Words Matter



January 9, 2024
Available in Audio Format:

Have you ever said something and then, as soon as the words left your lips, regretted it? Have you ever been accused of lying, twisting the truth, sugar-coating a hard reality, or exaggerating?

The Bible speaks of the power of the tongue in James 3:

The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

Words matter. Beyond this fiery description of the tongue, the Bible has a lot to say about how we communicate with fellow believers, the world, and governing officials. We could glean many principles from Scripture, but three stand out: graciousness, boldness, and truthfulness.

Biblical Principles for Communication

Let’s start with graciousness. In Colossians 4:6, Paul says “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

In his letter to the Ephesians (4:25-27, 29, 31), Paul enjoins believers:

Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil… Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear… Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

The apostle Peter instructs believers:

Honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15-16).

The Bible also speaks about boldness. God’s prophets provide great examples, fulfilling the proverb, “the wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). We can follow the example of Nathan before David (2 Samuel 12); Micaiah before Ahab (1 Kings 22); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4); John the Baptist (Matthew 3, Luke 3); and, of course, Jesus (Matthew 23).

All of these men were men of relatively low social status who stood up to speak against the kings and religious leaders of this earth, actions that could (and often did) cost them their lives. For they confessed that the “God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king” (Daniel 3:17).

Finally, the Bible speaks about truthfulness. This is the general thrust behind the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20:16, Deuteronomy 5:20). Some of the Jews couldn’t argue with the truthfulness of Jesus’ words, recognizing, “‘Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God’” (Mark 12:14).

Two of the seven things that the LORD hates relate to truthfulness: “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers” (Proverbs 6:15-19).

Sometimes, the principles of graciousness, boldness, and truthfulness might seem to contradict each other. (In the past, we’ve often mentioned incorporating both grace and truth in our political action). But to be a Christian is to believe in paradoxes: accepting divine sovereignty alongside human responsibility, the full divinity and humanity of Christ, or the one-in-three and three-in-one of the Trinity. So too, we as Christians are called not only to accept but exemplify speaking boldly and truthfully, yet graciously.

But Christians are also called to discernment. Different circumstances demand different ways of speaking. Jesus was the ultimate example of graciousness in his trial and crucifixion, yet not at the cost of boldness and truthfulness. He had no qualms about boldly and truthfully denouncing the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs or a brood of vipers, yet right after this denunciation He graciously laments that He desired to gather “your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” We cannot pick and choose which principle to apply when. We are most faithful when we exemplify all three.

Words Reveal Worldview

Our choice of words reveal more than just our character. Our words also reflect our worldview.

Take, for example, the issue of gender today. Abigail Favale, a Catholic professor at the University of Notre Dame, claims that “the construct of gender identity must be continually buttressed by language in order to appear true.” In other words, not only do our words describe reality but they also influence how we understand reality. (We even confess that God’s Word created reality.) New gender identities, gender pronouns, and definitions of gender all enable a claim that would have been absurd to someone a hundred years ago – that I might be a woman trapped in a man’s body. The choice of words thus betrays a worldview.

The writer George Orwell understood the importance of language in his book 1984. In that dystopian story, he describes a totalitarian regime with a Ministry of Truth that polices language. The Ministry was constantly re-writing books not only to re-write history, but to use new words (“newspeak”) to redefine reality. By manipulating language, the Ministry could make entire concepts disappear. For example, while the word “free” still existed, it meant the absence of something, not the political-economic freedom that we think of and value today. And so people became content with the totalitarianism of Big Brother because they lacked the concepts and language to imagine or articulate reality another way.

Christians must keep alive a biblical worldview in the words that we use. Certain terms carry with them implicit truth claims. For example, take the truth claim implicit by the statement “that person is a trans woman.” The truth claim behind that statement is that someone who was born a man actually is a woman. But biblically speaking, we know that isn’t possible and so we would urge Christians never to call someone a trans woman, because it isn’t true.

Instead, we should choose terms and phrases that best reflect what is true. For example, we might describe someone as a man who identifies as a woman, which both describes the person’s gender confusion and reminds us of the fact that men and women are inherently different. Rather than accepting the claim that a man could be a woman and making that claim central to his identify, this description merely states the belief of someone else.

Use Words Well

Words matter. Scripture commands us to speak with graciousness, boldness, and truthfulness. In seeking to be gracious, we must never ignore or obscure the truth. It is entirely possible that how we say something will be far more impactful than what we say.

How this impacts our speech in the public square should be obvious. Our communication with our elected officials needs to exemplify graciousness, boldness, and truthfulness at the same time while also reveal a better, truer view of the world than offered by our secular culture. Our conversations with our neighbours should be neither shouting matches of disagreement or head-bobbing affairs where we politely agree with whatever they say. Our letters to the editor should avoid parroting the same points as our popular culture, but rather hint at a more biblical worldview.

All of this is hard. If it were easy, James wouldn’t claim that “no human being can tame the tongue” and that “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” But, with the help of the Holy Spirit, it is what we are called to do in our personal lives and in the public square.

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