Speaking Words of Life
Do your conversations feel life-sustaining? In today's blog, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff shares how your words can impart life and how this plays a significant role in building community.
In my blog last week, I discussed God’s view of our speech and the responsibility we have to reclaim power over our words. I’d like to dig deeper into how to not only keep our words in check but how they can be used to impart life.
Inherent in language is the ability to create closeness with God and others. Concerning God, have you ever wondered why he created us? What do human communicators have to offer an all-knowing, all-wise, and self-sufficient God? Perhaps, as many argue, we were primarily created to worship God? Yet, the book of Isaiah informs us that the chief responsibility of six-winged angels called seraphs is to hover above God and shout out, “Holy, holy, holy” with such force that it shakes the doorposts of the temple (Isa. 6:2-4). Surely, we cannot out-worship seraphs. How can we engage God in a way that seraphs can’t?
Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic and recipient of the United States President’s Medal of Freedom, argues that one of God’s greatest miracles is endowing us with the ability to communicate: “If the Word of God is the source of God’s entire creation, then that part of God’s creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God’s miracles—the miracle of human speech.” However, doesn’t an all-knowing God already know our words before we speak them? David boldly states that “before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord” (Ps. 139:4). So, why even bother to communicate with God?
The answer can be found in understanding that all communication exists on two levels—the content and the relational. The content level consists of the words we use to convey a message, while the relational level consists of the amount of acknowledgment and respect between two individuals. When it comes to our content God already comprehends our words as soon as we conceive of them and is intimately familiar with all of our thoughts (Ps. 139: 3). The uniqueness of human speech is that we can use words to interact with God on a relational level. The Scriptures inform us that “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face [acknowledgment], as a man does to his friend [respect]” (Ex. 33:11). The ability to focus on the relational level is not merely limited to God. Life is imparted to others when we focus on the relational level with those we care about.
Understanding how words impart life plays a significant role in fostering community. Social critic Marilyn McEntyre argues that foundational to forming relationships with others is our ability to reclaim a sacred perspective of language.
A large almost sacramental sense of the import and efficacy of words can be found in early English usage, where conversation appears to have been a term that included and implied much more than it does now: to converse was to foster community, to commune with, to dwell in a place with others. Conversation was understood to be a life-sustaining practice, a blessing, and a craft to be cultivated for the common good .
Imparting life through our words is a craft that involves the ability to offer a blessing rather than a curse, seeking common ground rather than exploiting differences, and being committed to dwelling with others in the community. Seen in this way, our conversations can be life-sustaining.
The most dramatic example of life-sustaining speech came at a church-wide prayer meeting I attended for a gravely ill pastor. While living in North Carolina one of our pastors, Greg, was in the last stages of succumbing to a long fight with cancer. In desperation, the church gathered to pray for healing. While Greg was too sick to attend, his two sons came to the meeting. For various reasons, the two boys had stopped attending church and were struggling with their faith. At the end of the meeting, it was announced that Greg had unexpectedly shown up and wanted to address the crowd. He looked frail as he slowly walked to the microphone. In a weak voice, he thanked us for coming and our prayers.
I will never forget what happened next. He specifically singled out two great men of faith who had stood by him during his illness and treatment. “These godly men are here for me and I lean on their faith.” We all assumed he was speaking about the other two pastors in the audience. He then invited these two men—his sons—to come up and join him. The father knew they were struggling with faith but made the decision to publicly impart life into them by speaking to their reality as children of God, not their immediate state. He reminded them who they were, not how they were currently struggling. Watching them stand next to their father—literally holding him up—I saw them transformed into Christ-like comforters.
The same strategy is used by the apostle Paul in his shifts between the indicative and imperative moods in his writing. The indicative mood indicates the way things are, while the imperative mood focuses on the potential fulfilling of commands. For example, in his letter to the Colossian church, the first two chapters are written in the indicative mood reminding the readers of the freedoms they have in Christ. The next two chapters shift to the imperative mood; laying out commands for holy living. The turning point in the letter comes when he starts chapter three by stating, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ [indicative] . . . put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature [imperative]” (Col. 3:1;5). Like Greg with his two sons, Paul reminds his readers of who they are and what they can become.
Similarly, could we not strike the same balance when disagreeing with fellow believers? As we acknowledge the anger, hostility, and often raised voices surrounding our discussion of CRT, the past election, and vaccinations (imperative), could we not also remind ourselves of the lofty calling as peacemakers (indicative)?
 Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 2.
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)