When Here Was Here and There Was There
Truth, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: A Review of As We Forgive, by Catherine Claire Larson

Living with Style (Rule 16): Be Clear

Babel I wouldn't nominate the Apostle Paul as the apostle of brevity, or even clarity. Romans is a longish book full of longish sentences, and the Apostle, while a masterful logistician, could have been clearer. He was, after all, human, and while his words were divinely superintended, he could not but be himself, a longwinded lawyer. Would that he had the brevity of old Chief Judge Murdock of the United States Tax Court. Confronted by a taxpayer who testified, "As God is my judge, I do not owe this tax," he simply said, "He's not. I am. You do." What he said is perfectly clear, if terse.

Once I took a week long writing class. Our first assignment was to write a two-page essay on "why I want to be a writer." I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the two pages to one page while preserving its essence. I did. I turned it in. The next assignment was to cut the one page to one paragraph. I did that too, though at this point it was getting painful. Cherished phrases had to be abandoned, wonderful adjectives axed, pithy quips parlayed. I begin to wonder if the essence of what I had said was being preserved. Finally, the instructor asked us to distill the essence of why we want to be a writer to one sentence, like a twit before tweeter. It was not quite possible, of course, as it was like you telling me to describe why I am a Christian in one sentence. Something can be said, of course, but then there's the rest of the story. We got the point, though: Every word must have a reason to exist. We were to avoid unnecessary words. We were to be clear. Whatever the value of ambiguity (and there is a place for it), it does not help communication, being more suited to trying to capture the inexpressible, like poetry, like doctrine, like God.

Clarity is a better candidate for godliness than cleanliness. As Strunk and White point out in The Elements of Style, it's also a matter of life and death:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on a highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity, and be clear! When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

In a broader sense, Strunk and White's maxim to "be clear" means something like integrity, living in such a way that our words match our actions, that we are who we say we are and need say little about who we are because who we are is evident to all. A companion virtue is humility, as many words, whether my own or that of others, usually connote some attempt to justify, promote, or excuse myself. After all, "[w]hen words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Prov. 10:19). (I often remind folks that a person who holds his tongue may in fact be a fool in most other respects, but at least he is a silent fool.) And finally, I think of focus, and I am reminded of the admonition to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2). People of clarity know who they are and where they are going. That's style.

If God is my judge, I will be clear from now on.

He is. I'm not. By His grace, I will.