"Every time we open our mouths, whether in conversation with one another or in prayer to our Lord, Christian truth and community are on the line. And so, high on the agenda of the Christian community in every generation is that we diligently develop a voice that speaks in consonance with the God who speaks, that we speak in such a way that truth is told and community is formed…” – Eugene Peterson, Tell it Slant
Words, human words, sounds and symbols from human vessels are all sacred. We create an artificial line of demarcation when we attempt to label some words “sacred” and some words “common.” The words we use are all sacred because our ability to use language – whether it is spoken, written, typed, or thumbed into our phone – is a God-given trait. God who spoke the universe into existence has created us in his image, which includes the beauty of language. This gift of language was employed by God to create and communicate with his creation, and has been given to humanity.
We can can turn ideas into words and craft together meaningful sentences opening up the doors of human relationships and interaction. With words we can give and receive love. We can pray. We can order a pizza. We can tell people how to do both simple and complex tasks. We can create poetry and story. We can worship. We can acknowledge the presence of our neighbors.
Granted we can also use our words as weapons. We can use words to hate, to harm, to tear down, and to destroy. These examples are the desecration of language. The words we use to express hate or harm others come from the same body of language we use to love. The very fact that words can be used to harm underscores the power words have in shaping us. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21 ESV). As a child I learned the simple saying: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This dancing little phrase may be simple, but it is devastatingly untrue! Words can and do hurt.
I remember being a freshman in high school and trying to get water after basketball practice and spilling ice all over the gym floor and one of my teammates calling me a name which referenced a certain part of the male anatomy. That word hurt. Words pack a punch. We can process the hurtful words spoken to us and reject them, but such processing requires work that can become overwhelming. If I walk into my five-year-old’s bedroom before he goes to bed and in the darkness tell him he is a worthless reject, a friendless, talentless waste of space, and if I did this every night until his eighteenth birthday, he may not have enough time in his entire adult life to process the pain I created in him by the words I spoke.
As followers of Jesus, we need to rediscover the sacredness of language and choose our words carefully whether they are spoken out loud or typed into one of our many social media platforms. We live in such a reactive age, and for all of its value in supplementing community, social media makes our reactivity so quick and effortless. For many social media has become a place where they say “this happened and here is what I think about it!” When we are highly reactive and highly agitated, it is easy to use our words as weapons to fire off missiles of discontent towards our enemies and innocent bystanders. We may feel better once we have gotten things “off our chest,” but when the rant is over the shrapnel remains.
I know you felt led to take a stand for what is right.
I know you didn’t mean to step on toes.
I know you have the right to speak your mind – but Jesus shows us a better way, and perhaps we have forgotten the purpose of communication:
The goal of communication is not to be heard; the goal of communication is to hold something in common.
The very word “communication” has the word “commune” in it. Communication was not intended to be a one-sided event, but to be a two-way process of sending and receiving. Communication works like this: I have this idea in my mind and I want that idea to be in your mind, so I choose a certain medium in which to share this idea with you and when you are holding on to the same idea I am holding onto, then communication is complete in its most sacred form. When I choose a desecrated form of communication, when I use my words like missiles to fire off from my bunker in the hopes of hitting someone or something, those words are not accepted, but emotional shields of defence go up and a retaliation strike is ordered.
I see this kind of communication warfare all the time when couples in our church come to see me when they are having communication troubles. For example, a husband will begin to describe some offense he has received from his wife and when, in my office, they begin to talk about the issue, he begins to fire off missiles of blame and accusation. She feels attacked and rightly so. In retaliation she fires back missiles of her own and neither of them hear what the other is saying because they are stuck in a deadly cycle of attack and defend, accuse and protect. The way to break free is for the offended person to learn to use words that express how he or she feels without accusation and for the offender to learn how to seek understanding and empathy in a way that promotes the validation of pain and the process of forgiveness. Reconciliation has everything to do with the words we speak. Instead of saying, “You treated me like dirt because you are a selfish jerk,” say, “When you speak to me like that it hurts. It makes me feel angry and wounded.”
As long as our words are dripping with blame and accusation, we continue to give the devil, the satan, the accuser (!) a foothold. Jesus came to cast out the satan. In speaking of his pending death, Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32 ESV). Jesus by his death cast out the satan, because Jesus suffered injustice at the hands of our human representatives and did not speak words of accusation and blame, instead he spoke words of forgiveness which created a doorway into a new kind of life. In this new way, we learn to lay down blame, accusation, and the tendency to chop down our enemies with the rant.
When we turn our words of weapons into words of wisdom, and choose words that allow us to speak the truth in love, then we work towards building real Christian community.
[Photo: COLORED PENCIL magazi, CC via Flickr]