The Power of Language

Words in Media Part 1

Words are the instrument of God to shape reality; they create order and structure. “God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3, ESV). A few words,  and the darkness illuminated. A few more and the Earth appeared, the stars hung in the sky, and humankind made their first footprint in the garden soil. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV). The words of Scripture permeate our being. In our most desperate times they give strength, in our successes they remind us to be thankful, and when we feel the weight of our treacherous acts and selfish heart, they reveal the saving grace of Jesus. The world is shaped by words.

During the Great Depression President Franklin D. Roosevelt sparked courage and hope into the hearts of the American people during his first inaugural address, with his famous words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell, in the NBC American sitcom The Office, made popular the comedic phrase “that’s what she said.” To this day the phrase is used and followed by laughs, eye rolls and indignation. YOLO, an acronym for “you only live once,” erupted in youth culture as slang for “carpe diem,” when Canadian rapper Drake used the acronym in a bonus track “The Motto” on his album Take Care. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” These words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his I Have a Dream Speech propelled the Civil Rights Movement forward on a national scale. These are just a few examples of how language profoundly shape individuals, communities and culture.

The wise and virtuous feel, the weight of responsibility to communicate effectively with care. Communication involves what we desire to express (i.e. intent), words and the response of others. For example: A college student registers her car with the student life office. Two weeks later she receives a bill from the student accounts office. She owes $300 as a parking fee. While telling a friend she responds, “this is retarded.” Another student on the floor overhears the conversation and he confronts the use of the word retarded. She explains to the student that she meant stupid and didn’t intent to offend anyone. What happened? The phrase “this is retarded” has a meaning in and of itself. It dehumanizes those with a mental illness. Her intent was not accurately expressed in her word choice. The excuse “you know what I meant” or “I didn’t mean it that way” is an empty platitude, and condones the notion that words are just words.    

Carelessly choosing words that do not align with one’s intended meaning is unwise and irresponsible. Once words are spoken, they linger with meaning.  Consider these common phrases: I’m starving, that’s gay, actions speak louder than words, man up, that’s not what a good Christian does. Words and phrases, despite intent, have meaning. Words must accurately express one’s thoughts, emotions, and intent. In other words, out of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34, Matthew 15:18).

“You have heard that it was said of those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I (Jesus) say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire”  - Matthew 5:21-22, ESV 

Jesus clearly teaches that his concern is with the heart. An angry and hateful heart is an angry and hateful heart, whether it’s expressed in action or language. The outward expression of the anger is not the focus in this passage, rather the inward reality. When one is full of anger, contempt, or hatred, one cannot love. Love is essential to the Christian journey. The two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. The heart’s intent matters a great deal to Jesus. Each person should concern themselves with their inward journey. Prayer and self-reflection are wise disciplines to discern a heart’s intent. Words are revealing as well. When we communicate, our heart has a motive and intent, the words we use are its tell.    

If Jesus is concerned with our inward life, does it matter what type of words we use? As we decide what language to use, we must be keenly aware of our intent, precise in our word choices, and full of care for those we are communicating with. Part II of this post will turn our attention to a Biblical study on harsh language—i.e. swear words.

by Taylor Philippi