The Words We Use
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?¹
Everyone is familiar with the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” But is that necessarily true in all cases? I actually think it only works in one direction. Because if your words are clearly absurd and foolish, would anyone even start seriously considering your actions? I’ve had many of those moments when I accepted something as true and then, as it later turned out, the other party wasn’t serious and had been wasting their breath. But I don’t want to focus on promises or keeping our word. We often speak (and sometimes write) lots of words on any given day, and every single word has its own meaning, weight, and even quality. The quality of the words one uses is what I want to scrutinize a bit more closely.
It’s something we might not think about often, if at all. Of course, in the back of our minds we understand words have meaning and different qualities, but there aren’t many of us that are sensitive enough to actively think of all the words we speak. And why should we? Most of us are on autopilot anyway. But should it be that way…? Should we mindlessly jabber all the time and not consider any of the words we allow to escape our mouths, thoughtful or rough? If words didn’t affect others and influence their thoughts, no one would care at all about what words anyone used. But that just isn’t the case. Our choice of words can have a profound effect, positive or negative, on whichever eardrums they tap into.
I was once discussing this very subject with a friend and was surprised to learn about some of the incongruence he hears in some of his Christian co-workers’ verbiage. “What the thump?” was really a shocker for me. As I’m studying in a secular university every day when school is in session, I hear that one a lot among my peers except with the more commonly used F word inserted instead of “thump.” I haven’t heard that expression—that sequence of three words—used in any other verbal context. Maybe my cultural bubble is just larger? But then where did those dudes pick up that line? The resemblance is too close to miss. “What the ——” right away triggers my eyebrows. My question is: Why would a claimant of Christianity use an expression that is vulgar and strongly alludes to vulgar actions?
There are more naive subcultures that use crass language. One I still can’t get over is using the word “sh!*” to describe certain things. Ok, manure might be too refined for you, but please don’t go around shouting what is considered profanity and crude by the broader population. That is not the image of Christ we are to portray by our actions. Every word we speak will have to be accounted for on the final day. I definitely don’t want to be in that person’s shoes that casually liked to drop crass words such as the “s” word or – more vulgarly – the “f” word ad nauseam.
We are grossly misrepresenting Christ when we allow our speech to drip of worldly sewage.
I remember my grandpa telling of a time he went out on a job. As it was illegal to be a Christian and to share your faith, people generally weren’t as quick to reveal their persuasion and be upfront about their allegiance. So after my grandpa was working with a customer for a little while, the customer started suspecting he was somehow different. He asked my grandpa probing questions and then my grandfather let on that he was a Christian. “Yes!” the customer quickly returned, “I knew it…I could tell you were either a Christian or educated because your language was refined and you didn’t use dirty words.” Obviously, our choice of words tell a whole story of their own, whether we intend them to or not.
So, yes, words can be powerful. Words can save or destroy many lives, depending on who is speaking. But words always leave their mark. We must be especially careful of the quality of the words we use. Paul, in writing about how every person ought to speak to others, declared: “Let your speech always be gracious…”² Your words are to be a force for the good and true. How else could you think of convincing anyone of your hope in Christ if your language is dirty and vulgar, having nothing in common with the good news?
I’m quite honestly surprised that I even need to write like this targeting a portion of the professing Christian population. I say to our shame that some of us are lax and have let too many things slip past that dishonor Christ. But let’s move on from the negative aspects. Keeping our language pure is definitely a very good start, providing a framework to being the light of the world. But how could we go farther in honoring Christ with our use of words? I believe Paul laid out some excellent principles that apply to many areas of our life in writing to the Philippians:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.³
In other words, what comes out of our mouths should follow these principles of goodness, purity, and truth. Now that doesn’t mean we should be mincing our words into politically correct talk all the time. Jesus was often very straightforward with what he thought and spoke. Take, for instance, calling the Pharisees “children of the devil.” That was some strong descriptive language. But his speech was never laced with crassness or vulgarity. Jesus would strongly rebuke his most loved disciples at times, but what attracted them to stay with him? It was because he spoke the truth and yet they knew he cared deeply about them and their spiritual well-being. Read what Jesus had to say to the seven churches in the Revelation of John. He saw and encouraged the good yet clearly gave correction on issues that needed to be addressed. The writings of the apostles can also be used as an example. Paul alludes to things that were disgusting to talk about in Ephesians 5, but he doesn’t mention them specifically. I believe a Christian’s life should always be characterized by seeing and acknowledging the good and yet be ready to show tough love and reproof where needed. Of course, it is a delicate balance, one that no one will perfect, but it is something that we should strive for.
Our words ought to be considerately truthful and pure whether we are sharing the gospel, chilling out with friends, or just going about our daily lives.
In conclusion, we are at different places in our lives and have various struggles we deal with. But let’s be among those that can see and encourage the good in others, not shirking our responsibility of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper in truth and charity. Remember to take up your cross daily and follow the footsteps of Christ. Don’t use words that would grossly misrepresent our Savior. Winston Churchill once said it this way:
“Words are the only things that last forever.”
Sure, you can be forgiven and cleansed, but that won’t necessarily erase the effects and the ripples that your words create. Consider your language. Make sure it stays clean and pure like Christ’s. You would be doing well to ask yourself the question: How well does my language represent Jesus in me to the world, and secondly, how am I using my speech to further the kingdom of Christ?
All Scripture references were taken from the ESV.