Why Words Matter

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. James 3:1-2 (ESV) 

We may be the most talkative generation in history. I have no way of measuring that, really. But consider the ways we can communicate with words: text, Tweets, Facebook posts, Google Plus, email, blog, comments, cell phones. That’s not even counting this really old-fashioned way of communicating called “face to face conversation.”

Most of the time we don’t weigh the value of our words. We throw out words like they are disposable. We post things online or text things before we consider the consequences of what we are saying. But we would be wise to consider the words of James, who reminds us in James 3:2 that the mark of spiritual growth and maturity is the ability to restrain the tongue.

I’m writing this as someone who has a long way to go. I have made my living with words—both written and spoken—for most of my adult life. I have not always valued the words that come from my keyboard or my mouth. At times my tongue has been a razor-sharp knife, cutting deep wounds in the people I love. But as the gospel works its way deeper into my soul, I’m seeing the Lord stir up in me a more cautious approach to my speech.

This is not something, by the way, that will earn you high praise. We live in a culture that values “tough talk.” We tend to promote politicians who have the best “one-liners” to savage the other guy. We pay handsome money for comedians who practice the dark art of foul and sexual expression. And we even reward preachers whose speech style is “authentic” (read: crude)—a flimsy cover for a lack of spiritual maturity.

This is where the gospel is countercultural really. The Scriptures tell us that a telltale mark of Christ’s sanctifying work in a life is a Christians’ willingness to harness the powerful force between his teeth. The gospel-centered man or woman is “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

This is doubly important for someone in a prominent spiritual position. James reminds us in chapter three that a spiritual leader will be judged more acutely for the way he employs speech. This tells us that words matter. They can move people to action, both good and bad.

In James words are two lessons for Christian young people. First, leadership is not all about ordering people around, having nice perks, and being a know-it-all. Real spiritual leadership comes with a high price and demonstrates discipline of speech.

Secondly, it reminds us that we must tune our hearts away from the cultural pressure to be vulgar, crude, disrespectful, especially to people with whom we disagree. Instead we should submit to the law of love and seek to glorify God with every word we utter.

This is an ongoing work, a lifelong journey. In this area, I’m only at the beginning. But I pray that as the years pass, my life will be marked by spiritual maturity, especially in my speech.

Because despite what you hear, words matter.

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