The power of words

Words – often few – carry powerful messages. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 18.21

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

But even a simple, cursory observation of the world – at any point in time – gives clear evidence that spoken words are a powerful tool. This divine gift – verbal communication – is perhaps man’s most distinguishing characteristic from the rest of creation – and can be a great blessing, or a great curse. God started early defining the parameters of the proper use of verbal communication. The second commandment in Exodus 20.7

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

He extended this to lying and deception; to spiteful and vicious speech; to rash outbursts of anger that, Jesus said, is “heart murder”. Notice Proverbs 6.17,19

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: … a lying tongue,… a false witness who breathes out lies…

Proverbs 16.27-28

A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire. A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.

And Matthew 6.22

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

As many other passages in scripture make clear, this was only the beginning of how man would take such a precious gift and make of it such a deadly weapon. And Jesus gave clear warning about the consequences in Matthew 12.36-37

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

Given the powerful nature of our spoken (and written) words, we need to be careful. Some thoughts for consideration…

Power

Words can have tremendous positive impact. For example, God spoke the world into being, as the Hebrew writer says in 11.3

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.

Chief among the creation was man – a being made in the likeness of God (Genesis 1.26-27). One of those likenesses is our communicative ability, and our related reasoning capability. We would also note that God uses this communicative ability as the basis for man’s rescue from sin, as Paul explains in Romans 1.16

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…

God uses words to reach man. He does not overwhelm man against man’s will, or coerce obedience. As we like to say, God does battle through the gospel for the “hearts and minds” of human beings. Notice what the Hebrew writer says in 4.12

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Alas, humankind has taken this incredible power for good,… and corrupted it. James warns in James 1.19b

…let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

In our vernacular, James says, “think before you speak.” There should be a deliberateness in our communication. Sadly, in the world of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, we often – as the saying goes – “get our mouth running before our mind is in gear.” It is so common in the worldly culture, where we are divided over many issues, that words coming spewing out without thought or consideration for the harm they can do, the impressions they can leave, or the scars they can inflict. It is tragically ironic that we will meditate, pray, consult, examine, research for hours, days, even weeks before making a decision that impacts the lives of a handful of people, but we’ll run off at the mouth in an instant to say something that will impact thousands of lives, for an eternity. It ought not be so.

Permanence

Words are permanent. Something spoken or written is on the historical record for good. Despite our attempts to “delete” things we regret, it can’t be done. Oh, we can remove something written or erase something recorded, but the damage is done. There is no “rewind” button on life. And written words (like these!), particularly, carry tremendous power that persists!

That is not to say this is all bad. There is a good side to this idea of permanence as well. It is this permanence that is the basis for God’s revelation to man – and our confidence in God’s “unchangeableness” is the foundation of our salvation. Notice the words of Peter in 1 Peter 1.22-25

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding words of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” (Isaiah 40.8)  And this word is the good news preached to you.

What God has settled in his word is permanent and unchangeable – this is a great comfort to us. God’s immutability (his attribute that ensures he won’t change) is our assurance. Jesus said God’s word won’t change in Luke 21.33

…heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away.

The message is clear: the words will not pass away, that is, the meaning, import, and application of those words is eternal and will not change. But just as the power of words has a dark side, so does the permanence of words. And this ought to impress on us that words carry on indefinitely – particularly written words. What we write to each other, in e-mails, in notes, on social network pages, and blogs,… these words are much longer lasting than spoken words, which are often forgotten over time. Even after we apologize and repent – the words we posted, sent, Tweeted, or whatever… remain. The great blessing of our world-wide communication ability needs to be tempered by the knowledge of the extraordinary damage that written words can do when they are untrue and ungracious.

Equally important, our modern communication methods should never substitute for going to a person directly, as the scriptures teach (Matthew 18.1ff). No matter how perfect and true our words seem on a glowing screen, most of the time they are not truly researched and defined. E-mails, blogs, and social network sites have no editor or legal publishing protection. We would be wise to consider potentially slanderous accusations if we have not spoken to someone directly. Let’s remember our obligations as taught by the Savior.

Graciousness

We have a spiritual obligation to be gracious in our words. It is what Jesus admonished in Matthew 7.12

So whatever you wish others to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Paul exhorts likewise in Romans 12.8

Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Jesus taught that being a peacemaker is blessed in Matthew 5.9

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

There are some who may be quick to point out that Jesus calls us to spiritual battle. But we ought not mistake and equate expressions of hatred, cruelty, slander, judgment, etc., as “doing spiritual battle.” God’s greatest tools to influence a lost world are more often humility, grace, and peacemaking – not arrogance, dogmatism, rebellion, and ridicule of sinful people or governing authorities, both in the spiritual realm and the civil realm. We are not called to fight political and social battles. We are fighting for the “hearts and minds” of lost souls.

We also owe a debt to our brethren to be truthful and honest in what we say. Notice Ephesians 4.25

…having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth to his neighbor, for we are members of one another.

The call to a new way of living includes putting away deceptive and dishonest communication. There is a never a time when dishonesty is a course of action a disciple should choose. It is never right to deceive for our own gain. A lying person can never be trusted to tell the truth, and is always thought to be angling for advantage – even when they are not. As people of God, disciples are truthful. “We are members of one another,” Paul says. Telling the truth is a debt we owe each other, and if we love each other we will not attempt to deceive for our own advantage.

Words have power. And that power is endowed so that we can use our extraordinary communicative ability for good things – particularly things that glorify and advance the cause of our Savior.

May grace reign through righteousness in your life.

– Bo Couchman

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