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Body Language

pier_c_main[1].jpgBody language experts contend that we are much more likely to discover a person’s true feelings by studying non-verbal communication than to listen to the words he or she may speak. Corporations hire people who specialize in “reading” a prospective employee’s facial expressions, arm and leg movement, involuntary actions, nervous twitches and even choice of clothing. In the past few decades, psychologists have made much of dreams, paintings, inkblots and exercises involving shapes, sizes and colors. Lie detector tests focus on physiological reactions given by people who are asked certain questions, not on their verbal responses. All of these things signify the importance of actions and symbols without words.

Unfortunately, word lovers like me have a bias toward words. I actually like dictionaries, lexicons, encyclopedias and other tools of the trade. I have some idiolectic (sorry!) rules of thumb that I use to justify my word choices. At the same time, I realize that words do not begin to cover the entire spectrum of communication. In fact, our actions exert a far more powerful and meaningful effect on us than the most articulate and precise words we could possibly use.

Words often negate clarity or truth. Of politicians’ calculated word choices, Mona Charen, columnist writes, “After the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, Mr. Clinton had Dick Morris take a poll. ‘We tested peacemaker or toughness,’ Mr. York quotes Mr. Morris as recalling. The public preferred toughness. ‘So Clinton talked tough.’ But the FBI director, Louis Freeh, became so exasperated by Mr. Clinton’s failure to raise the matter with Saudi officials that he actually asked former President George Bush to do so instead.”

Human interaction has never been limited to words alone. An amazing number of signals and ideas can be transmitted from one person to another with nary a word being spoken. Were this not the case, the realms of art and music would be desolate, indeed. When it comes to emotions, we actually rely on body language to convey our feelings more than words. Complex or intellectual thoughts may need words to express fully, but even these use a complementary pattern of gestures and unspoken movements to provide emphasis and guidance to the conversation. Here is a sampling of non-verbal actions:

  • Eyes : Staring. Narrowing. Rolling. Closing. Glancing.
  • Voice : Laughter. A sound. A cough.
  • Body : A hug. Raising the arms. Leaping. Dancing. Running. Bumping.
  • Hands : Pointing. A handshake. Clapping the hands. High fives. Gesturing.
  • Mouth : Smiling. Frowning. Kissing. Whistling.
  • Clothing : Colors. Uniforms. Certain articles of clothing.
  • Head : Nodding. Shaking. Tilting. A haircut.
  • Face : Distorting. Turning away. Looking up or down.
  • Signs : Tattoos. Ornamentation. A gift. Insignias.
  • One’s self : One’s presence or absence. Stepping forward. Standing back.
  • Actions : Owning a certain model of car. Swerving. Pointing a gun. Brandishing a knife.

While the spoken word remains a central aspect of the power of God, we must also recognize that he communicated many things without words. In Genesis, God made coats of skins for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness. This is a profound statement of divine intention. Even if there were no subsequent words to explain God’s act, the imagery of slaying and bloodshed itself would suffice to depict God’s assessment of sin. The rite of circumcision, Jacob’s wrestling match, the burning bush, pillars of cloud and fire, Aaron’s rod that budded, the Urim and Thummim, the tabernacle plan, the sacerdotal rituals and other actions that God did or commanded to be done show the importance of meanings in absence of words.

Going further, Samson’s uncut locks of hair, judges giving a white or black stone, saluting and bowing to officials, ceremonial gift-giving, kisses, foods, preparation of meals, style and material for clothing, observation of days and time-periods, kinds of sacrifices and a host of other symbols were all used for various reasons in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, we see baptism in water by immersion, washing of feet, the communion supper, breaking of bread, anointing the sick with oil, fasting, giving of alms, and other sacraments or forms of service that had great meaning attached to them. The Bible overflows with non-verbal images.

Without question then, non-verbal expressions in Bible practice were an important way to communicate thoughts, feelings and information to others. It is very instructive, the, to place this concept into the context of a Christian lifestyle as taught in the scriptures. For example, when someone declares that the wearing of long hair for women has no significance, he or she denies the reality of non-verbal communication. A woman’s long hair symbolizes a number of important concepts: submission to authority, distinction from the male gender, acceptance of a God-given role and a display of feminine glory. Likewise, when a woman’s hair was shorn, it was considered a mark of shame before the community.

Other non-verbal practices in the New Testament demonstrate this fact as well. Sexual relationships outside the bonds of marriage defined a person as corrupt. Killing, stealing, idolatry, eating meat offered to idols and drinking blood were all condemned. On the positive side, many actions were encouraged because they underscored righteous living and understanding. Faithful attendance to duty, working with one’s own hands, giving in offerings, paying tithes, attending church, and many other things were practiced by the early believers. These were just as important as their verbal confessions of faith because they represented the inner-workings of the heart.

Apostolic men and women bear noticeable distinctions from the general public in the way they dress and behave. Strangers often approach us and ask about our appearance or want to confirm their opinions about the church we attend. At large gatherings such as General Conference, we hear and read comments by the local population about what they see in our people. And well they should. It seems logical to conclude that a conversion experience as radical as the new birth should make a profound difference in every aspect of a person’s life, including their appearance, behavior and spirit.

Should anyone say that the gospel of grace pertains only to matters of faith and heart, and not to any outward manifestation, nearly every book in the New Testament stands in objection. Two representative selections are Romans 12:1: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Also, I Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Scriptural terms such as modest apparel, shamefacedness, appearance of evil, and others give attention to non-verbal communication. Many corroborative verses can be cited, but all of them underscore the fact that genuine faith has a decided effect upon our behavior, our appearance and the way we present ourselves in the world.

Certain non-verbal forms of communication send a wrong message because of the cultural milieu. Some societies take offense at particular gestures, types of clothing, actions, and etc. because their traditions forbid them. We do not have to be raised in a certain culture, however, to develop a conscience about particular practices. When we read in the Bible about the things God blesses or curses, when we study the original Apostolic church and learn what it considered right and wrong, good and bad, we then have an obligation to assimilate those things into our own lifestyle, regardless of the culture.

It is very difficult to say one thing and do another. For example, try shaking your head and saying “yes”, or nodding your head and saying “no”. If you concentrate, you might do it, otherwise, it’s hard to do. Those who interpret body language say that despite a person’s words, actions, most of which are involuntary, convey his or her actual meaning, mood and intent. In the church, when a man says, “I am living a holy life,” and then gets drunk, philanders, and steals from his employer, his body language clearly contradicts his verbal messages. If a woman avows that she is pure and chaste, and then dresses like a prostitute and is frequently seen with different men at all hours of the night, what are we to conclude but that her claims are bogus? Actions verify words, not vice versa. Incidentally, the term to use for people who use words to cover up their actions is lying. No one needs resort to torrents of verbiage to convey a sense of godliness. If they would only act the part, many words would be unnecessary.

The Apostolic church of the twenty-first century must not buy into old heresies disguised as new truths. The more faith gets pushed out from reality into the haze of sham, smoke and mirrors, the more we risk losing it all. Righteousness that is not really righteous eventually destroys its own meaning. Holiness that is not truly holy will soon become farcical. Truth that answers to a hundred different names will not know what to call itself. Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Truth that exists in word only will lead to freedom that is word only. Only truth that encompasses body, soul and spirit will make one truly free.

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