Words are powerful. I doubt anyone would argue with that. Anyone enjoying an average day on The Twitters understands the power of an ill-used or well-used word. With only 140 characters, Tweeters work hard to come up with that perfectly and tightly packaged thought; one ill placed word…and their good day swiftly swirls down the drain. Word vultures flock in to consume not only the tweet, but also the Tweeter herself; for this very reason, I’ve stopped having “original thoughts” on twitter because #ImAfeared and #ICantJamMyThoughtsInto140Characters.
But words are powerful. Words and word-phrases like: yes, I love you, you’re beautiful, that post was inspiring, you did that really well!, I’m so happy to see you, etc. build people up and create life. And then there are words and word-phrases that do the opposite: no, try again, that wasn’t good enough, just go away, I hate you, etc; these words tear down and destroy those who are the intended hearing recipients. No one will argue with this; we’ve all–at one point or another–been on the receiving end of life-giving and death-dealing words and word phrases. I’ve been torn down by words and I’ve been built up by them; so have you.
So, words are powerful. But what I find so surprising as a member of this word-speaking group of people called humanity, is how often we still forget just how powerful words are. I recently had an encounter with a (let’s call him) colleague where I chose a word that was funny and wink-wink to me, but offensive to him. It took some time and some dialogue (the exchange of words) to figure out what had occurred. A simple word caused the disturbance. Yet we forget just how powerful words are…we just forget because we are surrounded by so many and we so often use them carelessly.
But, words are powerful. As a theologian, I’ve been front-seat at a near knock-down drag-out argument over a word. I’ve actually been in those arguments; I’ve also rolled my eyes when a peer says, “Well, I’ve an issue with the words…” and I’m all #FacePalm. Those of us who have invested their lives in the pursuit of understanding the nuances of theology, know full well how powerful words are. From studies in Church History to Pastoral Care, students of theology know without a doubt how powerful words are; and, to some degree, it’s inexcusable when we forget this truth. We don’t have the luxury of miss using words because often our congregants, our family and friends, and even the random strangers that follow us on twitter have been abused by words.
So, if words are important and we (theologians, pastors, leaders of the church) know just how important those words are, then why do we still try to use words that have caused a lot of damage to our people in the past? I can only chalk it up to the fact that those of us in authority over the sheep stop listening to the sheep, stop listening to their bleats of pain, hurt, anger, and fear. Why do we keep trying to stress “obedience” when so many people coming out of fundamentalism and legalism have been beaten up by that word? Why do we stress “submission” to a group of women coming out of churches where they were held down by that word? Why do we look at those men who have nearly died under the wait of “headship” and “leadership” and still speak those words? If our people have PTSD from the abuse of certain words (the above being a small sampling) why do we still use them? It’s not enough to say: well Paul used them so we should. It’s also not enough to try to find a new way to define such words (like: leading is serving) because, at best, our definitions (while true on many levels) are too ambiguous for the mind to understand and comprehend and at worst aren’t heard anyway because we lost our listener as soon as we used the dreaded word to begin with. And, let’s be honest, it’s really hard to pretty-up the club that was used to clobber your hearer to the point of death.
Since words are powerful and also since words have wounded our listeners, we need to use new words to discuss those old themes. How do we do this? A Friend once told me that he had a colleague who had an issue with the word-phrase “Law and Gospel.” I asked him, “Well, how did you work around that?” (at the time only understanding those two terms to define the biblical hermeneutic I ascribed to). He said, “Simple. I switched in ‘Command and Promise’ and ‘Death and Life.'” With so many words at our fingertips and there for our use, why don’t we employ this word-switch tactic more often? Rather than talk of “obedience”, what if I said, “Just love God and love your neighbor because you have been radically loved”? Is not loving God and loving your neighbor the fulfillment of everything that qualifies for obedience? Rather than talk of “submission” and “headship/leadership” I said, “Just love your husbands and wives”? Is that not that the goal of Paul’s exhortation in the first place? You might, to both statements, ask, “Well, how do I do that?” Or, “What does loving God/Neighbor/Husband/Wife look like?” It doesn’t matter how I answer those questions, because what’s happened is that the dialogue has been restored; I’ve not lost you. By eliminating the painful words and speaking with new words that you’ll listen to, I can enter into a dialogue with you. I can then say, “Well, submission is actually mutual…sit down, let’s talk more about this.” By carefully choosing words and by carefully listening to you, I can wade through your pain with you while keeping the channels of communication open.
To all those I’ve wounded with poorly chosen words: forgive me, please. To all those who are still listening to me, I promise you: I’m listening to you and to your words because they are so important and tell me how to choose my words. May the Lord help me never to forget just how powerful words are.