Words can be tricky things. Over the past few weeks—months, really—it’s become increasingly clear to me that our words don’t always mean what we want them to mean. When I was doing carpentry work, I put things together with wood and glue and nails, and there was an appropriate way to do each project—the appropriate wood, the appropriate fastener, and so on. Plywood worked well in some settings, solid wood in others. Framing nails were needed for one job, and finish brads for another. Sometimes we’d try to get by with material or fasteners that weren’t quite right, and the results were usually less than the best, and we’d have to go back and do it right.
I’m working less with wood these days, and more with words, but the principles are the same. There are appropriate words, and inappropriate ones. In Ephesians 4, Paul tells the believers there in Ephesus that they have put away the old way of living, the old self—corrupt and deluded. They have instead been renewed in the spirit of their minds, and been clothed in righteousness and holiness. Because of this, Paul tells them: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Paul’s admonishment to watch our words is echoed in James—who warns us that the tongue is a fire, capable of great destruction.
You might think of it like this: words are the material, and the way we use our words are the fasteners. My words might be carefully selected, like a fine piece of figured maple or cherry—but if I slap them together with 16d framing nails, I’ve ruined them. My words might be “right,” but if they are said in anger, or with a lack of compassion, or if they are laced with bitterness, then I’ve spoiled my carefully selected words. On the other hand, we can also be oh-so-sensitive about how we say things, but fail to say what needs to be said at times. Either way, our words don’t always bring about the results we desire, because we’re less than careful craftspeople when we put them together.
One of our additional struggles is that words can shift in meaning over time and in different circumstances. The same word or phrase can mean different things to different people, and what we think we are saying may not be what is being heard. This is particularly true these days, as our nation is struggling with how to address long-festering racial injustice. Even as I wrote the previous sentence, I knew that the words are going to trigger potentially diverse thoughts and feelings, because terms “racial” and “injustice” are viewed in different ways by different people—and I also realized that characterizing racial injustice as a poorly-attended infection by using the phrase “long-festering” loads the statement with my own views—which may not be shared by others. Words have meaning that goes beyond their definition.
The issues we face as a culture are not monolithic, and can never be adequately expressed with overly simplistic platitudes or catch-phrases. There are no slogans that can adequately address the tensions we encounter, not without becoming so overloaded with unintended meaning that they collapse into uselessness. So we need to be wary of trite or overly simplistic words that inevitably fail to capture the complexity of feeling brought to the surface by these tensions. But we need to have some way to express ourselves—we need words, even though our words will inevitably fail to express the deep things within us.
In a culture of misunderstanding and verbal violence, we—as God’s people—need to use our words with care. We need to be wary of forums in which glib sound-bites take precedence over reasoned and compassionate dialogue. We need to listen far more than we speak, but when we speak, our words should be—as Paul says to the Colossians—chosen and used with care: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” And we should use our words to reach beyond being heard, to understanding each other.
We may find it difficult to have these conversations with our culture, addressing the issues in constructive and compassionate ways. We risk being misunderstood, and so we need to use our words carefully, so as not to compromise our Christian mission. If we are not mindful, we may take sides with our words, when all we should be expressing is the love of Christ. I know that my words are not always seasoned with salt, and that I don’t always know how I ought to answer everyone. But my prayer is that at least within the family of God, we can talk with each other without injury. Christian unity does not presuppose uniformity—we will have different viewpoints on many issues, particularly those that involve our relationship with our culture. But Christian love means that we will listen, we will have grace when we disagree, we will seek the good of our sisters and brothers with our words. We will be able to talk about our complicity with the powers of this world, and confess our short-sighted and overly simplistic response to difficult problems, and we will gracefully receive the confession of our fellow believers with forgiveness and love. And when our words fall short, and fail to express the depth of our hearts, we will try to understand each other—to hear the words of our brothers and sisters as Jesus hears them, to go beyond the words and hear the truth.