"Words that build or destroy"
- U2, Promenade
On the morning of September 11, 2001, theologian Miroslav Volf was just finishing a talk to the International Prayer Breakfast of the United Nations in New York. The time was 8.34am. The topic was reconciliation.
The minutes following would see some of the greatest chaos and turmoil ever on American soil as planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre not far from where Volf had been speaking.
During a recent interview, Volf was asked if he thought his words of reconciliation felt empty as 3,000 people died in what he describes as an occurrence that was the opposite of reconciliation.
Words have the ability to either build up or destroy. Many of us will be aware of the saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." It is a saying designed to protect our minds against bullies. While you may call me every name under the sun, they can't hurt me because I know I'm worthwhile.
Life has since taught me that this saying is simply not true. Words can be poison, especially to a child. The little boy or girl who is constantly told by their parents or peers that they can't do anything right, or that they'll never be any good, will often go through life believing it. They will hate themselves, and more often than not will inflict that hatred onto others in some form. Hurt people hurt people.
Words also have the ability to inspire, to build up and to encourage. The child who is consistently told that they are loved and worthwhile will grow up with that belief and find it a lot easier to pass on that love to others. Transformed people transform people.
The Letter of James talks strongly about the power of words. Listen to the explosive description of the power of the tongue from his letter:
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.
Power of the tongue
There must have been some very deadly words being said between people at the church James was writing to for him to pen such fiery prose about the power of the tongue.
Words have the power to change lives, for good or for ill. In the movie, Ben Hur, there is a scene when one of the family of the Jewish prince comes back from just hearing Jesus speak. Her description of the impact of Jesus on her is profound: "He speaks words of life."
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowds that it doesn't matter who they are, they are blessed right now. That was life-changing for people who were constantly given the message that they were nothing.
Nations have also been changed by words. Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech had an influence on racial laws in the United States. They inspired a generation of African Americans to believe they were worthwhile and deserved all the rights that other Americans enjoyed.
But talk can also be cheap at times. It may have appeared so to Miroslav Volf on that tragic morning in New York. But if our words are transformative, and if they lead us to live them out, then no act of terrorism or verbal abuse of an innocent child will ever be able to deceive us into thinking we are anything less than made in the image of a God who gave us the greatest words ever spoken.
Nils von Kalm is from Melbourne, Australia and has a passion for showing how the Gospel is relevant to life in the 21st century. He can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nils.vonkalm and at http://nilsvonkalm.com
Nils von Kalm's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/nils-von-kalm.html