I understand that a lot of time we don’t want them to matter, particularly when we’ve misspoken or misstated something, or when we want people to “get” what we mean in spite of our inelegant and sometimes-sloppy phrasing. When someone corrects us or asks us what we meant or responds to what we’ve said as though we meant that exactly, we protest and splutter: “You know that’s not what I meant! I know what I said, but what I meant was…” We want the freedom to do that.
But words matter.
Often, in my college courses, a student would preface a statement with the following: “I’m not racist, but…” and then complain when whatever they had to say was perceived as racist. I had to point out to them that the word “but” is literally meant to draw contrast or to make an exception. When they said, “I’m not racist, but…” they were really saying: “I’m not racist. However, the thing you are about to hear from me is totally racist.”
Recently, a Christian man I knew spoke at length and with authority at a church event in front of many other believers. His speech was riddled with lies and wrong information. Some of it he received from unreliable sources; some of it, I think, he just made up. The lies were small ones, even if baldly untrue: not about anything major. But they were still lies! And I cringed from my seat as I heard them: what if other people believed them, passed them on? Anyone who heard them and knew the truth would roll their eyes. Believers would lose credibility in the eyes of those who knew the facts.
Words matter. It’s disingenuous of us to pretend that they don’t.
I hear a lot of people say that for Christians, standing out from the culture is imperative. I agree with that. You want to stand out from the culture? Take responsibility for what you say, for the weight of it. In our society today, that’s a radical act. We live in a culture now where anybody can say anything unkind, inaccurate, untrue, or malicious and, when confronted, respond with a shrug: “But that’s not what I meant.” It’s a socially-accepted defense now to pretend as though the responsibility for what we say rests with the people who hear it and have to understand it.
Hold yourself accountable for your words.
I don’t mean just in the big things. I mean in the little ones. If we’re going to call ourselves Christians,that means our words should be honest, life-affirming, Christlike, thoughtful, and wise. How much of what we say – of what leaders and authorities in the church say – meets that standard? How can we improve?
Here are five quick ways right off the bat:
1) Acknowledge and eradicate falsehood. On its face, this means stop lying. Stop sharing misinformation, inaccurate ideas, and made-up stories. It also means being willing to call out other believers in loving truth when we know they are spreading falsehoods and dishonesty, whether from their home, the pulpit, or elsewhere. The more lies riddle a believer’s speech, the less credible he – and, by proxy, God – becomes to his neighbors. And if someone tells you that you’re speaking a falsehood, listen. Investigate it if you don’t know, and find out if you are or not.
2) Pay attention to how your words are received and respond accordingly. At a former workplace of mine where the majority of employees were women, it was common for us to walk into the office and jokingly say, “Hey, ladies.” But once, one of my coworkers told me hesitantly that she didn’t like being called “lady.” It made her feel old, and it felt a little sexist, and she wished people would stop saying it. Did I agree with her? Well, no. I was much younger and being referred to as “lady” didn’t bother me at all. Did I think she was probably taking it a bit out of context? Sure. But did I stop saying “Hey, ladies?” You bet I did. Why? Because I didn’t want to cause someone undue hurt, frustration, or irritation. Why would I damage a relationship or deliberately provoke someone to whom I hoped to have a ministry? Giving up the word “lady” didn’t threaten me or my faith in any way; it was a small concession made as an act of service to relationship. If we get more attached to how we want to say something than we do to the people who are hearing it, maybe it’s worth reflecting on our words.
3) Find your triggers. I know you know when your speech gets careless. Maybe it’s when you start talking about that one issue that gets your blood boiling. Maybe it’s when you’re discussing someone difficult. Maybe it’s when you’re tired, or you’re around people with whom you can be “unfiltered.” God encourages us to restraint in speech, to care, to reflection, and to consideration of what our words will be. In the situations where you’re tempted away from that, maybe clam up.
4) Speak love and life. A story: I wrote a tiny thank-you card to one of my co-workers during my first week on the job thanking her for her efforts to help me get integrated and learn our programs. It was a small, mundane little thing, but she came down the hall to see me after receiving it – and she was so delighted! The card had affirmed for her some things she’d been working on professionally, and she was really happy. Uplifting words can change a lot and transform more than you could imagine. Why not err on the side of those, rather than on the side of criticism, negativity, derision, or unhappiness?
5) Consider your words in the context of your witness. I think one of the most discouraging things I see in the world today are Christians – or people professing to be Christians – on secular internet comment forums. Professing Christ with one breath, they sometimes turn and speak malice with another. They call names. They are vicious and unkind. And whenever I see it, I watch as the unbelievers around them say, “…right. Nice ‘Christian’ there. Glad I’m not a part of that religion.”
It’s not that being Christian means our words will never provoke people. Truth provokes people. Sometimes just saying “I am a Christian” provokes people. And that sort of thing can’t be helped. But we can help our words, even when we are speaking truth. We can speak as God would have us speak: without malice, anger, slander, or gossip. We can speak without falsehood. We can speak in gentleness, with humility, in patience, and with love.
If we are measured by our words, don’t we want people to see Christ in them? Do we really want to speak with such carelessness for what other people will hear or for the truth that we just shrug and let the chips fall where they may?
Minding our words is one of the most immediate and stark ways a believer can stand out in a culture where saying whatever you want, whenever you want (and often avoiding responsibility for it) is the norm. So let’s make the effort to be different – to be more like Christ. Let’s remember how much words matter, and hold ourselves accountable for them.