June 17, 2007

The Wise Person’s Character: The Value of Words
Proverbs 18:21; Matthew 12:33-37

Imagine a day without _________. How would you fill in the blank? I did an internet search on those four words the other day and came up with a wide assortment of responses. Some might be expected: telephones, television, technology, oil, the sun, cars, eyesight, and, perhaps the most common of all, you. Imagine a day without you. Some responses might be more surprising: plastic, google, agriculture, illegal immigrants, republicans, hippies, and sin. I’ve often wondered about that. Imagine a day without sin, without evil of any kind in the world. But one response that I expected to find did not show up, at least as far as I looked: words. Imagine a day without words. Perhaps words are such a common but ordinary part of life that we don’t even think about them anymore. If I even suggest a day-long silent retreat to some people, they tremble with fear! Imagine, if you can, a day without words.

In the balanced life described in the book of Proverbs, words matter a great deal. They matter as well to Jesus, who frequently instructs his listeners to pay careful attention to when and how they speak. The apostle James, as you perhaps recall, goes so far as to suggest that our tongues, though small, influence our lives in the same way that a large ship is directed by a small rudder (3:4-5). Our words, once again, matter.

They matter, first of all, because they are real. In our modern world, we sometimes associate importance with “things” that we can see and touch, objects that have size and weight. It is common, for example, to proudly display things that we make or possessions that we value: a finely crafted table, shiny new car, state-of-the-art computer, or coat that meets all of the latest fashion standards. But words? What are words, anyway? It is interesting that, as Frederick Buechner rightly points out, the same term dabar in the Old Testament means both word and deed. By implication, when we speak, we act. When we speak, we, like God, create. And what we create—our words—are more than random collections of sounds or passing winds. Our words have substance and meaning. Our words, once spoken, have a life of their own, and they can no more be simply “uncreated” than can the clothing that you are wearing or the pew that you are sitting on.

Words matter, furthermore, because of the profound effect they can have on people. Words matter, to put it differently, not simply because they are real, but because they are potentially powerful. Various things around us are real but have little impact on our lives. Words, however, affect us, shape us, and change us. Have you ever noticed how a single word can alter the entire atmosphere around the dinner table or at a business meeting? Can you remember a moment when you overheard someone say something, and the air instantly grew heavy? Words cause us to laugh one moment, then cry the next. Words inspire us, and words discourage us. And words can have an impact that lingers for years and years. Sit for a moment with some familiar words: I do. I want a divorce. You did a wonderful job. Can’t you ever do anything right? I love you. I wish I had never met you. You look great today. What homeless person did you steal those clothes from? Words are powerful. What words have most deeply affected you over the years? During the last few weeks or even days?

According to Proverbs, our words can both renew and destroy those we speak to: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21a). We can offer hope and encouragement to people when we speak, like providing cold water or a fruit pop on a beastly hot day. “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb,” Proverbs 16:24 reminds us, “sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” And we all know that, don’t we? We have on various occasions received words that refreshed us and cheered us up. When Deb and I arrived home from Seattle this week, a pile of mail awaited us. In the pile was a letter from an older man who took one of the classes that I taught for pastors last year. As a pastor and teacher myself, I occasionally wonder—in my worst moments—whether or not what I do makes any difference at all. So I was struck not only by the entire letter, but by these lines in particular: “Your ministry at the core course has impressed me so deeply and since then my life has been changing for the better. I will always be grateful to you.” I was so touched that I quickly shot off a reply and thanked him for speaking so graciously into my life. Our words have within them the capacity to brighten up someone’s day.

But they can do even more than temporarily improve a person’s countenance. Words can also offer healing, confidence and direction. “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” the sages wrote, “so that one may avoid the snares of death” (13:14). Words of grace, love and truth can bolster a person’s self-confidence and help them avoid the all-too-common drive to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging. Words spoken thoughtfully and prayerfully can help others discern between competing options, distinguish between right and wrong, and even identify nagging or sinful tendencies that continue to pull them down. I’ll never forget one occasion years ago when I was riding in the car with one of my first spiritual mentors. Jacob is a Malaysian Christian who had been so badly beaten up following his conversion that he is now permanently crippled. As we drove, I shared with him some of my personal concerns and struggles. When I finished, he reflected quietly for a few moments, as he always did. Finally, he looked at me and said, “Your problem is not information, but implementation. You know far more than you actually put into practice.” And in that moment, I knew that he was right. His words cut through the outer veneer of my life and spoke directly to my soul. And in them was hope for change and a new start. Words—our words—can bring joy and life to the people around us. “Words,” Henri Nouwen writes, “can carry love on their wings.”

Words, however, can just as well have the opposite effect. Like fire that both heats our houses or, if left unchecked, destroys them, so can ungodly words tear down and destroy the people to whom they are spoken. “Rash words are like sword thrusts,” Proverbs 12:18a reminds us, and “The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush” (12:6a). Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian dissident whom the Bulgarian secret police and KGB attempted to assassinate twice before the events of September 7, 1978. On this occasion, however, a man carrying an umbrella bumped into Markov, jabbing him in the process. Three days later, Markov mysteriously died. During the autopsy, investigators discovered a tiny metal pellet the size of a pin head that had been lodged in Markov’s calf at precisely the spot where he had been jabbed by the umbrella. The pellet contained traces of the deadly poison, ricin. 1/5,000 of a gram of ricin is enough to kill the average person.

Words are sometimes like that. They might seem small and insignificant, said in a passing moment or in the heat of an encounter. But they lodge themselves within the hearer, causing pain, infection and even various forms of spiritual and emotional death. “I wonder how often I was told how worthless I am,” some people comment. “If only he hadn’t said that,” others repeat. Painful, debilitating words.

Words, Proverbs teaches us, can bring life and death to the people who hear them. But beyond that, words can also profoundly affect the people who speak them. Our words, stated differently, not only affect the people we speak to, but they also affect us as well. We are ourselves shaped and influenced by the words that we speak. According to Proverbs 21:23, “To watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble.” Proverbs 13:3 echoes a similar sentiment: “Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives; those who open wide their lips come to ruin” (13:3). Our speaking habits, for one thing, continue to shape the nature of our own inner lives. When we consciously decide to use our tongues for good rather than evil, we begin to take control over the darker shadows of our souls. At the same time, if we continue to use words that are overly harsh, critical and negative, we only reinforce the sinfulness that lingers within us. Just think for a moment of a time when your words brought genuine hope and healing to someone else. Weren’t you yourself encouraged and renewed by the helpfulness of your own words? Now think instead of hurtful words that you’ve spoken, words that brought pain to others or perhaps even destroyed them. Don’t they continue to remain, like that small pellet in Georgi Markov’s calf, lodged deep within your own spirit? I can certainly think of various words that I wish I had never said, words that I’ve even asked for forgiveness for having spoken. But I still regret them. It still pains me to think that I told my mother I hated her one day.

But further, our speaking habits play a large role in determining how other people view us as well. People might very well decide whether they want to be with us or not on the basis of the way we use words. During our just-completed trip to Seattle, Deb and I spent a few days in Vancouver visiting with dear friends who we hadn’t seen for over 26 years. Dan, now a pastor, told me about a person in his congregation who he had been having breakfast with on a regularly basis. Every time they met, however, Dan came home beaten up and discouraged. Finally, after a year or so of this, Dan told the man that he simply could not meet with him anymore. “Our times together are too disheartening,” Dan told him. “You speak so critically and heartlessly that I have nothing left for the good of the rest of the congregation.” This man’s use of words had fractured their relationship and destroyed their times together.

Words, Proverbs frequently reminds us, are real and powerful, capable of producing both life and death. Words deeply affect the people who hear them as well as the people who speak them. Words, to put it simply, matter. Can you even begin to imagine a day without them?

There is an old German folk story in which a father overheard his young son talking unkindly about others. The father instructed his son to take a bag of goose feathers up to the second floor of the house and fling them out of the window. When the son did, the wind blew the feathers through the streets and alleys of the village. “So it is with our words,” the father said to his son. “When we speak, our words fly to and fro.” “Now,” the father instructed the boy, “go and collect all of the feathers—don’t leave any behind.” “But that is impossible, father,” the boy replied. “Neither can you gather again the words that you speak,” said the father. Words are powerful. Words affect people, sometimes in profound ways. And we can’t reclaim them. The wise person recognizes the value of words and therefore speaks with care.