Because of the subject (“the salted truth“) on which I hope to speak tomorrow (October 14) in Zoetermeer, I have, during the past few days, been very pre-occupied with the way we speak and the importance that this “be edifying” to the hearers (Ephesians 4:29). In this context, for many years already it has fascinated me how the little word “but” is being used. This little word but is an contradiction that aims to discredit or to relativize what has previously been said. Whoever follows up yes with but, actually says no, although he tries to be nice about it. “Yes, but…” can commonly be used, without essential change of meaning, by “no, because…”.
It often strikes me that many people are apparently not aware how destructively they use the word but, in many contexts. For example, in sermons, the preacher begins with positive words about “grace” and “the glad tidings”, until… he uses the little word but. That surely is always a “killer”. For all the good that has been said is thus, at once, destroyed. What follows after but, receives, by definition, the accent. The word but makes the first communication unimportant. The sentence, “I’m poor… BUT healthy”, sounds very different than, “I am healthy… BUT poor”. Although the information in both sentences is the same, the order of the communication determines the tone. The first comment sounds grateful, while the second observation comes across as a complaint.
The order (syntax) of negative and positive is decisive for the outcome. In conversations, that also is very important. Whoever wants to encourage someone who is depressed and also wants to take seriously the suffering of the other, should not begin with uplifting words; because the other one will only feel being misunderstood and with ifs and buts dismiss the positive words. On the other hand, he who first gives proper recognition to the painful condition, may then follow up with a constructive but. For what follows but, remains. “There is hope… BUT it is not easy”, is therefore a discouraging message. By contrast, the sentence, “It is not easy… BUT there is hope!” is encouraging. It is the order of the phrases that makes the difference.
Is not this the biblical idea, also? “He takes away the first to establish the second…” (Heb.10:9). The great Divine but. The first serves only to introduce the second. First suffering, then glory. First the old, then the new. First sin, then grace. First dying, then Life.
Decisive is always: What is the last word? That is crucial!
Translation: Peter Feddema