“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Right? Wrong! This threadbare saying expresses only a half-truth, and half-truths are often more seriously misleading than glaring untruths. It is true, of course, that words, being signs or symbols in the form of puffs of air passed through the larynx or dabs of ink on a page, cannot fracture my clavicle as can a brick thrown through my window. Yet words, mere sounds and signs, are able both to “be-thump” us, as Shakespeare put it, and to provoke a flurry of sticks and stones.
Physical violence may often be shown to be the result either of the misuse and abuse of words or of the non-use of words. Communication, someone has said, is “an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” When men lose faith in the power of the word, mere trickery and, ultimately, physical violence are the alternatives; verbal style is abandoned for the violent style of sticks and stones—or of guns and bombs. Perhaps most ironically symbolic of the current rhetoric of violence is the letter-bomb, a device that turns a mode of communication into a mode of eradication.
Christ taught not only that we are accountable for our words but also that words will be the very basis of judgment: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt. 12:37). Suggested in this passage are two ways of words, each with its own destiny: justification or judgment, approbation or anathema. “Words may be either servants or masters,” wrote Bishop Horne. “If the former, they may safely guide us in the way of truth. If the latter, they intoxicate the brain and lead into swamps of thought where there is no solid footing.”
All too many Christians today display what might be called a kind of aphasia—an alarming insensitivity to words, especially their associative meanings. A common notion seems to be that since the gospel message is all-important, the words used to communicate it are relatively unimportant, that it does not really matter how we say it so long as we do say it.
If we are to be judged by our words, we must look to our language. Some Christians show a curious inconsistency in their attitude toward “offensive” language. While they are offended at the use of profane or scatological four- and five-letter words, they seem unaware that some expressions they themselves use are simply compromised distortions of the original forms. For example, secular linguists Robertson and Cassidy, in The Development of Modern English, list the following as “minced” distortions of sacred names: golly, gosh, goodness, gorry, Godfrey, Jeez, Geewhiz, for Pete’s sake, for the love of Mike, for crying out loud, Jimminy Crickets, Jeepers Creepers. Do you realize that when in a moment of disgust you tell someone to “go jump in the lake,” the “lake” is the Lake of Fire? Nonbelievers are sometimes amused at this curious inconsistency on the part of believers. Robertson and Cassidy conclude: “A curious exhibition indeed, of the human desire to sin combined with want of courage!”
Our very words can hinder, hurt, or help the cause of Christ. Words—little puffs of air or dabs of ink—can cause irreparable hurt. They may not break bones, but they can break hearts and lives. “The words of a talebearer are as wounds,” Solomon wrote, “and they go down into the innermost part” (Prov. 18:8).
Even if one argues, as linguists do, that there is no such thing as a “bad word” per se because language is merely a system of symbols, it is true nonetheless that word-symbols take on and convey definite connotations, positive or negative, colored by context and by relations with the ideas they represent. A clear example from the political realm is appease. Before 1938 this word was inoffensive. In the edition current in that year, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defined it simply as “to calm; soothe; allay; pacify, often by satisfying.” But almost overnight the word took on lasting negative connotations as a result of Neville Chamberlain’s ill-fated attempt to avoid war with Hitler by giving in to his demands at Munich. Today no meticulous statesman would use appease in reference to foreign policy for which he seeks public support, for the most recent edition of the same dictionary defines the word as “to pacify; conciliate, especially to buy off by concessions usually at the sacrifice of principles.”
A similar change, over a longer period of time, can be seen in the word fundamentalist, which today has negative connotations for many, perhaps in part because the news media often apply it to fanatical sects, as in the recent furor over the snake-handlers in Tennessee. Paul’s words to the Corinthian believers express both a moral and a linguistic principle: “Evil communication [association] corrupts good manners [morals]” (1 Cor. 15:33).
Sensitivity to and ability to control our words is, according to James, a sign of Christian maturity: “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect [mature] man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (3:2). James reemphasizes the two ways of words: “Therewith bless we God … and therewith curse we men” (3:9).
It is obvious that our words can blight or bless others and that we can be hurt or helped by the words of others. What I have never heard emphasized in evangelical Christendom, however, is that the words he uses can also affect, for good or ill, the user himself—his mental processes and spiritual attitudes. George Orwell expressed this significant linguistic principle in his essay “Politics and the English Language”: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Similarly, Benjamin Whorf, in Language, Mind, and Reality, wrote: “The forms of a person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived intricate systemization of his own language.…” Stuart Chase, in an article entitled “How Language Shapes Our Thoughts” appearing a few years ago in Harper’s, observed that language “molds one’s whole outlook on life,” for “thinking follows the tracks laid down in one’s language.” Thus, while it is true that our words reflect our state of mind and heart—for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matt. 12:34)—it is also true that the words we use, the linguistic patterns we form, influence our thoughts and attitudes, for “those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile the man” (Matt. 15:18).
Does such language as “cool cat,” “funky freak,” “groovy guy upstairs,” “swinging superstar” when used to describe the eternal Godhead reflect a scriptural concept of Deity? Does not such language actually demean the user’s concept of Christ and affect his attitude toward God? Dave Wilkerson has said: “You cannot win rebels by being like them. Put away your childish talk. God is not ‘groovy’ or ‘hip’ and Christ is not a ‘cool cat.’ ”
This is one way of words. If the thoughts are corrupt, the words will be, and the corrupt words will, in turn, further corrupt the thoughts. And so the thoughts and words spiral downward.
But Christ and James spoke of another way of words: the way of “blessing,” leading to justification. The question is, How can one be assured that his words are of the second way, the way of blessing? The answer lies in Christ’s words in John 12:48—“He that rejecteth me and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoke, the same shall judge him in the last day.” Man will be judged not only on the basis of his own words but also on the basis of how he has reacted to the words of Christ.
The solution, then, to the problem of rendering our words acceptable in his sight lies in receiving his words and letting “the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly …, teaching and admonishing … and singing with grace in [our] hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16). The Psalmist, who prayed, “Let the words of my mouth … be acceptable in thy sight” (Ps. 19:14), expressed also the secret of acceptable words: “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee” (Ps. 119:11). “Thy words were found and I did eat them,” Jeremiah wrote, “and they were the joy and rejoicing of my heart” (15:16). If we are filled with the Logos, the Living Word, and if we take our fill of and digest the written word, our own destiny in words will be one of blessing.
Paul admonished the Ephesian believers to “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth [the first way of words] but that which is good to the use of edifying [the second way of words], that it might minister grace unto the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). Our words should edify, build up; they should minister grace. But words can minister grace only if they themselves are grace-full. To the Colossian Christians Paul wrote: “Let your language be always seasoned with the salt of grace” (Col. 4:6, Weymouth). Our words must be characterized by grace, charis, that favor which can transform an unpleasing circumstance into a pleasing one, an awkward situation into a glorious one. This linguistic charm is what Solomon must have had in mind when he wrote: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov. 25:11).
Solomon earlier spoke of the second way of words: “A man hath joy by the answer of his mouth; and a word spoken in due season, how good is it” (Prov. 15:23). Our words, if they are of the second way, will reflect the Word of Life, who “gave the Word” (Ps. 68:11). Written and spoken words are analogues of the Living, Eternal Word. The German philosopher Max Picard wrote in his book Man and Language: “The eternal and objective quality of language is the reflection of the divine Word by which the world was created and which is still actively at work in language.” God intends the same living, eternal word (Heb. 4:12), by which the worlds were framed (Heb. 11:3), by which all things are upheld (Heb. 1:3), by which we are made new creatures (1 Pet. 1:23), to indwell us and empower us. To whom can we go for acceptable words of life (John 6:68) but to the Word of Life (1 John 1:1)? And how can our words be acceptable unless we accept his words and make them a part of us?
Those who reject his words will be judged by them and condemned by their own; those who accept the Word and his words are justified, and to the extent that they are richly filled with his words of grace, their own words gracefully administer grace to others. Everyman’s destiny is a destiny in words; the question is simply which way of words that destiny will be.
Having begun with a threadbare saying, we might well conclude with a revision of another: “What you say speaks so loudly that I can’t see what you do.”
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