The words we choose reveal a good deal about us. Our vocabulary, to some extent, is a window into our soul. If, for example, I say the sunset was ineffably sublime rather than aaaawesome, I have told you more about myself than about the sunset. When President Trump tweets at 4:00 a.m. that Senator Rand Paul is a lightweight, we learn more about the President than we do about the senator from Kentucky. When your teenager answers every third question you ask with the verbal tic Whatever—itself neither a question nor an answer; three syllables not imbued with any meaning whatsoever—you know you have some work to do as his parent. Words matter.
Saint Augustine once said, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart. With all due respect, I think he got it backward. The issue is not that my tongue can’t live up to my heart. It’s that the words I choose actually give shape to my heart. Words matter. The way we speak is both a testimony and a tutor. My words testify—they reveal—what is already in my heart. At the same time, my words are highly effective tools that help shape who I am and who I am becoming.
The Bible is full of words about how we should use our words.
- Our speech is to be seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6).
- We are to be in the habit of speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:20). Paul seems to imply that the words we use with one another will actually affect the state of our heart toward God.
- Proverbs 15:1 says, A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. We often think that the wrath that is turned away is that of our enemy, and certainly that is in the mind of the author. But when we offer a soft answer, we hear our own words, and our wrath subsides.
- Proverbs 15:4 says, A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. Put differently, the words we use will either produce life in us, or we will be crushed by our own vocabulary.
As Eugene Peterson put it, For those…who decide to follow Jesus, it only follows that we will not only listen to what he says and attend to what he does, but also learn to use language the way he uses it.
Think about the Sermon on the Mount. Toward the beginning, Jesus challenges us to discipline our feelings. We shouldn’t, for example, be angry with one another. We may ask, And how might I control my anger? With the words we use to express our anger. Jesus says we are not to call our brother a fool. Indeed, he may be a fool, but if I speak of him as such, I only fuel my anger. Elsewhere Jesus warns against our every careless word and tells us that we will be judged for the words we speak. By them, we will be either justified or condemned (Matthew 12:36-37). Words matter.
Okay, full stop. Words are important. Got it, right? If so, you can stop reading here, and you will have my main point. But for those with some staying power, let’s do two quick case studies of words that have sneaked into our vocabularies like thieves in the night. These two words have their place, but I wonder about the place they have. Especially in recent years.
Consider the way we use—or overuse—the words healthy and safe. I have been around awhile, and I’ve seen these two words attain a prominence in the past decade unknown to previous generations.
We talk about making healthy choices. And we want to feel safe. For example, some time ago, I heard a well-meaning father tell his daughter in a supermarket that a certain cereal wouldn’t be a healthy choice. I have heard numerous parents bemoan the fact that their son or daughter is making some very unhealthy choices in areas of life far more significant than what kind of breakfast to eat. Then there is the word safe. Colleges and universities are creating safe spaces where students are protected from any ideas they might find unsettling. Some might forgo attending a worship service because they don’t feel safe. Friendships are broken because the relationship no longer feels safe.
Of course our choices should be healthy, and safe places enable us to thrive. But something in me wants to push back just a tiny bit. If our choices are merely healthy, I think we might miss something important. And if safe is the prerequisite of every space we enter, we might miss the adventure inherent in a life of discipleship.
I have had an uneasy alliance with this word healthy for some years. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then the light came in. Healthy, while a good term, is more medical than moral. The purpose of all things medical is the preservation of my health. Of course! But, as a believer, I am called to do the right thing—and that may not always be the healthy thing. Telling the truth, for example, is right, but in certain circumstances, truth-telling may cost me my job. And then there is the word safe. Of course, every instinct of the human heart is to gravitate toward safety. But if safe spaces are the only places I intend to dwell, then whom will the lions eat in the Coliseum?
In other words, my allegiance to Jesus might—and probably will—compel me to make some pretty unsafe and unhealthy choices. When Paul preached the gospel and was beaten so severely he was left for dead, he was not reaping the benefits of healthy choices. When Daniel prayed with his drapes pulled open, he ended up in the lion’s den. When Joseph ran away to avoid a tryst with his boss’s wife, he ended up in prison for two years. It’s high time that we twenty-first century believers acknowledge that truth is not a safe place. Jesus said the truth will set you free (John 8:32). It will, but truth might get you crucified, too.
So, how do the two halves of this Community News essay fit together? Well, to repeat the point, words matter. Words, for instance, shape our soul, a truth that implies the way we speak becomes something of a self-fulfilled prophecy. Simply put, we will become like the words we use. In his recent book Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform Our Faith, Greg Spencer writes, We are stuck in the houses that our words construct.
So let us take care to construct the houses in which we wish to live. I recently read a quote by poet Sir Derek Walcott, To change your language, you must change your life. He is probably right, but the inverse is true, too. Change your language, and you will change your life. Words matter.