It’s another Mormon Monday, and this time I want to talk a bit about German. I have studied German for a long time, and I have studied the Gospel for even longer. I have long wondered what German can teach me about the Gospel. It’s not like the Gospel is different in Germany, but the words used to talk about the Gospel are different.
Language is a tool, but more than that it is a reflection of thought and culture. In learning a foreign language you not only learn how to communicate, you learn how that other culture thinks, the way the describe certain things, what they believe to be important. Language influences thought, and thought influences language. If you don’t have the words to describe a thought, it becomes very difficult to have that thought.
I will admit that I still bring my German scriptures and Hymn Book to Church. Part of it is because I like to keep up with my German, but part of it is that I like to read along in German when someone reads aloud in English – to see the differences in language.
One of the first instances I noticed where the German version of the scriptures has a slightly different meaning was when I was on my mission. I was reading the Book of Mormon in German, but I was still at the point where I was mentally translating back into English. I came across Ether 12:27. In English it reads “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
In German that word “if” is translated as “wenn”, which can also mean when. So as I translated this back into English, I translated it as “When men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness”, which I at first thought sounded a bit harsh. Here we are, trying to come unto Christ, and what does he do? He shows us just how weak we are, just how much we fall short. That doesn’t sound fair. But, as I continued thinking about this, I realized that it has to be that way. When we want to come to Christ, he shows us our weaknesses so that we can overcome them and be more like him. I started noticing this word “wenn” a lot in the scriptures. I guess it works in English as “if”, but for me that implies a little too much conditionality. I guess it is true that what Christ does for us is dependent on what we do: “if” we come to him, then he can help us be like him. But I like to think of it as “when”, when we come to Christ. And when means whenever. Whenever we come to Christ, he will continue to show us the weaknesses that we have that we need to give up in order to prepare ourselves for the Celestial Kingdom.
One of my other favorite German words is “will”. There are a lot of cases in the scriptures where it talks about ‘what we will’, or Christ says, “I will”. In English will in this sense usually implies futurity, something will happen, I will go somewhere. In the German scriptures, they use the exact same word, “will”, but it has a different meaning. “Will” in German is “to want”. So when Christ says, “I will”, he means, “I want.” I love this, especially in a verse like D&C 64:2, “For verily I say unto you, I will that ye should overcome the world; wherefore I will have compassion upon you.” If we replace the word “will” with “want”,we get, “For verily I say unto you, I want that ye should overcome the world; wherefore I want [to] have compassion upon you.”
Here, with this understanding, we have a God who wants us to do things, to have things, to be. He doesn’t simply sit in his heaven and decree and order. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are children of a loving Father in heaven, who wants to bless us, who wants to give us all that he has. That is what I love about this gospel. This is what I love about the Book of Mormon and what I learn from German. My understanding of the Gospel is increased as I study in in German as well as in English. But what is more important than language or text is Spirit. The Spirit of God does not speak any language (although German is the language of Heaven), and it can speak to our minds and our hearts and reveal truth.