My Dad sent me a newsletter recently and I was struck by an illustration he used so thought I’d reshare it here (apparently it was from the March issue of Evangelicals Now but I couldn’t find the online article there but found the full story here at Wycliffe).
“Wycliffe translator Lee Bramlett was confident that God had left His mark on the Hdi culture somewhere, but though he searched, he could not find it. Then one night in a dream, God prompted Lee to look again at the Hdi word for love. Lee and his wife Tammi had learned that verbs in Hdi consistently end in one of three vowels. For almost every verb, they could find forms ending in I, a and u. But when it came to the word for love, they could only find I and a. Why no u?
Lee asked the Hdi translation committee, which included the most influential leaders in the community, ‘Could you dvi your wife?’ “Yes” they said. That would mean that the wife had been loved but the love was gone.
‘Could you dva your wife?’ ‘Yes’. That kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well. ‘Could you dvu your wife?’ Everyone laughed. ‘Of course not! If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did, even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to just keep on loving her. No, we would never say dvu. It just doesn’t exist.’
Lee sat quietly for a while, thinking about John 3: 16, and then asked: Could God dvu people?’ There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then tears started to trickle down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally, they responded. ‘Do you know what this would mean? This would mean that God kept loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all the time we rejected His great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.’ One simple vowel and the meaning was changed from’ I love you, based on what you do and who you are’ to ‘I love you, based on who I am. I love you because of me and not because of you.’ For centuries, the little word was there – unused but available, grammatically correct and quite understandable. When the word was finally spoken, it called into question their entire belief system. If God was like that, did they need the spirits of the ancestors to intercede for them? Many decided the answer was no, and the number of Christ-followers quickly grew from a few hundred to several thousand.”