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Japanese study taught me more than the language

“Yes, Jesus is 100% man, but he is also 100% turtle.”

My friend K quietly laughed as she asked, “Do you mean, ‘100% God’?”

The similarity between the Japanese word for “turtle” (kah-meh かめ) and “god” (kah-mee かみ) had turned my careful explanation of the Trinity into a never-before-seen heresy. Thankfully God and my friend showed me grace as I finished the Bible study.

A wise mentor once said, “When you become a missionary, you get stuck. Back home you were the hero—braving a foreign land and language to boldly share the gospel. But when you arrive in the field you become the fool, the beginner, speaking like a child again. All your expertise becomes useless because you simply can’t speak. And it’s hard and humbling and makes you want to quit. But if you quit and go home you aren’t the hero anymore—you’re the failed missionary. You’re really stuck.”

When I first arrived in Japan everything was an adventure. Something as simple as buying toothpaste was like an exotic treasure hunt. I wandered aisles, stared at labels, wondered what “toothpaste” was in Japanese, and marveled at the amount of non-dental sections in the drug store. When I finally achieved my goal, I walked proudly home clutching my hard-won prize. Only to realize that I was already exhausted, and my main accomplishment of the day was cavity prevention.

And I came to share the gospel?

Embarrassment, discouragement, and exhaustion are all part of the language learning process. But at the same time, language learning is one of the greatest graces God has given me. Through it, I’ve learned:

To let go of pride

The hardest thing in language study is not memorizing vocabulary or understanding grammar. It’s being willing to embarrass yourself over and over, day in and day out. Being willing to make mistakes and try again and make more mistakes and still keep trying. A prayer partner’s child once sent me a card that said, “Remember, we’re all sinners, so don’t get cocky!

I think language learning is God’s way of gently reminding me: don’t get cocky.

To truly listen

Not being able to talk is a great cure for talking too much. Listening, nodding, offering a hug or a cookie when I don’t know what to say—I think this version of me is better than the one that (thinks she) knows all the right things to say.

My words fail, but God’s word never does

When I prepare a Bible lesson in Japanese, I find myself using more Scripture than I ever did in English. When I don’t know how to say something, I often remember a verse that says it so much better and simply share that. And through this, I’ve seen people understand the Bible by God’s help, not by my clever explanation.

As I reflect on language learning, I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:3-5: “I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God” (NLT).

When I started studying Japanese, I expected to learn an alphabet, vocabulary, and grammar forms. But didn’t realize I’d learn so much more than what was in my textbooks. A humble heart, a listening ear, and a deeper dependence on God and his word are better lessons than anything my Japanese teacher could have taught.

May God use all our timid attempts and stumbling words to point the glory to himself. And may even turtles and toothpastes be reminders that when we are weak, he shows himself strong.

By Morgan, an OMF missionary

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