Might rediscovering this lost language
help us grow closer to God?
If we sing the old hymns, or read a passage of Scripture from the King James Version, or sometimes listen to someone praying, we might find God being addressed as thou, thee, thine, and thy. For example, as in The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven… For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever” (Matthew 6:9).
Throughout my childhood, I heard these archaic thou-type pronouns used at church to address God. To me, they had a formal, dignified weightiness that modeled what a relationship with God was to be like. Or so I thought…
A Shocking Lesson in Language
And then, in college, I studied German under a demanding but delightful professor––a Berliner whom we called Herr B (sort of pronounced “bay”). Early on, I learned that the German language has two forms of the pronoun “you.”
One form of the German “you” is polite and formal, implying an appropriate relational distance, and is used to address authority figures, acquaintances, and strangers. The other form has a familiar tone reserved for family, friends, peers, and loved ones.
It was then that Herr B taught the most meaningful lesson I learned from him. The English language, he explained, just like German, formerly had two similar forms of second person pronouns: “you, your, and yours,” and “thou, thee, thine, and thy.”
Aha! I thought. So that explains that old King James English.
Then, to my utter shock, he went on to say that you, your, and yours were the formal category, while thou, thee, thine, and thy were the familiar form used for those close to a person.
To Herr B, this was a quick bit of language trivia. But to me, it was explosive and confusing. For this was completely opposite to how we related to God in church as we used these words.
I wondered, could this be true? Eventually, I perused a Shakespearean play, noticing the pronouns, and confirmed that, indeed, it was so.
Embedded in Christian Cultures
I’m not writing here about language; I’m writing about the absolute truth that God is agapé love, which tells us that God is entirely relational, and that He does relationship in a way that is near and dear and in perfect love (1 John 4:8, 16).
And I’m writing about the way we conceptualize the nature of God and relate with God. I struggled with this for years, and came to understand that this reversal of meaning had obscured the truth about how kind, gentle, joyful, patient, and present God is.
This reversal of meaning doesn’t just affect people who have the Old English meanings backwards. The conclusions that former generations drew from this have been passed down through the generations. And so, the view that God is distant with us, and that we are to be formal with Him is embedded in church cultures around the world, affecting countless Christians.
That formality had distanced my heart from God. How could it be, I wondered, that 400 years ago, the translators of Scripture had expressed a precious truth about relationship with God that was nowhere to be found in my world?
For much of my life, it affected me adversely as I tried to reach out to this unfathomable, glorious Being.
With All Our Hearts
The Scriptures tell us that God wants to be loved by us with our entire being. This is what Jesus called the great commandment (Matthew 22:38). “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30).
So I ask, using the Old English as it was intended:
Doesn’t loving God with all our hearts require that God be a close, dear-to-our-hearts “thou”?
Again, using the authentic meaning, envision how we feel and act with someone we could call “thou.” Most don’t put on formality, dignity, and solemnity with such persons.
And so it is to be with God. Both in our hearts as we turn our attention to God, and in knowing with confidence that as we reach out to God, the same pleasure welcomes us.
Truly, there is nothing on earth more satisfying than such a relationship with God. Thank you, Herr B, for the lesson.
Father God, draw us nearer to You! Teach our hearts Your loving kindness until we come to know that we can relax with You and express our hearts to You! Thank You for Jesus, who opened up all this goodness for us! The Name of Jesus!
(Originally published on The Highly Sensitive Christian with Gail Ruth in 2011, edited in November, 2023.)