If you grew up in the company of other children, there is a good chance you were privy to playground name-calling and the subsequent motherly advice that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This well-meaning retort never really did much to disarm bullies. Even as young children, we understood that the little ditty was no more than a coping mechanism. Words really can hurt us because they yield more power than sticks and stones could ever possess.
Words are almost never insignificant. For within our words is an innate ability to call new realities into existence. Don’t believe me? Consider the reality a verbally abusive father creates for his little girl with every insult he hurls. Watch for the moment when a bride and groom proclaim their vows with the words “I do.” Or behold a judge handing down a “guilty” verdict. Feel the tension in the room—the yearning. In each case, just a few simple words determine a new reality of identity, marriage or incarceration. With just one utterance, lives are changed forever—for better or worse, richer or poorer.
And if these examples weren’t enough to prove the reality-changing power of words, consider two stories from the Bible. The first appears in the very first paragraph of Genesis: “In the beginning …” We see a narrative of God’s spoken word bringing all of creation into existence. “Let there be light,” He proclaimed, and there was light. Then He spoke the rest of the world into being, and all living things with it. God spoke humans into existence, too, and in the process He uniquely crafted us into little representations of His own image, each one of us possessing a similar ability to address creation with our mouths. In the creation story, God literally created reality with words.
This second story occurs as John informs us in his Gospel that The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This particular story serves as a means to conjoin the Old and New Testaments together with perfect prose. I love these opening lines in John’s Gospel not only because they sum up the Christmas story in a concise theological manner, but also because of the rich symbolism they arouse. In the same way that the spoken words of God brought creation into existence, so also The Word made flesh created a new reality of salvation. Through the power of The Word, the old reality of sacrifice and law was replaced with mercy and grace. The author of Hebrews reiterates this narrative of words when he describes Jesus as the “perfecter … of faith” (Hebrews 12:2, TNIV). In the salvation story, God literally changed reality through The Word.
And once they are expressed, words not only create—they also reveal. Words are windows for us to see deeper into the heart of the one who is speaking. To quote Matthew’s Gospel: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). In Jesus’ case, The Word made flesh gave us a better picture of who God is. We were finally able to plainly see the heart of God in the reality of creation and salvation. Through Jesus we are able to see the unifying theme that God is speaking and establishing the reality of life. The Word created life and sustains life. The Word provides salvation (which is even more life). The Word reveals that within God’s heart is life, life and more life. So, Jesus isn’t kidding when He tells His disciples, “The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the spirit and life” (John 6:63).
But where does that leave us? Since we’ve been created in God’s image with this strange ability to affect the world we live in with what we say, what do our own words reveal about who we are? What do the realities we’re creating disclose about our hearts and our character?
James bluntly pointed out that there’s something suspect about a mouth that pours forth both blessings and curses. He gives us a good metaphor a few verses later when he writes that it’s impossible to draw completely fresh spring water from a brackish reservoir. If blessings and curses are pouring out of our mouths, it’s probably because the source of our words isn’t pure. There’s a warning here for all of us to consider what we’re using to irrigate our heart and mind. The realities we create depend on it.
If we want to begin creating realities that bring truth to the world, we’d do well to begin filling ourselves with “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8). I’m not suggesting this means creating a legalistic set of parameters that ban rated-R movies or controversial music. But we should be aware of how things affect us. We must be cognizant of our words and the realities they create. Is what we say creating life or death for those who hear? After a quick personal assessment, we may need to make a few changes. If we’re going to speak words that create life for those who hear us, we must begin by surrounding ourselves with things that create life within ourselves.
To help you do that, here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:
Is there anything inherently good or bad about it?
A great way fill your heart with goodness is by running toward what is good and away from what is bad. And while it’s true that the idea of “good” and “bad” may be a bit subjective, it’s an appropriate place to begin because there are some things that automatically scream good or bad. Not everything is a gray area. For instance: Scripture = Good. Porn Site = Bad. See? Not so hard!
How do I feel after experiencing it?
This particular question is a little tricky because our emotions are so fickle. But there is definitely value in assessing how we feel about what we do and whom we meet. I know from personal experience that I can’t watch the news during election years because political commentary makes me want to punch someone in the head. In the same way, if the movies you watch, music you listen to, books you read or people you surround yourself with make you feel angst-ridden or fearful, you may want to consider spending yourself somewhere else.
Am I gaining more clarity or more confusion?
It’s good to have your worldview shaken up every once in a while. But a good dose of truth should begin to peel away the layers of false reality, not add more. If the things you do and people you interact with are making you less and less confident of what you think and believe, look for people and experiences to that help you understand who you are (and whose you are).
Am I changing because of what I do and who I know?
Stagnation is one of the worst things possible. Try to engage the things that evoke positive change in you. We need to look at art that inspires us and watch movies that make us want to be better people. We need people in our lives who speak truth and encouragement. Neutral goes nowhere, so make sure that what you experience does something to you, drawing you closer and closer to faith, hope and love.