Consider Three Statements:
A. Wife: “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument.”
B. Friend: “My neighbor died yesterday.”
C. 16 year old son: “I am going to quit school.”
In each of these statements, we know two things— we know who said it, and we know what it says. But there are things we do not know, and these things are huge.
First, we don’t know the situational context of the statements. Second, we don’t know the feelings associated with the statements. Because of these unknowns, we are left with two even more critical unknowns
WE DON’T KNOW WHAT THE STATEMENTS MEAN.
WE DON’T KNOW HOW WE SHOULD RESPOND.
Now you might think that you have no problem in figuring out what each of the listed statements mean, and how to respond— BUT YOU DON’T. Consider, some feeling and situation contexts added for each of the above statements.
A1: “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument. I am blissfully happy. We have the perfect marriage.”
A2: “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument. I am sad. We never talk about what really matters.”
A3: “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument. I am frustrated. Whenever there is a conflict, he just walks away.“
A4: “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument. Our marriage feels dead. We don’t talk, we don’t disagree. We just go through the motions.”
B1: “My neighbor died yesterday. I am devastated. He was like a father to me.“
B2: “My neighbor died yesterday. I am positively thrilled. He was such an evil man.“
B3: “My neighbor died yesterday. I am angry. His self-destructive, selfish, behavior, now leaves behind a widow with three young children.“
B4: “My neighbor died yesterday. I don’t feel much of anything. I hardly even knew him.“
C1: “I am going to quit school.” <I am irresponsible, and don’t understand how difficult life really is without an education.>
C2: “I am going to quit school. I am bullied constantly. I am terrified about showing up there again.“
C3: “I am going to quit school. I am so bored. The classes do not challenge me. I want to learn, not just occupy a seat.“
C4: “I am going to quit school. Life is hopeless and meaningless. In fact, I am quitting everything. It’s over.”
C5: “I am going to quit school.” <Maybe now you will pay attention to me.>
Each of these statements now have emotional and situational contexts added. Has the meaning changed from the original statement? Not really. The original statements had no meaning. They only have meaning, when contexts are added.
So why do we think that the original statements (A, B, or C) have meaning? It is because we unconsciously supply the situational and emotional contexts. Sometimes, this is done through transference. That is, we draw from our own past relational and emotional situation and use that to supply the missing information.
Let’s go back to statement A. “We have been married for 20 years and have never had an argument.” There is not enough information here to provide meaning. So we guess at the context. Maybe past experience in marriage and observing the marriages of others has led one to be, perhaps justifiablly, cynical. Perhaps, on hearing the statement, one is tempted to assume the person is lying. One might assume that the person is trying to brag unjustifiably about the marriage. Certainly, the woman is getting ready to give unwelcome marriage advice and so is seeking to back it with the false credentials of “the perfect marriage.” But that is an awful lot of presumption. Statements A1, A2, A3, and A4 are quite reasonable alternative meanings.
How about statement B? “My neighbor died yesterday.” Commonly a hearer would try to put him or herself in the speaker’s shoes. Well, actually, the truth is the reverse. The hearer will try to put the speaker in his or her own shoes. So if one had a beloved neighbor, especially one that died, the hearer would tend to assume that the speaker is greatly saddened by this event. Again, it is very presumptuous.
Consider statement C. “I am going to quit school.” Once again, presumptions are likely to spring up. One’s child must be lazy and irresponsible. But that is only one possibility.
So why does this matter? In ministry, we do an awful lot of guesswork as well. How often do we frame a statement of another with our context and our emotions, rather than another. Consider a fourth statement.
D. Female parishioner: “I am struggling with my marriage.”
What does that mean? It means nothing… nothing whatsoever. We don’t know what it means until we know the emotions and the situational contexts. Here are a few possibilities:
D1. “I am struggling with my marriage. Will you help my husband and I mend our relationship so that it is as God wants?”
D2. “I am struggling with my marriage.” <I am giving up on my marriage, but I am going to talk to you first so I can let others know that I “made an attempt” to save it.>
D3. “I am struggling with my marriage.” <Maybe you can give me the emotional support that my husband no longer provides.>
D4. “I am struggling with my marriage. I am afraid for my life but have no idea who to talk to about this.”
D5. “I am struggling with my marriage. I have done horrible things. I don’t deserve forgiveness or a happy family.”
It is tempting to go into answer mode before one has even understood what the other wants or needs. We really have to listen for the meaning first.
Exegesis, drawing out meaning from a text, also applies to human beings. It is wrong (arguably evil) to take a passage of scripture and use it out of its context– thus without meaning. For example: Jeremiah 29:11 simply cannot be used to guarantee individual prosperity. First, it was given to Jews in exile, not to us. Second, even to the direct recipients, there was no direct prosperity… only hope that in a few decades future generations would be doing better. We need Exegesis, not Eisegesis.
Anton Boisen liked to refer to people he ministered to as “Living Human Documents.” We don’t need Eisegesis of a life. We can’t minister to someone by guessing at a meaning when no meaning was given… only statements.