Words Matter

IN JANUARY 2021 American news hit world headlines: a violent crowd of rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington. The President was subsequently impeached for allegedly inciting a riot. The Senate chaplain had said that “Words matter” and that “the power of life and death is in the tongue”.

The Power of the Tongue

Words do indeed matter! With words we can humiliate, insult, embarrass, malign, discourage; or we can uplift, encourage and build up. The wise man said that there is ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3:7).

Keeping silent is not always the wisest approach, as silence is not neutral and can be misinterpreted, as either approval or disapproval. So there is a ‘time to speak’. But the speech itself needs to be wholesome. The Apostle James warned:

No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:8–10).

Worse still, it is not uncommon these days for people to speak disrespectfully about God Himself. The follower of Christ should never do this. But the Bible warns us that it is quite possible to speak disrespectfully about God without meaning to.

Unsafe Assumptions

The book of Job tells of a series of catastrophes happening to this godly man. His wife urges him to ‘curse God and die(Job 2:9), which is clearly wrong. But then three friends come to ‘comfort’ him and to give him the benefit of their advice. In slightly different ways they all accuse him of having done something to incur the anger of God, while he repeatedly (and correctly) insists that his behaviour before God has been right and consistent. They become judgemental and he becomes defensive.

While the book is about Job’s endurance in the face of disaster (James 5:11), it is also about the attitude of the three friends. God says of them that they have not spoken of Him what is ‘right’ (Job 42:7).

In fact the friends did say some things about God that were correct: principles that are repeated elsewhere in the Bible. Examples are:

  • Eliphaz (Job 5:11 compare with Psalm 113:7; and Job 15:14 compare with Proverbs 20:9)
  • Bildad (Job 18:5 compare with Proverbs 13:9, 20:20)
  • Zophar (Job 20:5 compare with Psalm 37:35–6; and Job 20:8 compare with Psalm 73:20).

It is a fundamental Bible message that ultimately the righteous are blessed and the wicked punished. But in the short-term, in this life, it is not like that. Bad people can prosper, and bad things happen to good people. The supreme example of this is the Lord Jesus Christ who never did anything wrong and yet suffered more than any other human being. And in Psalm 73 the writer realises that bad people may prosper in the short-term, but not eternally. Similarly, the claim that God chastens people (Job 5:17) is perfectly correct (Hebrews 12:5), but that is not the only reason why people suffer.

The massive error made by the friends was to judge the actual case before them. They presumed to tell Job (and therefore God Himself) why God had allowed these things to happen to Job. The fact that God can and does sometimes react in a particular way does not entitle us to presume that we know His reasons in any specific situation. The details in the book of Job show us that, when assessing Job’s plight, the friends made unsafe assumptions and spoke out of turn, and consequently they told untruths about God. This was so serious that God told Job to pray for them (Job 42:8) so that they could be forgiven.

We Must Beware

We cannot deduce truths about God from our observation and experience of life. The Bible is the only authority and tells us much about God’s character and plans. This is a great honour for us. But we must be very careful to quote correctly, in context, neither adding to nor taking away from God’s own revealed words and ideas. Otherwise we may make the same mistake that Job’s three friends made. Are we ever tempted to say things such as “Oh, it was meant to be”, “It will all work out”, “God helped them to get better because they are so faithful”, “It’s judgement on them”?

The words we speak reflect the beliefs in our inner selves (Luke 6:45). Let us read the Bible carefully, trying to ensure that all our communication is consistent with it. Then our thoughts and ideas can be godly and we can avoid misrepresenting Almighty God. Our words really do matter.

Anna Hart