“Someone might believe you.”
I was taught in seminary that “words create worlds.” I’m a preacher, speaker, and speaking coach, so I try my dead-level best to be careful with words. And the reason I try to be careful is that someone might believe me. Someone might take my words seriously and act on what I say.
There’s no such thing as throwaway words. Spouses’, partners’, parents’ and children’s relationships have been destroyed because of ill-timed words at a crucial moment, or, perhaps worse, the absence of words at a sensitive moment.
A Quick Story
Years ago, after finishing a keynote address at a conference designed to help Christian parents navigate relationships with their LGBTQ+ children, a man approached me for a conversation. He told me about the night his daughter came out. And he told me about the words he said to her. They were harsh, fearful, and peppered with the jeers of unacceptance he’d learned himself as a child. She was devastated and left home the next morning. They haven’t spoken in 24 years.
That’s the power of words.
On January 6th, the world once again, saw the destructive force of words. At the ‘Save America’ rally in Washington D.C., Rudy Giuliani, Eric Trump, and Donald Trump, Jr., incited the crowd with statements such as, “Let’s have trial by combat,” “We ought to march on the Capitol today,” and “We’re coming for you and let’s have a good time doing it.” President Trump added fuel to the fire by extolling the crowd to be strong, saying he would “go with them.” The result was something that hasn’t happened since the War of 1812. Many of us watched live as the U.S. Capitol building was invaded and held for a number of hours by the rioters who were indeed ready for combat in their tactical gear.
Some in the crowd were doing what they thought asked of them. They were marching to battle to ‘Save America.’ But for me, what was the most interesting part was not that these misguided individuals went to the Capitol, as one woman was quoted as saying, “to start a revolution.” It was not a failure of imagination, as some have suggested. It was misuse of language, an abuse of words. All the words for an assault—“coming for you, trial by combat”—had been parading in plain sight, and those words laid the groundwork for the assault on the Capitol we all witnessed.
The speakers on the rally stage were ignorant to the fact that word create worlds.
Different Words, Different Worlds
Perhaps that’s why America was, and continues to be, captivated by the life, ministry, advocacy, and words of Martin Luther King, Jr. On the corner of my desk sits A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. While King’s birthday is celebrated as a national holiday in America, and social media is littered with his quotes, people in his day didn’t care for words of hope. Nowadays, we gloss over the fact that after years of threats against his life, King was assassinated. In a 1968 Harris Poll, King’s disapproval rating sat at an uncomfortable 74 percent. Not only that, he was losing influence, not only with protest-weary whites, but inside the organizations he helped found and lead.
Yet, the words chronicled in the book sitting on my desk testify to a man who grasped the world-creating power of words. In 1966, King said, “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”
Words are not just throwaway items. They are not cheap tools to corral a crowd toward a destructive but self-serving purpose. With every word spoken, each encouragement or admonition uttered, there are people at the ready to create or destroy. This is why pastors, teachers, and church leaders need to see and know about the power of words: we don’t quote Martin Luther King because his words were beautiful. We quote King because his words enlarged our world.This is why pastors, teachers, and church leaders need to see and know about the power of words: we don’t quote Martin Luther King because his words were beautiful. We quote King because his words enlarged our world. Click To Tweet
James, the brother of Jesus, says the tongue is a fire, capable of setting the world ablaze. And it’s about time for Christian people to start believing him. That means both tending our tongue as well as attending to our ears. Each day we run the fundamental risk of saying something someone might believe and hearing something we might believe.
And this, church, is our sacred calling: to be careful with and caretakers of words. Faith comes by hearing: the prophets were people of words; John proclaimed with words the coming of Jesus; our Lord was referred to as “teacher” more than any other title; Paul wrote letters, and Jesus is the Word made flesh. Christianity is a word-centered faith. When faithful people cede words or refuse to hold the abusers of words to account, we disregard a central function of our calling.
When Christians hear lies, insults, conspiracy theories, and calls to assault, rather than embracing and figuring out twisted ways to defend those words, our vocation is not simply to disbelieve them. Our calling is to denounce corroded words while also speaking beauty and truth into the world.
Today, let’s commit to reclaiming the beauty and power of words. We have choices with the worlds we create through the words we choose to use. May we create worlds that lead to greater flourishing of the church, rather than using and sharing words that pave the way for future destruction.