The Insufficiency and Sufficiency of Words

Published on October 4, 2009 by CT in Blog, Kindling


The Insufficiency and Sufficiency of WordsWhen others’ words kindle my own flame:

Reflections on words by Abraham Piper @ Twenty Two Words Dot Com


Sometimes people say that 22 words isn’t enough to get my point across. To this, I say,…


If the goal is complete clarity, even 775,000 words is insufficient.

Fortunately, there are other reasons to write than being understood.


My favorite comment about artists is this:  “Just because no one understands you doesn’t make you an artist.”  It’s always fun to make fun of slightly vague, overly nuanced, different for the sake of conforming to a different community kind of people.  But being a writer kind of makes me one, so I need to own it.  As an artist, I create because I want to inspire, to comfort, to deepen affections, and to be accepted.

I’ve thought a lot about whether or not I’d continue writing if no one read what I wrote.  I’d like to say I would, that I would do it for the sake of writing, and that there’s some inherent value in doing so.  And I suppose there is; journaling is widely accepted as a useful tool in meditation and prayer.  But isn’t the reason we write is to be read, and ultimately, to be understood?

Abraham Piper disagrees.  And I agree with him, even though that means disagreeing with myself, which is something an artist would say.  Piper takes a lighthearted dig at his questioners and raises a meaningful question of his own, asking why we write.

I won’t put words in his mouth, but I write because I want Jesus to be treasured above all things.  That sounds far nobler than is the truth; I’ve already mentioned I write to be accepted, and the desire to be noticed and praised goes much deeper.  But I continue to preach to my soul that all things exist for Jesus (Col 1:16), including the words that flow out my fingertips.

Ultimately, if all things exist for Jesus, then words are insufficient.  This is why John ends his gospel by writing, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did.  Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).  But words can also be gloriously sufficient when their purpose serves a higher end than their source.  This is why Luke opens his gospel by writing, “It seemed good to me…to write…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

This is a paradox, which is OK because God created paradox (see the Trinity, the Incarnation, Divine Election and Human Responsibility, etc), making Him the ultimate artist.  So I create, and perhaps you do as well.  If so, why do you write, or paint, or create songs?

Original Blog Posting:  (

  • Demian Farnworth

    I totally don't understand this POV at all. It's like saying we've been given a gift but can use it in such a way that doesn't make sense.

    What other reason would you have a public facing blog than to be understood? If you wondered if you'd still write if nobody read your stuff, keep the obfuscation gig up and and you'll eventually see what it's like.

    Writing is communication. Whether poetry, novel or newspaper article. So being understood is native to the medium. It's baffling to suggest otherwise.

    Ultimately any writer writes because he has something to say. And if he sticks to it he gets better and his audience slowly develops around him. You've proved this yourself, Chris.

    And this is true for any artist. We're all trying to communicate something. It's just some are better than others.

    To answer your question, I write–whether it's an email, blog post, poem or proposal–because I have something to say.

    And I want someone to understand it.

    Secondary to that, I write in my journal to record ideas, organize thoughts. But that's not really writing. It's scribbling. :-)

    My recent post Scientism [When You Shouldn't Trust a Scientist]

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Demian, good points. I just reread the post once more, and I think a little clarification can help. I do think one of the primary purposes of writing is to be understood, as you suggest. Otherwise, I could write in a language I have created that no one can understand, and I would be no better off than the clanging gong that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians.

      What I mean to say is that Abraham was right–there are other reasons to write than be understood. Here, I've stated one of these "other" reasons–my reason–is for Jesus to be treasured above all things. And that is my purpose for writing–to remind myself and others that nothing will satisfy us more than Him, because when we think this way, we begin to live this way, and when we live this way, obedience, and the resulting fruit, become natural expressions of our faith.

      Or to say it another way: if we write solely to be understood, we take our reader only to a place of common agreement, which is good. As a negative example, we could write an expression of our hatred for God, and if our purpose is simply to be understood by others, we have done our readers no great service. But if write in order to glorify Christ, and we do so in a way that is understood by others, then we have served our readers well.

      Ultimately, I think you're right: writers should write because, and perhaps only when, they have something to say. And to further the point a little more, writers should write because readers need to hear it. I just mean to explore the nature of what we have to say and encourage writers to write, not simply to be understood, but that by that understanding, something else, something greater, might occur.


  • Demian Farnworth

    I think I understand what you are saying, Chris, that you write to exalt Christ. That makes sense. But I don't think you can call "being understood" as a reason you write. It's native to good writing.

    You either do it or you don't. You could be a really bad writer and still glorify Christ. So it pays to get better, because the more persuasive you are, the more Christ is glorified.

    Does that make sens? Or did I just cloud the issue? Let me know what you think. I've subscribed to comments to follow this thread.

    I don't know–I probably caused the confusion.

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Hey Demian, really good thoughts. I'm wondering about what you said: "…the more persuasive you are, the more Christ is glorified." On the one hand, that makes sense to me. If God has given us a gift to write, or if we simply write without a true gift but out of a desire to point people to God, then it does seem that people are more moved to deeper affections for Jesus when we are more persuasive. Or to say it another way, it's incumbent on writers to faithfully steward their gifts so that God will be magnified in their writing.

      But on the other hand, I find a danger lurking when my desire is to become increasingly persuasive, so long as that desire is not firmly rooted in an understanding that the word of God is infinitely more persuasive that I can ever be. In fact, the word cuts to the heart where I can only prick the skin. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this, saying, "I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Cor 2:1-5). In this spirit of this thought, I remembered the story of Charles Spurgeon's testimony, who was saved after hearing the gospel by a simple layman in a church he attended as a teen.

      So I think where I end up is that writing to glorify God means writing out of the power God supplies in the gift, and a greater stewarding of that gift means continuing to rest in the growth that power provides. This was such an interesting discussion that I might just write a post on it, so thanks =).

      Your thoughts?

  • Demian Farnworth

    Subscribed to comments. :-)

  • Mike McArthur

    I don't think I would call myself an artist because I write a blog. Some blogs are art, some are technical, some are inspiring and some are just poorly written.
    Anyway, as for why I write, the best way to describe it would be that I write in order to explore thoughts about my faith in Christ. The reason I post these writings as a blog is because there has been a trickle of feedback indicating that what I have written is of some help to others in trying to keep Christ as the focus in daily life. A fair amount of what I write does not reach the blog, there are many pages of my handwriting crossed out of my 'blog notebook'. In those cases I have explored my thoughts enough to decide they are not worth sharing!
    My recent post The end is not nigh

  • Demian Farnworth

    Hey Chris,

    I think we're on the same wave length. There is a limit to the human powers of persuasion, especially when talking about salvation.

    You and I both know salvation is a gift from God, something human powers can't affect because of our deadness from sin, spiritual blindness, resistance to God, hard hearts….

    I think I understand where you are coming from. In this sense, word are insufficient. As well as in ultimately defining and explaining who God is. I think the word is ineffable. ;-)

    We do have a responsibility as writers to make ourselves clear and compelling–for the edification of the church. Like you alluded to early, Paul said he'd rather say five words in an intelligible language than 10,000 in an unknown.

    Good stuff, Chris. I enjoyed talking to you. Hope I didn't take up too much of your time!

    My recent post David Platt Frightens Me

  • Anthony Horvath

    I liked this conversation though I'm not sure what I would chime in about. It has been on my mind lately in a variety of ways because the apologetics conference my ministry is hosting is related to these themes. Our purpose is to get folks to view art as an intentional medium by which to communicate the Gospel. However, the sentiment expressed in the initial post, "Just because no one understands you doesn’t make you an artist” hint at a common objection: "My art is just about expressing myself." A lot of crappy 'art' has been put forward on that justification. :)

    That's one extreme. The other is that what you produce is just propaganda. Taking into account the fact that I write for different reasons, the balance between the two extremes is represented by why I write fiction: I take joy in creation. I love creating worlds, even if it is only for my own pleasure. I love it when other people enjoy the worlds I create, too. However, I love these 'worlds' too much to just say, "Any ol' world will do, so long as I am 'expressing myself.'" So that drives me to try to perfect it, like a good artist will strive to improve their talents.

    I just read an article by Peter Hitchens saying that poetry is more effective for converting atheists than prose. Sometimes I think that is right, because in art for the sake of art I think people participate in the transcendental joy in creation, and thus find themselves more directly touched by God. Sometimes.

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Indeed, sometimes. Good overview of the extremes of art; I haven't thought about it that way before. Thanks for sharing–you did a good job chiming in =)