A Different Lens – Words Matter

This is my third post in the “A Different Lens” series.

Today, nearly everyone we know has a platform from which to speak and/or blast out their opinions if they should so desire. Man, oh, man, the things people are willing to say, write, and post for public consumption these days. The last several weeks have been overwhelmed by natural disasters, more racial tension than we’ve seen in decades, threats of nuclear destruction, and yet another mass shooting, this one by a home-grown terrorist. Because these events affect us all, they could bring people together. In our current cultural climate, however, most things only serve to create wider and deeper division, as we dig our heels further into the trenches of tribalism we fight so hard to protect.

The profit-driven media thrives on this, by the way. And, yes, this includes your most trusted news outlet.

Social media has also become a plague on humanity’s ability to treat each other as actual humanity. You know exactly what I am talking about. We see it daily from prominent leaders, public Christian figures, sweet grandparents, committed moms and dads, and otherwise usually kind people. You can do your best to unfollow, unfriend, and hide from it; but you cannot completely. It will find you in the media, or at lunch with a coworker, or having coffee with a friend, or from your spouse who shows you whatever he or she has been following that you have tried to avoid. 

How is it that we have degenerated so quickly into this “say whatever, and never apologize” cultural abyss? It takes no courage at all to hide behind a screen and constantly barrage the digital world with exclamation point-laced vitriol or flat-out meanness. More and more, however, the dehumanizing, objectifying, and divisive language is taking up a prominent place in the center stage of the public sphere; pushing its way into the front with no regard for consequences. 

A Twitter user’s tweet from the week of October 1, 2017

From a young age we learn that words matter. One will often hear a parent say to a stubborn child who refuses to communicate audibly, “Use your words.” When I used inappropriate or disrespectful words as a child, my mouth got washed out with soap. In junior high words got me sent to the principal’s office and I got swats. As a high schooler and college student, using words well was essential for earning good grades.

I still have every paper I have ever written, from high school through doctoral studies. Most of the red marks throughout those papers have to do with words, either because a better word choice was needed, or I had used words and grammar incorrectly. Of course, there a few of those red marks that I wholeheartedly disagree with, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Now that I am an adult who is no longer in school, I find words have even more importance, bear more responsibility, and bring about more severe consequences than grades on paper or exam.

Who could say how many hours I have been spent looking for the best, precise word to communicate the right thought(s)? I have edited and rewritten more sentences than I could ever count. I have changed words for sermons and speeches at the last moment on hundreds of occasions. And on a personal level, I have pored over many an email, text, message, and post to make sure my words will be received correctly, which is nearly impossible to achieve using these means of communication because they do not convey actual emotion or intention adequately.

My current job is all about using words carefully and purposefully. To neglect this responsibility would certainly result in me being held accountable. Especially if I neglected it intentionally and often.

If I were to begin using my professional or personal platforms to espouse something that was clearly contrary to Scripture, or to teach from a perspective that has been denounced by the evangelical majority, you can be sure conflict would come my way quickly. In most cases, I would say, “Rightly so.”

If I were to use these same platforms to engage in name-calling, stirring up anger, belittling people, or speaking in haste before having all the information, surely then too I would take some major heat. I suppose that all depends on the kinds of people or issues against which I lashed out, but for now I shall refrain from going down that rabbit hole.

Can you imagine what would happen if I were not held accountable for my words? 

Can you imagine what my church would become, if it survived at all?

I do not live in the world of no accountability. You probably do not either. Because that world does not actually exist. It is a delusion. The situation we find ourselves in is destructive, and I just have to believe it is not sustainable.

So we come back to the lesson we learned as children – that our words matter. We start looking at our communication through a different lens, a grown-up lens, no longer behaving like children by lowering ourselves to the puerile behavior so many others display.

Consider a few words from two different books of the Bible

First, from the Apostle Paul, who was known for speaking his mind:

No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. (Ephesians 4:29-32) 

Second, from James the brother of Jesus about “religion”: 

If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:26-27)

Our words do matter. They have the power to build up and to destroy. We should not blame the actions and opinions of others for the words we use. We also should not follow the examples of others who speak and act immaturely and with no regard for others, no matter how influential or powerful that person might appear to be.

I hope this will especially appeal to those who, with one post or comment debase others, and with the next talk about their deep love for Jesus, or a Bible verse, or a worship song, or a devotion they read that morning. The two great commandments are meant to work together, and that kind of behavior pits them against one another. If just one person were to read this and reconsider his or her words and the way they come across, then the time have I have spent carefully choosing these words has been time well spent.

One last thing.

What I said in the very beginning could easily be misunderstood. While it seems like everyone and anyone now has a platform to put their opinions, beliefs, accomplishments, and any other part of their lives on display, this is actually not true. There are many in the world who have no platform and no voice. Only others can speak on their behalf. If we are unwilling to risk speaking on their behalf, who will? 

For now, let that be some food for thought and a not-so-subtle hint about what my next post will discuss.

See and join the discussion on other posts in the “A Different Lens” series:

A Different Lens

A Different Lens – The “Other” 

A Different Lens – Speaking Up

A Different Lens – Racism

9 thoughts on “A Different Lens – Words Matter

  1. Well said as usual, Eric. It is a continual, life process, to learn to choose our words. There is an old adage “Marry in haste, repent at leisure.” I think this could be changed today to “Speak in haste, repent at leisure.”

  2. Trite words demean. Sloppy words hurt. Cruel words destroy. I cringe at the ways my words have hurt when they could have brought peace and comfort. Yet words that speak truth to power, words that speak out for those who can’t speak up are beautiful words, even when they may sound uncomfortable. I fear that we have become so “polite” that we are afraid to speak out. We’re afraid to use our words for justice and truth. So, having said that, I am really looking forward to the next post in this series!

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