The Life and Death of Words

January 18, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: 2 Chronicles 17–22, Psalm 18, Proverbs 18.

It is no exaggeration to say that I have spent more time thinking on the words Proverbs assigns to warning fools about the quantity of their speech than to almost any other part of the Proverbs.1 I have many faults, but one of the most significant and ongoing is a tendency to be quick to speak and slow to hear (and yes, quick to become angry)—to invert the order commended by James in the New Testament. This is no small thing.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
    and those who love it will eat its fruits. (Proverbs 18:21)

Though I have sometimes heard this verse misused (as though to suggest a mystical power in our speech—a view for which I think there is no warrant), the plain meaning alone is enough to give a person with my proclivities pause. If my one of my chief follies is the tendency to speak too freely and without sufficient consideration, what death have I wrought? Where might I have brought life instead? When I speak with Jaimie or with Ellie, when having long talks with friends, when offering my thoughts publicly, my words matter. All words matter. Jesus warned the Pharisees (and warns us, lest we be like them):

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. (Matthew 12:36–37, ESV)

The words one chooses to use—the words I choose to use—can build others up or cut them down. They can encourage, or they can wound. They can bring life or death.

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
    but only in expressing his opinion.

A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
    and his mouth invites a beating.
A fool’s mouth is his ruin,
    and his lips are a snare to his soul.

If one gives an answer before he hears,
    it is his folly and shame.

(Proverbs 18:2, 6–7, 13)

It is a bit painful to think how often I have been a fool in these terms. It is a caution to me in writing these very posts. Yes, it is good to take time to reflect on the things I am learning from the Scriptures. It is, I think, profitable to post these particular reflections publicly.2 There is, however, a serious danger that my writing could be an act of folly, and the more so the quicker I am to write before carefully considering the matter at hand.

When I write on Scripture, I have one sort of responsibility: to honor the text, and in so doing to honor the one who authored the text. Few of us should seek to be teachers, because we will be held to a higher standard of judgment for our words. If I speak falsely of Scripture, there is a real chance that I will do harm to others’ spiritual health. When I write on other topics, I have a different sort of responsibility, but one no less weighty for that. If I publicly opine on politics, address personal situations in our lives, or discuss the contours of evangelical Christianity, my words will undoubtedly be read by people who stand either to benefit or to be injured by those words. Again: to write without careful consideration would be to risk bringing spiritual harm. In both cases, I would be in danger of dishonoring the God who gave us words.

This is particularly important for those of us who love words. I am obsessed with the beauty and power of human language, awed by the gift God bestowed on us in the creative potential of phonemes and clauses and sentences and paragraphs. I can (and, my friends can all wearily attest, do) wax eloquent at the drop of a pin. This delight is a good thing; it is a part of the imago dei in me. Yet my words are not to be their own ends. They, like I myself, exist for a cause greater than that. They are meant to serve God. If they do not, they will bring death. If they do, they will bring life.

  1. The only other repeated warning I have considered as carefully is that on sexual immorality—an area in which all young people are especially tempted.

  2. It would not necessarily be profitable to post every reflection publicly. Some of them would do the public no good, and posting them would be only a way of seeking attention in a way that would feed those selfsame sins. Confession is good. But confession is done with brothers and sisters in close fellowship—not with the world at large.