the phrase of Jesus, do we mainly think in a human way or do we think God’s way?
At the end of the day, and indeed at the end of our lives, each person will only be their true self if they have listened to the language of God, hence thought the way of God and therefore made their choices in accordance with His Will. It’s not that we spend all day reading or spouting the Scriptures. It’s that the mind-set of God as revealed in Jesus becomes the supreme measuring stick of everything else we hear, think, speak and do. When you think God’s way, you will more easily recognize what is not worthy of God or of your true self. God’s language, God’s Spirit within you tests and sifts what you hear and what is offered to you, and helps you reject what is harmful and welcome what is good.
If we put some form of human thinking before God’s way of thinking, we may for a time feel free, powerful and independent. There is a right to self-determination, of course, but we can only determine ourselves in relation to a standard, be it of our own making, of the making of another human being, or of God’s making. Since ultimately our self-determination is dependent on God, for He is our fulfilment, the attempt to define ourselves apart from God is an illusion. In the name of being ourselves without God, we end up losing ourselves. This is what Jesus is getting at when He talks of the man who wants to save his own life, that is, be self-made with his own standards and preferences apart from God. To do that, says Jesus, will ultimately mean to lose yourself and your life. Whereas, the person who lets go of an unrealistic sense of self, of independence from God, and gives himself to Jesus will find his true self.
What we have to watch is that the things we hear and read today don’t hoodwink us into the catastrophic folly of excluding God from any relevance to our lives, our plans, our values and our priorities. The more immersed we are in God’s concepts, the easier it will be to spot what is false and degrading of our most genuine dignity as human persons. It was the trickery of the serpent’s language which brought about the original catastrophe. It was Christ’s unwavering fidelity to the will of the Father which undid it. So, we need to be vigilant about what we hear and what we allow to have landing rights in our hearts and minds. You could say it is a form of self-censorship, but it is salutary. Its purpose is to keep the snake’s tail far from the precious sanctuary of our mind, heart and conscience.
Any Christian has to learn to think like Christ. The bible is the most obvious place to find His thoughts and words. To contemplate nature, its rhythms, its proportions, its inbuilt wisdom and beauty can also be a help. Knowing and reading the lives of the saints, those whose self-determination was rooted in God’s thinking and ways, is another path to follow. You will find them all on Wikipedia! Then there are the lives of good and just people who never believed in Christ or in God. Maybe a neighbour, maybe a famous person like Ghandi. In their own way, these people searched for Christ without knowing it, but He made Himself known to them in ways known only to Himself.
The challenge is always the same, and I address it to myself first. Do you want to think like God? Do you want to abandon the foolishness of some self-made life? Do you want truly to follow Christ? Do you want to resist the fascination of evil, the sinful habits, the spiritual sloth and mediocrity? Do you want the Lord to seduce you as He did Jeremiah? Do you want the effort to grow, to renounce what stops you growing, to throw yourself into the way of the Cross? Do you want to be a saint?