ISSUE 4 Spring 2015

Living Words, Killing Words

The Power of Words in the Argument Culture

While recently receiving an award for broadcasting, fiery conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck surprised many in the audience by apologizing for his vitriolic style.

Beck acknowledged that the angry communication climate he helped to create makes most Americans approach issues as if they were part of a verbal slugfest and have in turn divided us as a nation. The ancient writers who contributed to the book of Proverbs would agree with Beck’s assessment of the power of words to hurt and divide.

Utilizing vivid metaphors, these ancient writers strive to describe the potentially devastating power of words. “Reckless words” are presented as a “piercing sword” (12:18). A word, spoken in the wrong way, can “break a bone” (25:15). A person’s spirit is easily crushed by a deceitful tongue (15:4). Just as the “north wind” can bring driving rain, so a “sly tongue” evokes an angry response (25:23). In plotting evil, a scoundrel’s speech is like a “scorching fire” (16:27). Not only can negative words separate close friends (16:28), but a whole city can be disrupted by mockery (29:8).

Immersed in Words

Yet, immersed in a technologically driven culture, the sheer amount of words being communicated is unprecedented. This can easily cause us to forget the power of these words. Facebook has over a billion active users worldwide and is available in more than 70 languages. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world only lagging behind China and India. Today, users on Twitter are sending over 200 million Tweets per day or 2,315 a second. YouTube reports that over 4 billion videos are uploaded each month and that in 2011 it had more than 1 trillion views, or around 140 views for every person on earth. Internet communication produces enough information to fill seven million DVDs every hour, with annual consumption predictions for 2015 at 966 exabytes (one billion gigabytes.) To put this in perspective, a study by UC Berkeley estimates that if all the words spoken by human beings were put into text form they would take up merely five exabytes—that’s 1 billion gigabytes—and growing. Has the abundance of words caused us to ignore the power inherent in our words as we continue to add more words? If so, how can we proceed to reclaim their power?

Perhaps the first step in turning around the argument culture lamented by Glenn Beck is to embrace how seriously God takes human language. In the sixth chapter of the book of Proverbs we encounter a remarkable list of what God hates and finds detestable. The word hate is a Hebrew word often associated with disgust and represents God’s emotional reaction to certain human actions. Seven actions evoke disgust from God: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to shed evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up dissension among brothers (6:17-19). What is interesting is that of the seven mentioned four have to do with our communication. Haughty eyes refer to an arrogant stance towards others as evidenced by a non-verbal posture that is meant to intimidate and demean others. A lying tongue and false witness both pour out lies. Last, God reacts to anyone who uses communication to foster dissension among individuals. 

The first step to respecting communication is to realize the emotional response speech acts elicit from God. Far from being a stoic deity, God is deeply moved by our verbal and nonverbal choices.

Jesus on Why Words Are Important

Christ continues this emphasis on language when he declares that we all will be held accountable for every word uttered. At the end of our lives each of us will have to give an account of the millions of words we have spoken (Matthew 12:36). Why are our words so important? Christ explains: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). For the biblical writers the heart represents the center of a person’s personality, emotions, intellect, and volition. It is through our communication with others that we glean a robust picture of a person. 

While all of communication exposes our inner person, Christ particularly isolates “careless” words that are spoken with little forethought (Matthew 12:36). The Greek word argos, translated ‘careless’, refers to words we deem insignificant, but can still do great harm to others. When Christ tells us that our words reflect our heart, he was mirroring the attitude of many Roman and Greek philosophers who taught, talis oratio, qualis vita (“as the speech, so the life”).

No Careless Comments

A few years ago my university starting videotaping courses and posting lectures on iTunes University and YouTube. Two of my courses were selected and the effect it had on me was profound. Standing in front of my class and seeing the red light above the camera was a constant reminder that every word, joke, impromptu comment, critique, and response to students would be recorded and posted on the web the next day. Being recorded helped me understand that there are no careless comments—all are recorded and reflect who I am.

Perhaps it would do us well before we send out our next Tweet, stick a caption on Instagram, leave a comment to an online article, engage in a hashtag exchange, post a video for YouTube, shoot off a hasty reply on Facebook, or engage in old-fashioned face-to-face conversations to remember that not only does our communication provide others a window into our heart, but we’ll be held accountable whether our words comfort or hurt others. Or, as the ancient writer suggests: “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose” (Proverbs 18:21, The Message).

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Tim Muehlhoff

Tim Muehlhoff is Professor of Communication Studies at Biola University and is author of I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love.

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