While walking across the graduation stage in December of 2013 to receive my undergraduate degree in Communications and English I knew that I had been called to ministry and that I would be beginning a Master’s degree at the nearby seminary in the following Spring. What I did not then see is how closely my undergraduate “secular” degrees and my ministerial vocation would align. As a minister and writer, I spend much of my time thinking about words.
Words are often something that we all take for granted. We can communicate with ease with the people around us because of words and known language. But think about it… words are not simply sounds caused by air passing through our larynx. In a medical sense words can be narrowed down to a group of muscles operating together in unity to create sounds that we interpret meaning from… but we as living beings understand words to have real power. Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for almost 3 decades because of his beliefs and activism, knew the power of words. He is often quoted today, but that was not always the case. While in prison his words could not be quoted for fear of punishment. After his release he said,
It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are, and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.
Nelson Mandela understood the power of words. Words don’t carry power by accident; in fact, God spoke the world into being by the power of His words. Hebrews 11:3 says,
By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Words were the instruments by which God created all things, and creation was established by God’s words! How awesome is that? But if more proof is needed to establish the weight of spoken word I would add that with faith filled words Jesus calmed the raging sea, with faith filled words Jesus raised the widow’s son, and with faith filled words Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb. The Bible has a lot to say about words that we as Christians need to know and understand.
Words do more than convey information. The power of our words can actually destroy one’s spirit, stir up hatred and violence, sow disunity among the brethren, and annihilate one’s witness before others. In fact, King Solomon, author of most of the Old Testament book of Proverbs and one whom many assume to be the wisest man to have ever lived, wrote many times about the power of words. In Proverbs 18:21 he said,
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.
Out of all the things God created we, as humans, are the only ones who have received the gift of words. We can use them as a gift or a curse… but nonetheless, the power to use words is a unique and powerful gift from God.
How often do we hear statements like, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” or “I’m rubber and you are glue, your words bounce off me and stick to you”? As a kid these might be nifty comebacks for the playground bully… but as we grow older we become more and more aware of how false these statements really are.
To be blatantly honest the things people say to me often stick to me. This is in direct contradiction of what I used to say to mean name callers! Words stick to my heart and soul, sometimes in uncomfortably painful ways. Being a Believer can be difficult in an age where everyone has the right and the willingness to express themselves… sometimes even at the expense of others. Being a minister can be difficult in an age where everyone believes their opinion is fact and that it is beneficial to express… even at the expense of disunity or demoralizing their Pastor.
The fact is… words have the potential to produce positive or negative consequences. They have the power to give life through encouragement and honesty or to crush and kill through lies, gossip, and demoralization. How can we be assured of producing good words that have a positive outcome?
So…what should we ask ourselves about our words before we open our mouths? Let’s think together.
- Are these words helpful?
This question is the best starting point. To be clear, helpful words are not always comfortable or easy to say words. Some of the most helpful words I have ever received in my life have been some of the hardest words I ever could have imagined hearing at the time.
Proverbs 27:17 says,
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
Sometimes forces have to collide in order for growth to occur. Iron hitting iron is not always a great sound… but in the end there is a sharpening that occurs. There are times when we can help another person by kindly exhorting or even rebuking them. The difference between helpful and non-helpful words though is that even when we are rebuking someone we are doing it for his or her good and not because of any other factor or motivation.
Ephesians 4:29 puts this into context when it says,
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Our words are meant for building others up… nothing more and nothing less. But, often we use words carelessly, without considering their impact. We complain, we mouth off, we criticize, or we gossip. I think we talk sometimes simply because we’re afraid of being overlooked or we overvalue our opinion. But if our words aren’t going to be helpful, it’s best just to remain quiet. I believe it is important to remember that our words aren’t just for sharpening others… but sometimes we are meant to be another person’s support system or motivation to continue fighting the good fight until the end.
- Are these words true?
Have you ever met someone who struggled with the truth? Maybe they are the type of person who likes to have the best story and they don’t care to bend the truth to get there… maybe they are the type of person who enjoys being the center of attention even if it means twisting or bending the truth to get there. Some of these people I have encountered seem so accustomed to lying that I’m not sure they even know what the truth is anymore. People who don’t want to face reality can sometimes convince themselves to believe things that they really know are not true. They have bent the truth so much that they believe their version of the truth to be accurate!
Some deception isn’t as cut and dry as a straight up untruth though… some think they are innocent as long as they say what is technically true, even though they intend to mislead others to believe what is not true. It is absolutely possible to tell things that are technically true, yet leave out pertinent facts or otherwise speak in a way that we lead others to believe untruths.
Most of us have lied before, perhaps because we’re trying to cover up for a poor decision we made, avoid confrontation, or to get something we want. I have found that almost every lie can boil down to this simple truth…
We lie because value our own interests rather than valuing the interests of others.
Philippians 2:4 says,
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Let’s examine our words and find them to be true. God never lies, and never has, so neither should we. We must stay in line with the truth even when it hurts, even when it means we won’t get our way, and even when it means we are wrong.
1 Corinthians 3:18 says,
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
- Are these words timed correctly?
Proverbs 15:23 has been a passage that always has intrigued me. It says,
To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!
How can a “word” be in season? I’ve come to understand that it is possible to say the right thing at the wrong time. For example, Sunday mornings are hectic for most ministers. It is what we have prepared all week for! For myself, on Sundays I am typically at church before the sun comes up and I am usually the last to leave after leading multiple services. Ministering pulls a lot out of me on Sundays! Sunday afternoon is typically not the ideal time to provide suggestions to me about what has taken place that morning. I’m too tired, drained, and sensitive; the timing isn’t right, even when the suggestions are helpful.
Sometimes we are better off evaluating our “truths” to make sure they are true and allowing them to sit until they are in “season” to be received.
- Are these words kind and gracious?
The truth is meant to “set us free.” Jesus says this to His disciples in John 8: 32,
You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
The truth is meant to be a liberator, but yet we all know people, maybe even ourselves, who have used it as a weapon to beat people up and to tie them down. The truth can at times be uncomfortable and hard to hear and say… but it should always be used in love. Ephesians 4:15-16 says,
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
The truth isn’t for our personal gain… but rather for the edifying of the Body and the building up of the Kingdom. I always try to ask myself, “How would I want somebody to tell me what I’m about to say? Is the way I’m about to say this consistent with the way I am called to live and interact with others? Speaking the truth is only half of what we are called to do… we must do so in love for the full effect.
We should allow our speech to be “seasoned with salt,” full of grace and kindness and love like we read about in Colossians 4:6 where it says,
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
Psalm 19:14 says,
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.