The Power of Words
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”—John 1:1–3
By his own Word, Jesus, God made everything. With his own words, he called the universe into existence, and so God has made a world in which words matter. Words can inflict the worst of evils or bestow the best of blessings.
At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the British public finally got to celebrate a gold medal performance in the men’s diving competition. After years of expectation, Tom Daley and his partner triumphed in synchronized diving. But it was a victory in the face of personal heartache. When Daley and his partner came fourth at the London Olympics in 2012, a seventeen-year-old boy in Weymouth sent him this message on Twitter: “You let your dad down; I hope you know that.” Tom’s father, who had been his coach and biggest inspiration, had died of brain cancer just before those Olympic games.
“You let your dad down; I hope you know that.”
A woman in Los Angeles who took her own life left just two words in her suicide note: “They said.”
The book of Proverbs says,
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.—Proverbs 18:21
When things go wrong, every time in every place, there will be words at work. Unravel it all, and you’ll discover that someone said something. Someone sent an email. Someone texted. And carnage followed.
The Tongue Is Small but Powerful
James chapter 3 is very like the book of Proverbs, because James loves graphic illustrations about our mouths, our words, and, in particular, our tongues.
“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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”—James 3:2–3
The tongue is tiny, but it’s as if James is saying that it’s the control room for the whole person, and yet it’s the hardest part to control. Being self-controlled in what we say is one of the most difficult of disciplines, but if we can get that right, well, it will lead to a kind of integration and wholeness in the rest of life. James says tongue control makes “a perfect man” (James 3:2). If you can keep control of your tongue, then you can take control of the whole body. You think you’ve got wandering eyes or violent hands? Remarkably, James is actually encouraging us to change the kinds of things going on inside us that lead to the words we speak, and then we’ll find the rest of our bodies falling in line behind. A very small thing controls a very big thing. James gives three illustrations: a tiny piece of equipment can guide the whole body of a mighty horse; a tiny rudder can guide a whole battleship; a tiny spark can set a great forest ablaze.
I think that James is also alerting us to how something so small in the body affects all the other ways in which the body works. We can see this by considering verbs from the rest of the Bible that make plain what the tongue can do. The tongue and its words can steal, conceal, store up, lift up, invite, cheer, crush, stir, spread, nourish, pierce, heal, endure, snare, satisfy, rebuke, harm, wound, hit, shoot, lie, flatter, boast, insult, divide, and slander. Just think of the extraordinary ways in which recipients of any of these actions from the tongue are affected by them. So, if you want to chart a path through life full of wholeness for you and for those you meet along the way, then the success of that journey is dependent on what you do with your tongue.
You possess a piece of flesh that is very small, but, out of all proportion to its size, its power is enormous.
The Tongue Is a Fire That Can Destroy
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”—James 3:5–6
Notice the details. The tongue is “a world of unrighteousness.” This means that the tongue has its own ecosystem, which is devoted to everything that is wrong. It is the bodily representation of your inner dividedness. It is not just that the tongue is evil, but “it is a restless evil” (James 3:8). It can’t sit still or be quiet. The tongue simply can’t help itself, and inside it is poison. Like nicotine that stains the teeth, the tongue stains the whole body (James 3:6), and like venom in the nervous system, it permeates the whole body and can wound and maim as it shuts someone down, maybe irreversibly.
Words can inflict the worst of evils or bestow the best of blessings.
The tongue may be small, but just as a fire erupts from a spark, so the tongue can destroy out of all proportion to its size. It’s like bacteria, or the Ebola or COVID-19 viruses; its damage can just spread and spread, and it cannot be tamed. The picture is so comprehensive. Beast and bird, reptile and mammal, land and sea, you name them: someone somewhere has taught a cobra to swing to music, and a lion to let his tamer stick his head in his jaws, and killer whales to carry children, and raptors to land on your outstretched hand. But no one, not even Solomon himself, not one single person, has ever learned how to get to the end of a single day and lay his head on his pillow without having reason to think: “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that earlier. I probably should have expressed myself differently.” No one dies without having thought that. Why not? Because you cannot tame the tongue.
Set Your Words to Work
All of this has a positive counterpart. For James is saying that you can change the world today.
I used to watch our children make objects out of modeling clay. With their fingers, they would mold a formless blob into different shapes. They would cut and stick and press, and something new was born. We do that to each other with our words. We each go through life with the capacity to be molded or misshapen by the words of others that land on our ears. All the time we are being pressed or pulled, and harmed or healed, because of the penetrating power of words.
It is possible for someone to reach the end of this day in a far worse condition because of the words you send that person’s way. It is also possible today to leave someone in significantly better shape because of something you might say to him or her.
Do you ever consciously and deliberately set your words to work, sending them off into the world and into someone else’s life to do them good? James is picturing for us a world of people who, because they belong to a speaking God, are intentional speakers. I don’t think his images of fresh water and olives, figs, and grapes are coincidental. Like the book of Proverbs, James is showing us that words can give life.
From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied;
he is satisfied by the yield of his lips.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits. —Proverbs 18:20–21
Are you hungry to eat the food your own words have created?
Stop and think about it. When was the last time you built something with your words? Or tried to change something with your speech? Or harvested something because of words you’d deliberately sown a long time before? I think we harvest our words all the time, probably way more than we realize. But don’t just let it happen to you, as if you’ve got absolutely no control. Plant your words somewhere and watch how powerful they are.
This article is adapted from Radically Whole: Gospel Healing for the Divided Heart by David Gibson.
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