“The Christian understands that because God’s words matter, our words matter. We can’t simply define words the way we find most useful. We carry the added responsibility to define our words before God as best we can.”

I first became aware of the manipulation of words when I wound up by accident on the debate team of my small private college. I made the mistake of arguing a point with the teacher of my speech class, and she “rewarded” me with a position on the squad. Being shy and working three part-time jobs, my response was less than enthusiastic. But as we went through the season in competition, I began to find my niche in noticing that other teams would twist words and phrases to solidify positions they hadn’t fairly established. I would pass notes to the more loquacious members of our team and let them knock down the false arguments. We began to win, and my grades in speech class began to rise.

Later in life I wound up in a series of jobs that required me to work in disputed areas of employee discipline, worker’s compensation claims, and workplace lawsuits. Again I ran into the misuse of words and again found success in feeding clues to attorneys to attack the opposition’s case.

So when I had the profound experience in my mid-thirties of reading through the Bible looking for God (I had read through it several times before with various intentions, but none of them had to do much with God...), I experienced the jaw-dropping sense that these words mattered. They weren’t just words. They were carefully chosen.

I began to realize the profound obligation the writers of Scripture had to write with integrity. I needed to read it with the same sense of obligation to understand. I grew hungry to know the precise meaning of the original words. Why had this word been translated with that one into my language? What was intended? What was left out in translation? Suddenly words mattered.

Does the Christian owe an obligation of integrity to words and their clear meaning? Do I need to be careful to be clear in my understanding of what God says to me, or to what a Christian says to me, or what a sermon teaches me? Do Christians who teach or disciple owe an obligation to be precise and clear about what is being taught or imparted? And what obligation do I owe to people who are not-yet believers when I speak as a Jesus-follower?

Words, to the follower of Jesus, should be very important. We don’t just yak about “God's Word.” It matters to us that God conveys information to us through words. Moses sits by lantern-light, night by night, as he leads the liberated, half-formed Jewish nation on a wander through the emptier parts of the Sinai Peninsula, and spends the long evenings writing the first five books of the Bible, giving us history and stories and law. He spends a large chunk of his life writing to us, because it matters. Words matter.

We are horrified (hopefully) when we read Jeremiah 36. The words of Jeremiah the prophet had been read publicly to the people at the Temple, and everyone understood he spoke God’s Word. The words criticized King Jehoiakim and called the people to return to worshiping God. It was winter and the King sat near the fire to keep warm as the scroll was read out loud. As each part was read, he snipped it off and tossed it in the fire. We may skip over a lot of history, but God has arranged for every generation since to be shocked at King Jehoiakim’s contempt of God’s word. Words matter.

Imagine you are a child, and your church teacher hands you part of the Old Testament law, say some part of Leviticus, and asks you to read The Law (the “Thou shalt not...” sections), and then tells you to draw a line through the sections that say things like “Be holy for I am holy,” or “I am the Lord,” or “...for you shall fear your God.” And you look at what you have left after the marked-through sections, and there’s nothing but laws to follow. The point of them has been removed by your line-outs. And then your teacher points out that what you just did is essentially what the Jewish priests and teachers of Jesus’ time had done. “Religion” for them has become rule-keeping. (See Mark 3:1-5 and 7:1-13) and suffered his condemnation. Wouldn’t you have learned that words matter?

The Christian understands that because God’s words matter, our words matter. We can’t simply define words the way we find most useful. We carry the added responsibility to define our words before God as best we can. That standard may be very inconvenient. It may NOT seem desirable at all. It may reference the presence of a Holy and all-Creating God that the listener/reader doesn’t recognize and gives no importance to. It may be far more difficult to accomplish, or to even figure out. Living daily with the added task of being aware of words—both incoming and outgoing—seriously derails my lazy-life philosophy. It also probably means I owe a grudging debt of gratitude to my college speech teacher.

However, as with most things driven by my ever-greater desire to both please God and live according to his call, the discipline gradually works its way as a steady practice into the hours and events of the days, and helps make interactions with people a classroom for living out my faith.

To others, I fear it just looks peculiar. That's embarrassing!

Yet, I invite you to look more closely at the language you use and what the words said to you are really intended to mean (e.g. clearly defined or chosen for connotation?) And if in doing so your fellow conversationalists start thinking you're a bit peculiar, you may feel worse, but let me know...I’ll feel better!

Jim Leonard

Jim serves Cornerstone through pastoral care and by overseeing internal ministries and administration.

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