Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Power of Words, Part 2

The modest man is aware of the power of his words, so he chooses each one carefully, seeking to make each word an opportunity to bless and strengthen and build up. ~ Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel by Tim Challies, R W Glenn
My culture tells me that my words are all about myself and that I have a right to express myself. But more is required of a Christian. We need to be aware of the power of our words to affect other people.

Sometimes I wonder if my generation has lost the ability to discern what is appropriate in conversation. We often display a surprising lack of savvy concerning how to speak in a way that "fits the occasion" as it says in Ephesians 4:29. It's like our propriety radar was scrambled with the rise of facebook.  

There are certain words that are private and other words that are public. I cringe to think of the times that I have said inappropriate things to a large number of people. These same things would have been appropriate if I was speaking with only one or two close friends, but they were not helpful or wise in the larger context. Private words in a public context are not modest. They are at best attention-getting and at worst injurious because others are almost always implicated in our personal lives.

Humble Words

I've always loved this observation by C.S. Lewis. He describes the demeanour and words of a humble person in his book Mere Christianity:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
According to Lewis, humble people are aware of their flaws, but they do not constantly speak of them because they are not constantly thinking about themselves. They are content with their life and eager to take an interest in others. 

Of course, we need people we can talk to when going through struggles and difficulty. People with whom we can be transparent and raw. Intimate friends, a pastor, a spouse or a counsellor can be helpful in these situations. But if the majority of our words are speaking of ourselves, we are missing the point of words. We are missing great opportunities to bless other people.

This can especially be a problem if we need other people to affirm us and approve of our choices. If we find our self-worth in other people's opinions of us, we will always be self-absorbed in our conversations. 

This craving for approval can only be satisfied in God's redeeming love for us. When we find our security and worth in Him our words cease to be controlled by other people's opinions, and we are freed to take a genuine interest in others.

The Responsibility of Words

Words affect other people. They have the power to build up or to tear down. They can burn down a forest or plant new seeds of hope.

I feel like I am still learning how to use my words. It takes time and effort to learn how to bless, strengthen and build others up. Thankfully, we don't need to be be charming and witty for God to use us. For those of us who often feel inadequate and "slow of speech" like Moses, we need to remember what God told him:
 “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”
I am so thankful for treasured friends who have been gracious to me when I have spoken selfish and rash words. I am equally thankful for their generous, grace-giving words. I have often been blessed by the God-honouring words of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Power of Words

"no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison...From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so." ~ James 3:8, 10

I've been thinking a lot about words lately. I have often underestimated the impact of my words. I have also underestimated the longevity of my words.

Once you say them, you can never un-say them.

How often have I spoken without thinking through the implications of my words? How often have I been so short-sighted in the moment that I failed to see how my words would effect the reputation of another. 

The glory of having something interesting to say overshadows my concern for others-- both those with whom I am speaking and also those rarely remembered second and third-hand hearers.

Words are so easy to speak. They are such a little thing in the moment. But a few seconds worth of words can set in motion horrific consequences. Maybe that's why the apostle James compares the tongue to a small rudder that guides a huge ship or a small spark that sets a forest ablaze. 

What Our Words Say About Us

Our words are an expression of our hearts. People perceive things about us by what we say. These words divulge our pride, our prejudices, and our insecurities. They expose what we value, what we love and what we crave. 

It is tempting to be duplicitous.  To speak in a way that is contrary to our heart's true feelings because we think it is what others want to hear. This is not admirable or sustainable.

But because of the indelible nature of words, a motive-searching moment before speaking is invaluable. 

Words that Give Grace

"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."

A Christian's words should have purpose. They should be intentional, thoughtful and strategic. They should be words of healing, of kindness, and encouragement. They should seek to "give grace to those who hear." This may be as simple as engaging in small talk or as complex as counselling a person through a major life crisis. The intention is the same: to genuinely seek the other's good and to draw their attention to the God who saves. 

Even corrective words can be done with gentleness, respect and humility. I love this example of Winston Churchill being confronted by his wife, Clementine. It's an excerpt from a letter found in Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill. The manner of Clementine's rebuke is so loving and respectful that you know she is doing it wholly because she cares about his well being. She says:

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know. One of the men in your entourage - a devoted friend - has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic and overbearing manner...I was astonished and upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with & under you, loving you - I said this, & I was told 'No doubt it's the strain.' My darling Winston - I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner & you are not so kind as you used to be...with this terrific power [as Prime Minister] you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm...Besides you won't get the best results by irascibility and rudeness...Please forgive your loving devoted and watchful - Clemmie.
Grace-giving words have the power to bring about change. How different would our conversations be if we felt that it was our responsibility to bless others?