I love words. I fell in love with words early, through the venerable medium of comic books. The pictures caught my eye, but the words told the story. In fact, the words made all the difference: the same picture could mean something entirely different, depending on the words (e.g., Lois could be saying, “Superman! Thank goodness you saved me!” or “Put me down, you big lug!”).
Words are powerful. Speech writers labor long and hard over just the right words. They know that saying something the right way can win your argument, while saying even the right thing in the wrong way can mean ruin. The right words have stirred men’s hearts and been remembered by history. The wrong words have cost elections, ruined careers and destroyed families. Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…”
Sometimes people try to say that words aren’t very important. I suspect the bottom line here is that they want to be able to talk any way they want, without anyone telling them “no”. Not too long ago I heard someone say, “I think Christians get too hung up on words. They’re just words.” Specifically what was being referred to was swearing or cursing… or cussing, if you like. The idea was that it didn’t matter if a believer in Jesus used foul language because, well, they’re “just words”.
But God takes a decidedly different view of the matter.
The God who spoke to us through words had a lot to say about the importance of words. One of the Ten Commandments given by God to men was, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” (Ex. 20:7). Another was, “You shall not bear false witness…” (Ex. 20:16). Apparently God thought words were important. Moses later added, “You shall not revile God, nor curse the ruler of your people.” (Ex. 22:28).
In the Bible’s oldest story, the patriarch Job declared, “…my lips will not speak wickedness, and my tongue will utter no deceit.” (Job 27:4 NIV)
The book of Proverbs contains too many admonitions about words to repeat here. But it is one of the major themes of the book. We are told, “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” (Prov.4:24 NIV) The “mouth of a fool brings ruin near” (Prov.10:14), and “the heart of fools proclaims folly.” (Prov. 12:23) “…[H]e who speaks rashly comes to ruin” (Prov. 13:3 NIV), and “A fool’s talk brings a rod to his back…” (Prov. 14:3 NIV). And like an open sewer, “the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” (Prov. 15:2 NIV) There’s a lot more references in Proverbs like these, but you get the idea.
Isaiah the prophet wrote, “For the fool speaks folly…” (Isa. 32:6). And when he saw his great vision of God, high and lifted up upon His throne, Isaiah cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…” (Isa. 6:5). Confronted with the terrifying reality of God in all His holiness, the first thing he felt guilty about was words: his own, and his people’s.
The Lord Jesus had some very stern words about words. He said, “…for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matt. 12:33,34) According to Jesus, your words reveal what’s in your heart. (Uh, oh…) Then Jesus said this: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt. 12:26, 37, emphasis added) Sounds to me like Jesus thought words mattered.
When Peter denied Christ and wanted to convince others that he did not even know “the Nazarene”, he changed his speech (Mark 14:71). The Apostle Paul instructed believers, “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.” (Eph. 4:29) Our words are part of our Christian witness; our words are part of how we help and encourage other Christians to live for God. (Or, our words completely blow our Christian witness, and cause our Christian brothers and sisters to stumble.)
And James tells us, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (James 1:26, emphasis added) James says that the tongue is like the rudder of a ship: what we say determines the direction of our lives (James 3:4). James says that the tongue is like a forest fire: what we say can destroy our lives and the lives of others (James 3:5,6a)!James says that the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (James 3:6b)! And he concludes: “… no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)
So telling ourselves that they’re “just words”, is really just trying to rationalize our sinful behavior. Words are important. Words are powerful. Words matter.
And the greatest word of all was when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). And when that Word who was God (John 1:1) was born in Bethlehem so long ago, the angel announced, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11 KJV) Then more angels burst forth with these words of praise: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14 KJV) Those are good words. The best, really.
Let’s just make sure our words back them up.
Soli Deo Gloria!