Language – any language, is a constantly changing thing. What a word means today doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing it used to mean. This can cause confusion and difficulty when it comes to understanding the scriptures such as the King James version of the Bible, which was written many hundreds of years ago and is now frozen in time, though our societies and languages are always changing. Even the Book of Mormon, which was first written/compiled some 350 years after Christ’s resurrection was translated in the early 1800s, so we must learn to understand the book’s doctrine through the lens of English in the 1800s.
My original confusion about this word came from my understanding of the modern definition of what it means to condescend. This meaning does not fit with the way the word is used in the scriptures, but I couldn’t find an explanation that would point out why the use didn’t match the definition of the word. I was so frustrated! According to the current Webster’s dictionary here is the definition of what it means to be condescending.
Condescension is a way of interacting with others that implies that you’re superior to them. It especially refers to when this is done in an arrogant or patronizing way—meaning when you act as if you’re doing someone a favor by supposedly lowering yourself to their level of understanding or intelligence.
Condescension often involves not only what is said but also how it’s said. A tone of condescension is often one that sounds like it’s directed at a child.
Condescension is a noun form of the verb condescend, which most commonly means to behave in this way. When used this way, condescend, condescension, and the adjective condescending are always negative and imply that such behavior is insulting to the person or people it’s directed toward.
Condescend can also mean to stoop to a lower level or to do something that one considers as below one’s dignity. A close synonym of this sense of the word is deign. Condescension can also mean the act of doing so.
In the scriptures the word condescension is only applied to the Savior. I can’t even imagine the Savior of us all feeling towards us as this dictionary defines the word. He certainly never acted as this word is defined. This tells me that something has changed between when the word was put into the scriptures and today’s definition. As it turns out, the difference between today’s definition and one of the original definitions depends on whether or not you are a God-fearing person. In the modern definition there is no reference to God at all, as though this couldn’t possibly have anything to do with Him. Now let’s look at how Webster’s dictionary defined this word 200 years ago.
This definition comes directly from the Webster’s 1828 dictionary.
CONDESCENSION, noun Voluntary descent from rank, dignity or just claims; relinquishment of strict right; submission to inferiors in granting requests or performing acts which strict justice does not require. Hence, courtesy.
It forbids pride and commands humility, modesty and condescension to others.
Raphael, amidst his tenderness, shows such a dignity and condescension in all his behavior, as are suitable to a superior nature.
There appears to be a vast difference between the older version of the word, as used by those who feared God, and the definition of the word as used today in the English language. From what I can find in the Oxford English Dictionary, even in its original uses in the early 1600s, condescension had already begun to be ascribed with the characteristics of haughtiness, arrogance, and assumption of being better than another. It didn’t take Satan long to make that which is good appear evil in our eyes.
Use of the idea in the scriptures
Now I am speaking of the use of the idea of condescending, not just about the word itself. If you look up the word condescend in the study guide to the scriptures, you get scriptural references to Christ and his attitude towards all of God’s children. Each time he displays mercy he is condescending. I mean by that that he fully understands that we have broken the law, yet because he condescended to submit himself to all of God’s will concerning God’s children, he was willing to serve those who were and are undeserving of kindness. As the creator of the universe, and the great judge of all mankind at the last day, Jesus allowed himself to be sorely used, beaten, scourged, smitten, bitten, spat upon, and crucified. Why? Because he knew that this was the only way for him to open the door for our ability to repent and become better than we are. This was the path prescribed by God for Jesus to bring God’s children back to Him. Jesus was already a God, and already a member of the Godhead. But he submitted to the will of His Father in order to provide a way for us to be saved from ourselves.
It is true that Jesus fully recognizes that he is better than we are in every way. Here is the first sentence in the modern definition of the word condescension: “Condescension is a way of interacting with others that implies that you’re superior to them.” By implying that you think you are superior it recognizes that you really aren’t superior. But in the case of Christ, he really is. Very much so. According to the implication of the modern definition of the word, there is no such thing as one person who is better than another. Therefore, anyone who condescends in any way does so to promote themself and can only condescend as an insult to the other person(s). That doesn’t fit Christ’s profile at all!
As you look at the scriptural references in the Study Guide you find references to Christ’s mercy, kindness, and even how his bowels are filled with mercy towards others. These are all noble uses of the word condescension. He allowed himself to be lowered to an earthly estate so he could serve and care for God’s children and provide them with the salvation we cannot provide for ourselves. In Christ’s hands condescension is the demonstration of his everlasting love for us. He didn’t have to do any of it, but he accepted the appointment of the Father to be our Savior, and that means caring for those who cannot care for themselves. His condescension is a demonstration of his universal love and devotion to each of us.
Each of us may have the occasional struggle treating others as equals when everything society has taught us tells us they are not worthy of our time or attention. Christ’s teachings help us overcome this worldly point of view. Jesus teaches us to minister to one another in love. Through that service we come to also develop compassion for them and their personal needs. We come to see ourselves as no better than those we may have started out serving in a modern sense of condescension. Through service and love we come to see that we may be more blessed, but are not any better than those we serve. It is through Christ’s own condescension for us that we come to learn that his condescension applies to everyone. Serving others becomes a privilege and a blessing beyond our ability to place a value on it. This is how we become like Christ.
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