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Why Words Matter

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

I’m giving a chapel speech at Jefferson Christian Academy this morning. The manuscript can be found below.

Words are important because language affects the concepts we come to believe. No one knows this better than the authors of classic literature. They are wordsmiths whose skill is in crafting language to promote the ideas that shape our world.

Take Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels, for example. The book has for ages been read as a children’s story, but it finds itself among the greatest novels ever written in the English language because it strikes at the heart of the human condition, exposing man’s vices and looking for a better way.

In Gulliver’s Travels Swift takes Lemuel Gulliver on a series of voyages to strange lands where the poor sailor encounters unusual races who give him a fresh perspective on his own people back in England. His final journey takes him to the country of the Houyhnhmns, a race of horses endowed with reason. In this place Gulliver discovers that his counterparts are dirty, grotesque versions of himself. They are called Yahoos.

After staying with the Houyhnhmns for some time, Gulliver learns that they are more righteous and dignified than his own race. They know nothing of corruption, vice, or lying. They are gentle, loving, and kind to one another.

One of the reasons the Houyhnhmns stayed pure was because they did not have the vocabulary to describe the vices of humankind. For example, the Houyhnhnms had no word for lying, so Gulliver had to explain the corrupt politics of England in a round about way, using the phrase “saying the thing that was not.” It was very hard for the Houyhnhnms to understand these things because they did not have the language to describe them.

Language’s role in shaping our thoughts was a major theme in another English classic, George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell was a student of Gulliver’s Travels, having declared it to be among the six indispensable books in world literature, so maybe he borrowed this idea from Swift. In 1984 the government in power works to develop a language called Newspeak, which eliminates any words that could be formed into the rhetoric needed to start a rebellion. This was an important way of maintaining control over the populace.

These classic authors were writing about an important truth: words matter. We cannot take language for granted. Our words shape who we are and what we stand for.

Before the classics ever took up this theme, God promoted it in the Bible. Jesus taught, “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” (Mt. 12:36-37). Paul said, “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). He continued, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Eph. 5:4). The same idea can be found in Colossians: “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (3:8). “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (4:6).

Vulgar language is wrong because it is more than words. Maybe you have thought, “What’s the big deal about cuss words? They’re just words.” But our words reveal what is in our hearts. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34).

Not only do the words that come out of your mouth reveal the state of your heart, the words that go into your mind have the power to change your heart for better or for worse, depending on their quality. When you hear a song on the radio that contains explicit language, which lyrics stick with you? The bad ones, right? Now here is another question: What thoughts do these lyrics generate? Usually they produce thoughts of sexual immorality, inappropriate behavior, and disrespectful attitudes. That is why music, poetry, and literature have always been a vital part of every societal shift in history. Words can bring out the best in man, or they can bring out the worst.

Watching your language means more than eliminating a few profanities from your vocabulary. It also means using speech to lift others up instead of bringing them down. That is what Paul meant by “gracious speech” (Eph. 4:29; Col. 4:6). “Grace,” as we know it, is undeserved kindness. For example, Christians are saved by grace. They do not obtain eternal life because they deserve it; God gave his Son as a gift so that we could be saved. In similar fashion we should not wait until a kind word is deserved to give it. If people received only the words they deserved, compliments would be pretty rare. We should build people up with our words, even though they probably don’t deserve it. This is speaking with grace.

Let’s talk about taking God’s name in vain for a moment. The third command in the Ten Commandments reads, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7). Still, if you sat next to some Christians during a basketball game, you would think they had never heard of the Ten Commandments. What if God really did condemn the referee to hell? What if, after someone had invoked his name, Jesus Christ appeared and sat next to him? “Were you the one calling me?” Jesus might ask the man, who would probably collapse in terror.

Jerry Sittser explains the sin of using God’s name in vain this way. “Wrongful use of God’s name means we disrespect God’s name, as if it were cheap. The Old Testament warns us not to profane God’s name—not to blaspheme, curse, defile, abuse, or swear on it falsely. Instead, it commands us to honor God’s name—to call upon, bless, praise, trust, and celebrate it. The former actions take God’s name lightly; the latter take God’s name seriously” (The Will of God as a Way of Life, p. 70).

Watch your words. They do matter. Words shape our thoughts; our thoughts comprise our character; our character determines our decisions; our decisions alter our deeds; and our deeds will be judged at the last day (2 Cor. 5:10).