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Literally Speaking

Last week, I wrote in my journal about the word literal. I had to look up the definition because the word literally is often wrongly used these days. I had to remind myself what literal is and what it is not.

Literal

adj.

1. in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.

2. following the words of the original very closely and exactly: a literal translation of Goethe.

3. true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.

4. being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy: the literal extermination of a city.

5. (of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic.

6. of or relating to the letters of the alphabet.

7. of the nature of letters.

8. expressed by letters.

9. affecting a letter or letters:a literal error.

noun

10. a typographical error, especially involving a single letter.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/literal

It is also important to consider the word literally.

Literally

adv.

1. in the literal or strict sense: She failed to grasp the metaphor and interpreted the poem literally. What does the word mean literally?

2. in a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.

3. actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The city was literally destroyed.

4. in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually: I literally died when she walked out on stage in that costume.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/literally?s=t

In essence–quite literally–the word literal implies something is simply what it is and nothing else. A brown fence is a brown fence without any interpretation, elaboration, comparison, or contrast. I experienced this truth–again quite literally–back in 2012 as told in “Beyond Brown Fences.” My middle son is now an adult, but he still struggles to discern the meaning behind metaphors. Because I know him well and spend most of my time with him, I am sometimes able to explain metaphors through his personal experience.

For example, he and I have been working through his membership packet for our church. We were talking about sin, and I found myself trying to explain the word foothold in Ephesians 4:27 in the NIV. (Note: I didn’t remember the reference at the time, and it took me a while to find the verse in the NASB and the ESV because these translations use more literal wording.) I began telling him to imagine he was climbing up a cliff, and he had to place his feet on a solid rock…

“Like when I climbed the rock wall. It was hard.”

I had forgotten he had climbed an indoor rock wall when he was in high school. But, my metaphor fell away a bit as I thought about the fabricated, bolted-in footholds on a man-made rock wall. Then I remembered another metaphor.

“I’m sure it was hard. But, what if you started to fall? What did you have on to help you?”

“A harness.”

“That’s right. The harness keeps you from falling. That’s what Jesus through His Holy Spirit does for us. We still sin, but He keeps us from falling too far. He saves us. He is our harness.”

(Disclaimer: This is not a literal retelling of our conversation. We talked for ninety minutes that day with several off-topic tangents. For the benefit of my readers, this is a paraphrase of the main truth I wanted to share with my son.)

Because of my son’s personal experience, he was able to follow my use of the harness metaphor through the rest of our discussion. Yet, I know the best course of action with him is to keep it simple and to be as literal as possible. If I had read Ephesians 4:27 in the versions we have been studying, I think the word opportunity would have been sufficient to explain why we need to avoid giving the devil a foothold in our lives when it comes to sin.

I wonder, then, how literal are we? Do we literally mean what we mean? Isn’t there usually an underlying personal twist that tells a different story whether good or bad? Could we benefit from listening as someone who misunderstands the figurative for all its hidden nuances tries to interpret a metaphor? Could we benefit more if we explain what is hard in the most obvious terms?

I wonder, how many conflicts might be avoided?

and do not give the devil a foothold.

Ephesians 4:27 NIV

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