Words matter. We can all remember the things that have been said to us, both kind and unkind: the encouragement from a loved one in the darkest of valleys, the mean phrases yelled at us on the playground, and the penetrating advice that called into sharp relief the flaws we thought were secret. The people who said those things probably don’t even remember saying them, and yet their words are stuck in our heads, for good or for ill.
James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, something so small steering something so giant, and to a spark in dry brush, raising an untameable fire (James 3). It’s easier than ever to multiply words these days. Not only do we have a multitude of events about which to have an opinion, but we also have a thousand different platforms from which to opine. In tweets, articles, newsletters, and podcasts, words come cheap.
The easiest reaction to the opinion overload, at least for me, is to keep silent. I have always been a talker (though my sister Lena will quickly tell you that she learned to talk before I did), but it has been hard for me to find words for this year. Taking in a million words a day while remembering how others’ words have hurt me or how my own words have wounded another is enough to make me wary of using my words at all.
Not speaking, though, is not the answer. By both its very existence and the instructions it contains, the Bible makes it clear that words matter. John could have called Jesus anything, but he called Him logos, the Word. God could have revealed His will to us in any way He chose, and He chose so many ways—the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork!—but He reveals Himself to us through His Word, and what is His Word but the eternal Story?
We are called to be slow to speak (James 1:19), yes, but not to be silent. We are called to speak meaningful words, words flooded with grace and seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6), meant to build up (Ephesians 4:29).
These kinds of words are hard to muscle up. Our speech is not something we can change at the flip of a switch. I can say with James in chapter 3, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so,” and then turn around and gossip or curse or speak an unkind word just like that. Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 15 that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” If our hearts are sinful, our words will be too. If we want to change our words, we need heart change.
This is a hopeless proposition, except that heart change is exactly what we get. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we can draw near to the throne of grace with a true heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 4:16, 10:22). It is not in our own strength that we can speak and write words flooded with grace and seasoned with salt, but in Christ’s.
“For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you,” Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10 as he sent them to a life that was far from comfortable. Doubtless, it was not a life any of them expected; doubtless, they found themselves without words. And yet He sent them out with grace to serve the Creator who spoke beauty into being.
Knowing that your words matter—that they might echo in someone’s mind five, ten years from now—how will you speak? Knowing that your God cares about words, that He exults in them, that He spoke the world into being and is, in fact, the Word—how will you write? And knowing that your words come from your heart—how will you pray?
I’ll tell you how I’m praying to speak and write: gentler, braver, and with more care. I’m trying to take in others’ words before I use my own. I’m praying for strength to listen to the Spirit when I’m about to send a text or share a post, and for the courage to say hard words when the time calls for it. And I’m praying that God would continue to work in my heart so that my words reflect Him.
In this season of controversy, disagreement, and even fear, may you and I serve the Word with our words, today and every day.