One of the perils of teaching writing is that, quite often, you end up in lengthy argument with students about why you shouldn’t use that word.
No, you shouldn’t say The Brothers Karamazov “sucks” in an academic paper.
No, you shouldn’t call your ex-girlfriend a slur in that personal narrative.
Yes, it matters that you called the author of The Pickwick Papers “Chas Dickens.”
I have to explain that standards are not arbitrary. That words have power, shape perception, carry connotation and weight. That the words a writer uses can influence the audience’s perception of the writer for good and ill even as it shapes the audience’s opinion of the subject itself.
This is doubly true for those who follow Christ.
I love words, writing. I love stories. I am a storyteller at heart. I will write until I die, even if no one ever reads it, because even in the quietest moments this is what God moves my heart to do. Christ Himself told stories, parables, delivered divine truth in manageable sizes to bewildered audiences who hung on his every word. The thought makes me smile.
Scripture warns us, repeatedly, about the malice and the power of the tongue unleashed for evil. Words can be beautiful, words can uplift, words can encourage and brighten and mend. Words can also damage, sow doubt, create confusion, tempt evil, stir up darkness.
Words can become.
Even in the most banal of circumstances, our words can affect material change, can make things true and untrue, depending on the authority of the person who speaks them. A judge can declare someone guilty or innocent: the word transforms reality. A mother names an infant. A pastor declares a couple married; a court declares a couple divorced. The words are words, and also more than words: they become a pronouncement that shapes the world.
How much more, then, the words of Christians guided by the Holy Spirit of the Living God? Out of the mouth of a Christian, transformative words can come. I can testify to it myself, to those who have spoken life or calm or peace or comfort into my life when I badly needed it. “Just words,” yes, but with the weight of the Spirit of God behind them, and resonant with His spirit. They changed me. Change me still.
And so, words of darkness also have a root. Is it surprising that a voice that speaks hatred, division, and malice could cause violence, anger, and terror? Those words, too, affect material change. And though God’s words are the only true words and the only good words, although the Word of God is the Word that will overcome, the words of darkness can cause an enormous amount of heartache and pain.
We live in a world that holds words cheaply. Social media is a part of this. Everyone speaks all the time, as much as possible, and often little thought is given to the content. The things said there exist to signal affinities, to gain approval, to manifest a persona, to gain followers, to echo others we like. To get a reaction.
“I wish I could kill her,” writes someone on Twitter about a woman he’s never met.
And then, confronted about the use of such rhetoric, the someone protests, “Look, free speech, okay, it’s not like I’m gonna grab a gun and go to somebody’s house, I’m a Christian—”
But we know from Jesus that the intent of the heart matters. That anger matters. That one does not have to literally intend to kill a person to have sinned against God in anger and in words.
“Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing,” writes James. “My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” And even more worrisome is the mouth that claims Christ but produces only cursing and cursing.
Speak life. Speak love. Speak peace. Note that none of these things preclude speaking truth. But for heaven’s sake, if we are going to differentiate ourselves from the world, the first and foremost way we can do it is by cultivating, guarding, and carefully tending to what comes out of our mouths.