5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. (James 2:5-12 NASB95)
The Power of Words
In this letter from James, one of the most revealing passages is that which addresses speech—the use of words. James goes to great lengths and incessant hyperbole to underscore the power of language, and more specifically, the power of words.
Nothing much has changed since the first century. In our word-filled 21st century culture we have forgotten—or worse, intentionally trivialized—the power of words. We tend to say whatever is on our minds, whenever we want to say it. We have no practical filter cautioning our use of words, or if we do, we don’t listen to it. Indeed, when filled with emotion, we will often bust out with a string of abusive words aimed at a specific individual, with the intention of causing as much pain as possible. Worse yet, when we don’t bust out, we calculate what we should say to inflict the most damage to our opponent’s psyche.
Words Can Tear Down
People don’t often forget the abusive words that are spoken to them. Words often scar us far more than actual physical abuse. On the other hand, words spoken in encouragement, love, or hope give us joy, energy, and strength. A kind word from either a stranger or a friend will often change the trajectory of our day. It can go from bad to pretty good in a heartbeat when positive, complementary words are spoken.
In our “modern” culture, where the empirical canons of science are the exclusive authority on reality, the idea that words have power beyond simple symbolism is unheard of. How can words have power? Psychologists—scientists in the field of human emotion and the construction of self—would tell you that human beings, from the moment they emerge from the womb, are immersed in the world of words. Babies sense the pleasant rhythm and tone of encouragement and the angry tone and pattern of discouragement.
To this sensitivity of rhythm and tone is eventually added definition and meaning. When delivered with malicious intent, words become “daggers” to the heart and stumbling blocks in our minds. Yet, when delivered with compassion, sympathy, joy, and love words become treasures to the heart, peace for the mind, and motivation for the good. Words are powerful psychological stimulants, but through education, and if necessary, medication, a person can be trained to control his or her words. This is the psychological view.
Words Contain Life and Death
Yet for those who are people of faith, words have a whole different level of meaning. Words contain the power of life and death. Words must be carefully chosen for they have inherent power to bless, to curse, to heal, or to wound, and even kill. With a single word you can make a friend or an enemy. This is the power of the word. The word cannot simply be reduced to communication. Bears, dogs, cats, porpoises, and whales communicate. They use growls, barks, meows, tail wagging, pawing, clicks, as well as an assortment of tonal combinations in order to communicate; but these are not “words.” Speaking words is a uniquely human means of communication. As Christians read back through the scriptural narrative, we find that speaking, naming, blessing, and cursing have a power that we have somehow forgotten or dismissed, and that to our detriment.
Today, many pastors, ministers, and other ordained persons use words without thinking through the implications of their use. A word spoken by a pastor or from the pulpit has often discouraged, rather than encouraged, and cursed, instead of blessed. Additionally, humans tend not to use words, but rather abuse words. We have lost sight of the claim that creation was an act of God’s word (…and God said; “let there be light,” and there was!), and that Jesus is that creative, and powerful word made flesh (John 1:1-3). Scripture describes to us the power of words very clearly:
The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples,
That I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple. (Isaiah 50:4)
When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill. (Matthew 8:16)
Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. (John 6:68)
Let’s Be Intentional with Our Words
Words that are spoken thoughtfully, intentionally, with love, and in faith carry the power of God to change, to heal, to encourage, to bring joy, to confront evil, and to experience love. The word that is misspoken in anger, with hatred and malevolence, brings harm and pain. To even wish such a thing is sin; grief to God, pain to others, and damage to our own souls.
I commend each of you to be more intentional about your speech. Let your words be full of the goodness and power that people need to experience. If we do not seek to control our speech, it will come back to grieve us. Speak truth, in love, and your world will change around you. As the apostle Paul stated, “but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…” Amen.