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Words of Redemption

Words of Redemption

Exploring the Profound Impact Language Has on Our Lives

Andrew Zwart

Asst. Prof. Of Interdisciplinary Studies

Kuyper College

Published On:

February 6, 2024

All too often, when Christians have paused to consider their language use, we only make it as far as a list of words that can, or more likely, cannot be said. More recently, though, as our broader society has begun to recognize the power that words have to shape our lives and thoughts, many Christians have been forced to reckon with language use at a deeper level. I, for one, welcome this change in approach.

The good news is that plenty of theologians, philosophers, and writers have thought carefully about this subject, a fact that’s not terribly surprising given that words are their trade. The bad news is that unless you go out of your way to study language, you’re unlikely to discover these treasures. And this is unfortunate since thinking about language, in general, can open new ways to see the world. As I often tell my students, language is probably the most important thing in our lives that most of us never think about.

When considering what scripture has to tell us about the nature of language, we don’t have to go very far. Genesis opens with God creating the universe with an act of speech: “And God said ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.” And in case we overlooked this miracle, the gospel of John famously begins with the simple yet powerful statement, “In the beginning was the Word.” John then goes on to write that “Through him [the word] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Amazingly, this creative act includes each one of us. God says, “Let us make humanity in our image.” I highlight these echoes between Genesis and John for two reasons.

First, it reminds us that being made in his image, we share in his creativity. With nothing but words, God creates the universe ex nihilo--out of nothing--and even as we are awed by this power, we are reminded that God’s good gift of language allows us to partake in his creativity. No, we can’t speak a universe into being, but through language, we form relationships, we dream up new ideas, and we produce culture. Even strict materialists who don’t believe in God recognize that language separates us from every other creature. No other animal can communicate in ways that originate new concepts. In contrast to this, we’re adding brand new words to just the English language every single day, words that both reflect and shape wholly original thoughts.

This is incredible, and it bears emphasizing: Words have enormous creative power.

The second reason why the idea of imaging God matters is because it reminds us that each of us partakes in this miracle. It’s not Christians or Reformed folk, or Americans. It’s every single person on this planet. The Bible begins with the radical notion that every human being is worthy of respect. Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, history, or social status, their culture, race, or ethnicity, we are called to love them and to treat them with dignity, never forgetting that they share in God’s image.

Unfortunately, though, we know how often we fail in this regard, weaponizing language to hurt and to shame others, usually others who differ from us. Each of us knows personally that the statement “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is one of the earliest lies we hear. Most of us can testify to the fact that even a thoughtless, off-hand comment can leave emotional scars that last for years. I think about the time my third-grade teacher called me stupid. I’m not making that up. It still bothers me.

Sometimes we have been the victims of such carelessness; sometimes we have been the perpetrators. I think about the time I told someone who I loved that I hated them. I didn’t mean it. I “just” meant to wound. It worked. This happened over forty years ago, and it too still bothers me.

Yes, words have enormous creative power. They also have immense destructive power. As James 3, verses 9 and 10 put it: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. ”

With these truths in mind, then, we recognize the need for Christians to take care with every word we speak. We desire to use language to build each other up, not to tear others down. Today, when language is at the heart of so many difficult conversations, this means that we cloak ourselves in humility, listening carefully to others in order to discern what particular words hurt and which ones heal. Christians should desire to take a posture of charity so as to work towards reconciliation, to witness to a gospel that proclaims God’s saving grace to people from “every nation, all tribes, and all languages.” Empowered by the Word made flesh, the Word that saves, we seek to live lives in which words have redemptive power.

So words have creative power; and yes, they can damage and destroy; but they can also be used to redeem.

Now I recognize that while this might sound good in the abstract, it can be hard to know how to implement such an approach. When I ask students to imagine what this might mean for their lives, they tend to fall back on the notion that they should avoid certain words. Certainly, I’m not saying that this isn’t worth thinking about, but sometimes I think we limit our thoughts about language to an issue like swearing so that we can avoid examining deeper issues. Let me give a brief example of what I mean by this.

One time when I asked this question, a student mentioned how she had noticed that so much of her and her friends’ language tended towards sarcasm. She observed that while, at its best, sarcasm can act as a form of playfulness that strengthens friendships, when it becomes our default mode of communication, it can dull our sense of wonder, even our sense of creativity. Her job, then, was to begin discerning the difference–a task that requires much more effort than dodging certain words.

This is just one example. We might also consider how quick we are to demean or dismiss those whom we disagree with. We might ask ourselves, when was the last time we went out of our way to speak an unexpected word of kindness into someone’s life? And could we ever imagine speaking such a word to those with whom we do disagree? If you’re like me, once you start probing, you might discover layers: was that true concern or was it gossip? Wasn’t that omission really just a lie?

It’s important, then, to recognize that we will continue to fail. We will sin by what we say and by what we have left unsaid. Sometimes, we’ll fail because we’re being selfish--because in our sin we stubbornly refuse to see others as image-bearers, and we just can’t be bothered to consider how our words might affect them. Sometimes, we’ll fail simply because we are fallen and finite creatures. We will say things out not out of maliciousness, but out of ignorance. The world is complex, and this complexity means that we’re going to make mistakes.

And it is because we know that we will err that we must hold both ourselves and others accountable when we use language in ways that distort God’s image in others rather than magnifying it. And yet, we must also strive to be gracious with ourselves and with others when we recognize our transgressions and when we seek to remedy them with contrite hearts.

We’re pretty quick, though--all of us--to contextualize, to justify, to diminish. I hope we can do better.

I hope too that we can move away from the idea that all we have to do is memorize a list of dos and don’ts. This will require more difficulty and more thought, but I also think such an approach will allow us to live into a fuller sense of community. Ultimately, I hope and pray that we can endeavor to speak in such a way that every word from our mouths testifies to our love for one another, and in turn praises our glorious God. What better use could we possibly imagine?

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