It has been almost 30 years since my theology professor at Simpson College started each class reading from a little book by Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.
I few years ago I re-read it and remembered why I liked it back then. At one point, he is talking about the problem of a “merely conceptual experience” in which:
“Some truth or other has not been ‘passed through’ as a primary experience, but has been replaced by ‘perception’ of the literary or intellectual deposit of what another’s primary experience, say Luther’s, has discovered. Thus one lives at second hand.” (Helmut Thielicke. A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Trans. By Charles L. Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962, p. 11.)
Whenever we are studying someone’s writings (or functioning in some particular vocational ministry role), we must ask ourselves, “Am I living my life with Jesus firsthand or secondhand? Am I hearing about and admiring others’ experiences with God but not having any of my own? Is my God talk mostly about God rather than from God and with God? Is my service more for God [at an experiential distance] or in God [from a place of spiritual intimacy]?
The little words matter so much. They are words that demonstrate the quality of our interaction and relationship with God. Are we in close or at a distance? Are we trying to perform well for God, or are we seeking to live well in God? Or, as Robert Mulholland puts it in The Deeper Journey, “Are we in the world for God, or in God for the world? (p. 47-48)”
“The [one] who studies theology, and especially…dogmatics, might watch carefully whether he [or she] increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person. You know what I mean by that. This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a…personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference, usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I no longer can read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavors. This is the first step towards the worst and most widespread ministers’ disease. For the minister frequently can hardly expound a text as a letter which has been written to him, but he reads the text under the impulse of the question, “How would it be used in a sermon.” (Thielicke, p. 33.)
Second person language is addressing God directly in encounter, in relationship, in worship. Third person language is talking about God with (or without) a necessary sense of His being present for the conversation. I do a lot of work with vocational Christian leaders. The danger of a subtle shift towards the third person with God is continual. I can find myself talking about Him in a way I might not if I remembered He was already present with me.
May God’s Spirit continue to draw you near and keep you close…