Wrong Words and the Word-loving Missionary
Rachel Marie Stone
Someone said the wrong thing to me…and I survived.
You've no doubt come across one of those lists telling you the 10 or 12 or 20 "things you should never say" to women, pregnant women, people who are sober, pastor's children, adoptive parents, and so on.
These "listicles" have become popular and highly sharable as Christians take one another to task online for using the "wrong" words to speak of someone or something. Even when the issue is relatively minor and no offense was intended, we're quick to point out the wrong use of a given word.
I'll admit it: I'm a logophile—a lover of words. I like precise language, and I don't find it arduous to stay current on the terms considered polite and respectful. I prefer expressions like "a person experiencing homelessness" to "homeless person" because the former puts the person first and does not define the person by the unfortunate situation in which they happen to be.
And yet I am not at all a fan of these endless "what not to say" lists, or of the vigilante language-policing I see in online spaces and in real life. I don't like to see well-intentioned people called on the carpet for perceived terminological infractions.
In her nonfiction essay "Puritans and Prigs," the novelist Marilynne Robinson recounts one such incident, in which a woman publicly embarrassed an older "very generous spirited man" for a minor slip in usage—something along the lines of saying Hispanic instead of Latino.
Robinson points out that arrogance of the woman's correction in this instance:
The woman had simply made a demonstration of the fact that her education was more recent, more fashionable, and more extensive than his. […] To be able to defend magnanimity while asserting class advantage!
When we create lists of things never to say or publicly rebuke people over what amount to trifling missteps in their language, do we not often do out of a sense of pride: that we, not they, know the right words; that we, not they, are righteous in our indignation, even if their intentions were innocuous? (Would I rebuke the octogenarian at the nursing home who whistles and calls me "darling" for his sexist behavior? Never!
Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She'd been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:
"I just can't stand the thought of all the stupid things people at church might say to me about this experience," I told her.
"But people will say stupid things," she said kindly. "The question is, how will you receive those stupid remarks?"
It seemed to me then that my own sense of the importance of right words did not necessitate my hair-trigger outrage at hearing "wrong" words. I could survive thoughtless remarks, choosing to hear, beneath them, the genuine concern and impulse to connect that underlies so much of our imperfect human communication.
Graciousness and wisdom to compel us to watch our words—much of the book of Proverbs is devoted to that truth—but it's equally true that graciousness and wisdom beckon us to be generous in our reception of "wrong" words, slow to anger and ready to let love cover a multitude of sins, as it so beautifully does.
Wrong Words and the Adoptive Mom
"I have two children by adoption," I told my new friend when we first met earlier this summer. She looked at me intently. "Can I ask you something?" she said. I nodded. "Are you one of those moms who gets really offended about using the right words for adoption? I know some people like that—who want everyone to know the correct terms—and now I'm kind of afraid to talk to them."
People do say thoughtless things. An article for Parenting magazine, "10 Things You Shouldn't Say to Adoptive Parents," lists some that I've heard many times myself: Why did his real parents give him up? Are they real sisters [brothers]? Your child's so lucky.
Ugh. I really want strangers to stop asking if only one of my three kids is "my own." I want people's language to reflect the truth that even children are image-bearers. And I don't feel obligated to give every busybody a full explanation of my adopted child's personal history.
But I have also found that hurtful comments and microaggressions are an opportunity. They help me to sympathize with my children who face an even greater degree of nosiness and ignorance. And they make me love my Savior more.
People said the wrong things to Jesus, too. They said his humble beginnings disqualified him for greatness (Matt. 13:53-58). And in the case of a man named Nathanael, the words were especially egregious. When his friend Philip came to tell him about Jesus, Nathanael responded: "'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'" (Jn. 1:46)
If there were a first-century list of "10 Things You Shouldn't Say to Jesus" that would make the top five. Jesus of Nazareth is the only good man, the eternal Son, and the one whom angels cannot cease praising. So, yes, Nathanael, something infinitely good can come out of Nazareth.
But Jesus, the gracious Savior, is not harsh. He doesn't respond snarkily to Nathanael of Cana, as Matthew Henry suggests he could have, saying, "'Can anything good come out of Cana?'" Instead, he makes Nathanael his disciple. I want to be your friend, Nathanael. I want to hear what you have to say. And the next words out of Nathanael's mouth are so much better: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (Jn. 1:49)
I, too, have said stupid things to Jesus. I have failed to understand who he is and have failed to use right words about Him. But Jesus welcomed me even as I was clumsily inserting foot into mouth, and he covered my idle words with his own blood. As a Christ-follower, I don't want to make everyone afraid to say anything for fear it might be the wrong thing. My Jesus didn't.
Wrong Words and the Single Christian
Sometimes, it seems like other people can sense the aspects of our lives we find most difficult and hone in directly on them.
For instance, we singles face misconceptions, assumptions, and just plain rudeness as others speculate what we must have done wrong to still be single, tell us how we don't fit in a certain church, or accuse us of being what's wrong with the church in general. Some people even use the "No wonder you're single!" line when we do or say something they don't like.
It never fails to amaze me, in fact, just how insensitive people can still be in an age that prides itself on its sensitivity.
I understand why we list rules of how people should and shouldn't speak. We're trying to remind them of the need for courtesy—and we're also trying to protect ourselves from hurt feelings. But when we pile up the rules and get so rigid about them, then we risk becoming the ones who are discourteous.
We use every little thing we don't like about someone's words or actions as an excuse to look down on them, while basking in our own self-righteousness. Also, we can become arrogant enough to think we speak for every member of our group. (Some "rules for talking to singles" I've seen didn't apply to me at all.)
"Do to others as you would have them do to you" works both ways, and those of us who find ourselves getting offended more and more easily need to keep that in mind. Some of us do need to work on being more sensitive and considerate of others' feelings. But at the same time, many of us need to work on our patience and grace, and sometimes just give the benefit of the doubt.