Words are complex, aren’t they? In our speech, much like golf, we hit the ball well only once every 18 holes. The rest of the time we find ourselves chasing the golf balls into sand traps and fish them out of streams.
Sometimes words can be counterproductive; they fly in the exact opposite direction of where we point them. Ever say something intended as encouragement only to be received as discouragement? Sometimes words can elude measurability; we either say too many words or not enough. Ever give somebody the ministry of words when they needed the ministry of presence?
By virtue of their complexity, I think we believe either one of two lies when it comes to word handling: (a) we either believe that good words are a substitute for a good life, or (b) we believe that a good life doesn’t need the supplement of good words. And the Bible speaks to both sides.
If you fall under the first category, you and I sin on the same team. And here are the words I believe the Bible would have for this team: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15)
If words are so important to you that they become a substitute for life, you run the risk of being a hypocrite. A humiliating gap slowly opens up between what you say and what you do.
If you err under the second category, your “voted most likely to…” caricature is a different one. Here are the words I believe the Bible would have for this team: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)
If words aren’t valuable enough to be even a good supplement to your life, you run the risk of being careless with your words. You justify false doctrine with your supposedly good works. You justify hurtful words by pointing to supposedly good deeds.
During my couple of years teaching English, one teacher from my department had a quote hanging above the doorframe of his classroom. It read: “Words are deeds.” Now, that can be taken the wrong way and provoke this response from James: “What good is that?” But whenever I would pass by it, I generally found myself nodding in agreement and thinking it to mean that words are a good supplement to actions.
Words can sometimes be spoken with the force of deeds, can’t they?
This is because grace, in part, is a linguistic category. It includes words. But before you click out of this window, permit me to explain. We almost always think of grace as an industrial category: as works done for us, and rightly so. We should be sure to give the industrial category of grace a front and center spotlight: the active obedience and substitution of Jesus is God’s dominant means of grace. God’s works are the heartbeat of substitutionary atonement.
But grace is not only works done for us; it’s also words spoken to us.
We know this to be true relationally. In a relational context, words take on a sort of linguistic alchemy. Have you ever experienced this? Words spoken about us can sometimes become facts true about us. People sometimes refer to this phenomenon as “self-fulfilling prophecy,” but I think this label wrongly captures what power is at work.
When my wife (and let the reporter note that she has said this - several times) tells me I’m manly, it doesn’t matter to me that I’m only 5’7’’, 140lbs, and graduated with an English teaching degree. I feel manly! And the strange thing is I begin to slowly become more responsible, loving, and sacrificial.
Maybe you’re reading this article and you find the importance of words to be bad news. But I want to remind you, Christian loved by God, you are saved by the Word’s words. The fact that words are important is actually good news! The work that Jesus has accomplished for you is cemented by the words that Jesus has spoken to you. Have you ever thought of the gap between Jesus’ substitution and Jesus’ imputation to be filled with the solid concrete of Jesus’ words?
Listen to these words: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The same way that Jesus had looked upon a formless darkness in Genesis is the same way Jesus looked upon your formless heart, and he spoke. And light shined! And he continues to speak to us, declaring us to be righteous with his words because of his works.
James’ response notes a monumental difference between God’s words and our words: efficacy. Our words can be a good supplement, but our words aren’t quite deeds. But our failures as wordsmiths shouldn’t cause us to discount the importance of words, it should cause to look to the truer and better Wordsmith! Yes, when we walk by a brother or sister poorly clothed and say, “be warmed and filled” we leave them naked and hungry. The good news? When God walks by us while we’re poorly clothed and says, “be warmed and filled” we are warmed and filled! That’s the linguistic alchemy of the gospel.