Words Matter

This year, my morning devotions have been framed by a wonderful guide from Tim and Kathy Keller; God’s Best for Navigating Life. The Keller’s focus on the book of Proverbs is augmented by forays into the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. For the past several days, the topic has been the significance of the words we speak.

We’re overwhelmed with words, and many are deceptive and misleading. Yet words spoken with love for truth and care for others offer possibilities of greater love for Christ and our fellow humans. With our words, we learn to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

Notice the apostle’s connection of “truth” and “love.” Paul spends another one of his letters, this one to the church in Philippi, describing how “truth” and “love” are inseparable. You cannot speak the truth of the gospel without love for others. And you cannot truly love others unless you are willing to speak the truth of the gospel.

This reality was radical in the first century. It is still radical today. We live in a world of twisted words, useless words, deceptive words, harmful words, hateful words. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is perhaps the biggest lie of them all. Humans across the globe have been scarred by the words of others, including important others in their lives and those scars often run deep and last for years. Many of us have the resilience needed to withstand their continual onslaught in our memories. But many don’t. If we’re not careful, we can allow the propaganda of harmful words to shape how we live.

” You are not wise unless you fully grasp the power of words. Words pierce like swords–they get into your heart and soul,” according to the Kellers. They can go viral in our very being. That is why they matter so much. And it is why the Old Testament wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) pays so much attention to them.

The moral philosopher Harry Frankfort uses a vulgarity to describe words that are twisted, harmful, deceptive, hateful, useless. I’ll simply use the word excrement to replace Frankfort’s vulgarity (but I’m sure that you can guess the word). Excrement describes much of the political and advertising speech we read and hear especially on social media. “The realms of advertising and of public relations and the nowadays closely related world of politics are replete with instances of [excrement] so unmitigated they can serve as the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” Sadly, this kind of speech has also made its way into American Christianity.

Words that are truthful and kind

So what do we do? Let me suggest two ideas. First, practice using good truthful words delivered with kindness. When I worked as a volunteer Young Life leader 50 years ago, we had a saying that shaped our interactions with high-school kids. “We had to win the right to be heard.” That meant using good words and building good relationships so that we would have opportunity to speak about the greatest, most truthful words ever spoken–the gospel of Christ. Our words needed to be true, but they needed to be appropriate, kind, gentle, and apt.

Having worked in higher education for much of my adult life, I wonder how colleges and universities even survive given the censorship and political correctness found on many of them. It is not enough to disagree with someone–now we have to harm them, their reputations, and make it impossible for them to earn a living. It’s not just college campuses but it’s now the modus operandi of both major political parties. Of course, if our political leaders behave this way, can we expect our citizens to be any better?

These words often distort reality. As the Keller’s remind us, words can “create and sustain prejudices, biases, fears, and anxieties that are virtually impossible to uproot.” Don’t believe me? Look at contemporary political discourse in the U.S. and throughout the world. Reflect on the inroads that conspiracy theories with no basis in actual evidence have made into our lives and our communities.

Important to our discipleship as Christians is learning to practice Paul’s admonition (mentioned above) to “speak the truth in love.” Notice how our Lord and Savior, Jesus himself, was able to do that, even under immense pressure from the religious and political establishment of his day. It’s hard (I can testify to that myself) and the challenge to speak truthfully, kindly, gently, and appropriately is one that only the Holy Spirit can empower us to do.

Set your limits

Here’s a second suggestion. Learn to limit your media intake. Communications experts tell us that average American and Canadian receives over 3,000 messages each day from various sources. Many of us learn to filter much of that out, but a steady diet has a long-term subtle impact. This past Spring during the Lenten season, I took a seven-week break from Facebook. No posts, no reading my newsfeed. I did interact with people personally using Facebook messenger, but outside of that nothing. I even took Facebook off of my phone.

It was great! After Easter, I evaluated my usage of this medium, deleted some things that I had been following, and decided to maximize my sports and humorous posts (I love Chuck Norris jokes). I’m nowhere perfect, but I’m learning to control the medium and not let the medium control me.

The other thing I do is not listen to Cable TV news. I have a streaming service that does not include MSNBC or Fox News, so I haven’t watched those networks for well over five years. Instead, I get my news from reading three major print news sources, each with a different perspective on news events. Reading is a far better way to get your information than television or cable news. I still watch a news summary in the morning as I’m getting ready for the day, but most news stories have far more complexity than television can provide and by reading, I can discover that complexity and hopefully make good judgments. The 20th century theologian Karl Barth challenged his students to read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That is still good counsel.

How about you? You don’t have to follow my plan, but I would encourage to think about your media consumption. What limits do you need to practice? Are you overwhelmed by keeping up with too much social media? Do you have cable TV news on all of the time? Here’s a little challenge, and it’s one that convicts me. Try spending as much time in prayer and Bible reading as you do watching television news or listening to talk radio.

Perhaps God is calling you and I, his people, to listen and not talk so much. Even better, to listen to the Holy Spirit’s prompting us to follow Jesus more closely and use our words wisely, truthfully, and with care.


This year, I’m using a wonderful guide for my morning devotions titled God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs by Tim and Kathy Keller (Viking, 2017). Proverbs is filled with godly wisdom for followers of Jesus nnd the Keller’s draw out this wisdom about words in their June and July devotionals. If you are interested in the impact of media on how we think and process information, there is no better book than Neil Postman’s little book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. (Penguin, 1984). Postman wrote this profound book before the advent of the Internet, but the ideas here are appropriate for the digital age in which we live. If you want your family to become what Andy Crouch terms “tech-wise,” let me suggest the little book he wrote with his daughter Amy, titled The Tech Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place (Intervarsity Press, 2017).