Reclaiming the Power of Your Words
Do you know the weight of your words? Words have the power to build someone up and tear someone down. How do you reclaim that power? In today's blog, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff explains how words can deeply impact people.
Ellen Seidman is on a crusade.
Her efforts have caught the attention of thousands of YouTube viewers, educators, 250,000 petition signers, and even past presidents such as President Obama. Her crusade doesn’t focus on ending poverty, racism, global warming, or sex trafficking. Her crusade is to end the use of a single word. Seidman and her followers seek to “spread the word to end the word.”
What’s the word that has captured the attention of so many? Retarded. Her efforts first started by posting a video on her blog, Love That Max . Max is her 9-year-old son who has cerebral palsy and has experienced the emotional pain and isolation caused by the “R-word.” “Watching Max withdraw from others and question his sense of worth due to this word has been heartbreaking and infuriating for this editor and mom. It is a demeaning word even if it’s meant as a joke,” states Seidman, “because it spreads the idea that people who are cognitively impaired are either stupid or losers.” Dr. Stephen B. Corbin, senior vice president for the community impact of the Special Olympics agrees. While Corbin acknowledges that “you can’t ban terminology any more than you can ban thought” the goal is to educate others of the dehumanizing impact language has on others .
One of the significant problems of modern society is our careless handling and tossing about words. How do we begin to cultivate civility in a communication climate immersed in vitriol? To start, we must remind ourselves of the ability of our words to deeply confirm or disconfirm another. As Christian communicators, we must particularly embrace how seriously God takes human language.
God’s View of our Speech
In the sixth chapter of the book of Proverbs, we encounter a remarkable list of what God hates and finds detestable. The word hate is a Hebrew word often associated with disgust and represents God’s emotional reaction to certain human actions. Seven actions evoke disgust from God: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to shed evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up dissension among brothers (6:17-19).
What is interesting is that of the seven mentioned, four have to do with our communication. Haughty eyes refer to an arrogant stance towards others as evidenced by a non-verbal posture that is meant to intimidate and demean others. A lying tongue and false witness both pour out lies. Last, God reacts to anyone who uses communication to foster dissension among individuals. The first step to respecting communication is to realize the emotional response speech acts elicit from God. Far from being a stoic deity, God is deeply moved by our verbal and nonverbal choices.
Christ continues this emphasis on language when he declares that we all will be held accountable for every word uttered. At the end of our lives, each of us will have to give an account of the millions of words we have spoken (Matt.12:36). Why are our words so important? Christ explains: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). For biblical writers, the heart represents the center of a person’s personality, emotions, intellect, and volition. It is through our communication with others that we glean a robust picture of a person. While all of the communication exposes our inner person, Christ particularly isolates “careless” words that are spoken with a little forethought (Matt. 12:36). The Greek word Argos, translated as careless, refers to words we deem insignificant.
A few years ago, Biola University started filming courses for promotional reasons and posting sections of lectures on YouTube and other social media platforms. Two of my courses were selected and the effect they had on me was profound. Standing in front of my class and seeing the red light above the camera was a constant reminder that every word, joke, impromptu comment, critique, and response to students would be recorded and posted on the web the next day. Being recorded helped me understand that there are no careless comments—all are recorded and reflect who I am. When Christ tells us that our words reflect our heart, he was mirroring the attitude of many Roman and Greek philosophers who taught, talis oratio, quails vita (“As the speech, so the life”) .
A key motivation to reclaim the power of words is found in an unsettling statement about language found in the Book of Proverbs: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). Our speech has the power to deeply build up or tear down others. In a culture that often uses language to demean and hurt, let’s focus on how words can build up others.
In my blog next week, I will discuss practical steps on how to impart life with our words.
 To learn more visit: http://www.r-word.org.
 Ending the R-Word: Ban it or understand it?, Emanuella Grinberg, CNN. www.cnn.com/2012/03/07/living/end-r-word/index.html?hpt=hp_c4 (accessed October 19, 2012).
 Jeffery Hultin, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment (Boston: Brill Publishers, 2008), p. 67.
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements. He is the co-host of the Winsome Conviction Podcast and his latest book is, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church (IVP)