In Mixtec the word used for “salvation” is a word that basically means “rescue.” Before the Gospel came, it was commonly used when someone was rescued from danger, like drowning.
As a Christian, I am thankful that I have been “saved”, rescued from the deserved penalty for my sins as a result of what Jesus did on the cross, and to eternal life. One summer a number of years ago, I learned what is was like to be rescued from drowning.
During the summer of 1999 we were at my wife Judith’s mom and dad’s home on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Going to the beach was our main reason for being there. However, because of rip tides, swimming was not allowed most days at the life guarded beach. We usually went to this beach because of the children.
When we went to the beach on that July 5th, the “No Swimming” signs had been taken down. We were planning to leave the next day and I decided to take a last swim. Seven days before, I had swum out rather far and found a sand bank, where the water was only up to my knees.
This time, however, I couldn’t find it. I swam around for quite a while, but never did locate it because of the constant shifting of the sand on the ocean ﬂoor. I ﬁnally decided to swim back to shore, already a bit tired. It seemed the more I swam, the farther I got from the shore. Something in my mind sensed I was in danger and I began hyperventilating, though I didn’t feel that much fear. I tried to ﬂoat on my back for a while so I could rest and slow down my breathing, but the waves kept washing over me and ﬁlling my mouth with saltwater. I again tried to swim towards shore, but began to get more desperate as I never got any closer and I was now completely exhausted and gasping for air. The harder I swan, the farther from shore I seemed to be getting.
I ﬁnally waved for the lifeguard, but since I could hardly see him, I couldn’t tell if he saw me or not. I realized I no longer had the strength to tread water much longer, and went under several times. Forcing myself to stay above water, I began thinking about my family, and how, if I drowned, Judith would be a widow (Should I hope she never marries again?) and my kids would have no father. I prayed to the Lord, saying, “God, I’m in Your hands. If You want to take me, here I am.”
Just as I felt I was going down under the water for the last time, the lifeguard arrived and pulled me to safety. He told me I had been caught in a rip tide. My dad was there and had seen me wave. He raced to the shore, but the lifeguard beat him to it.
Getting to shore, I thanked the Lord for saving me, and giving me more time to be here on earth. I am thankful to the LORD for rescuing me once again. The first time He saved me, I gained eternal life. Because of not drowning, I could continue life and by His help keep serving Him and the Mixtec people. I was also thankful that Judith had insisted that, because of the children, we only swim at a beach with a lifeguard.
Salvation implies one of two things (or sometimes both); that we are saved from something or for something. In the ocean, I was saved from drowning and death, and to life. In the Mixtec translation of the Scriptures, the word salvation (dakaki meaning rescue) is many times made complete by adding saved/rescued “from our sins” or “from the path of evil and wrongdoing,” or the more explicit meaning, saved “from the just punishment we deserve for sinning”. In other contexts, being saved from hell is the focus. But in Scripture, many times the idea of being saved focuses on the positive effect. We are saved for good works. We are saved so we can have eternal life. We are saved for God’s glory. It is His good will and pleasure to do it.
In Mixtec, and even in most languages, such as English, if you think about it, just saying “I’ve been saved” has very little meaning unless you are already “versed” in Christian lingo and beliefs. “I’m saved” implies many of the things just mentioned, and more. There is the major implied information that Jesus is the One who saved me. Even then, you need further implied information that God is holy, we are sinful and we cannot enter into His presence unless we too are holy. Therefore Jesus came into the world 2000 years ago, lived a perfect life, died in our place (here it helps to know about the Old Testament sacrificial system) and because I accept what Jesus did, have repented of my sins and am born anew; I am saved. Saved from the punishment I deserve from a holy God, saved from a life of sin, and saved to serve Him and receive eternal life.
Since the Mixtec people usually do not have all this background information, plus the fact that the grammar of the language itself requires saying what you were either saved from or to, it is necessary to say something, and it depends on the context of the verse in question.
It is the same for something like faith. In Mixtec you cannot just say, “I have faith.” I suppose you “can” but the idea is incomplete. Faith in what? So I suppose you “can” say, “I am saved” in Mixtec but the idea is incomplete. Saved/rescued from what or for what, or to what.
So when we think about salvation (or faith or other such concepts), and especially when we are sharing with others about it, it is good to not just use the Christian “lingo” but to really share what God has saved us, rescued us from, and what He has saved, rescued us to. It will help the people we are sharing with understand better and it will help us understand things better too.
That is one of the cool things about working in Bible translation. You really have to think about these things and really get a handle on them in order to help others translate them in a natural, understandable and impactful way in their language.
The account of my almost drowning is a slightly edited version of the telling found in my book, The Just Friends Syndrome, pages 217-218.