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The Table Video

Timothy Muehlhoff

Scorching Words: Conversations That Cause Us To Suffer - Tim Muehlhoff

Professor of Communication Studies, Biola University
March 25, 2019

Utilizing vivid metaphors, the ancient writers of the book of Proverbs strive to describe the 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). The intensity of a person’s speech is like a “scorching fire” (16:27). Tragically, negative words can even separate close friends (16:28). Those of us who have experienced scorching words directed at us understand the emotional, psychological, and physical suffering that follows. Once wounded, how can we control negative self-talk and a desire to get even in our conversations? Is it possible, as the Scripture’s suggest, to offer a blessing for a curse?


Thank you so much. When you’re a parent, you get co-opted into a lot of things. I have three boys. They’re all athletes. They all fell in love for a brief season with baseball. I know nothing about baseball. I was a wrestler. I played football. I do martial arts. I don’t do baseball, but you have to when you’re a parent of three boys. So I would pitch to my boys. Now, I wasn’t stupid. We would have a covering. It was a L-shaped net that you throw the ball and if it’s hit right back at you, it would just hit the net.

I was putting away the net and my oldest son said, “Dad, one more. “Just one more.” And I thought, okay, one more. So I throw one align drive so fast, I couldn’t react right to my thigh. Absolutely put me on the ground. I mean, I was in the fetal position and couldn’t get up. I couldn’t make it. I almost was hospitalized because of a fear of blood clot that was gonna happen in my thigh. Do you know I felt that for almost a year that I would limp, certainly the first couple of weeks, the first couple of months. And I was tentative after that. I was fearful.

I didn’t throw many pitches to my boys after that. You know what’s amazing about words? The book of Proverbs says, a word can do that. A word can hurt you just as much as a hard baseball hitting your thigh and the after effects of it maybe won’t just last weeks or months. For some people I know, maybe even in this room, it’ll lasts a lifetime. A comment that was made by a parent, a comment made by a person that you were in a relationship with, a comment by a child or a spouse and you are affected the rest of your life by that word.

The ancient writers in the book of Proverbs say this, “Words are like the frost of a sword.” Says one ancient writer. Another writer said, “A word spoken in the wrong way “can actually break a bone.” Another writer gives the ultimate homage to words and says “That life and death “is in the power of the tongue.” I think interestingly, the ancient writer said, “Words can set an entire city apart, “can separate people within one community.” I wonder today if because we have so many words that we’ve lost an understanding of the power of words.

Here are some very quick statistics. Facebook has two billion monthly users. If Facebook were a country, it’d be the second largest country in the world, only lagging behind China. 500 million tweets happen a day. 80% of today’s world leaders have a Trader account, 300 hours uploaded per minute on YouTube by billion videos watched per day on YouTube. There’s a phrase called disinhibition that I use my words behind the cloak of the internet and I say the most hurtful things. I wonder if we’ve lost the power of words because we use them all the time.

One communication theorist said this, “A large, almost sacramental sense of the import “and efficacy of words can be found in early English usage “where conversation appears to have been a term “that included an implied much more than it does now. “To converse was to foster community, “to commune with was to dwell in a place with others. “Conversation was to be understood “as a life sustaining practice, “a blessing and a craft to be cultivated “for the common good.” I wonder if we’ve lost a sense of that today.

What’s God’s reaction to words? I think it’s fascinating. In the book of Proverbs, you get this type of language. There are six things which the Lord hates in Hebrew, that means detests. It carries with that the intonation of something so disgusting. It almost causes my stomach to turn, fascinating that the ancient writers would use that kind of language. There are six things, yes, seven. By the way, that’s an ancient Hebrew way of saying there’s more, I’m only gonna mention six or seven, which are an abomination for him, haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies and one who spreads strife among brothers.

Fascinating that the vast majority of those have to do with words. That God hates certain words when he hears them. Now, why? Jesus gives us an explanation of this. In Matthew 12, he says this, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give an account “on the day of judgment for every empty word “that they have spoken.”

Empty we could have the connotation of careless. These are just words that I’m saying, not respecting the power of the words. So this is a scene from, you may remember at The King of Queens where you have Doug and Carrie are this couple of working things out, and one day she for work buys one of those dictaphones that you wear where you dictate. And she’s trying to learn how to do it. She sets it down, but doesn’t turn it off.

And her and Doug have an argument. It records the entire argument. And in the morning they are shocked at what they said to each other. Can you imagine if that was true? Can you imagine if all your words were being recorded and one day you will have to give an account for the words that you used? Now why would Jesus do that? Well he gives us the answer. For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.

Now, Jesus was just reflecting ancient philosophers of his time who simply said “As the speech, so is the life.” Boy that’s convicting for us to think about. Our words and do we respect the power of words? We better because we are gonna be held accountable for it. Why do words costs cause such pain? Why do they cause such suffering? Judith Butler, a feminist theorist says this, “Could language injure us “if we were not in some sense linguistic beings “who require language in order to be? “Is our vulnerability to language “a consequence of our being constituted within its terms?”

We call this reflected appraisal that when I say things to you, you sometimes take it to heart. You allow, what I’m saying to actually shape your psyche. You allow me to create your impression of your own body. I teach gender classes and I know of women who have been sent into an eating disorder because of one thing said by a father, either in jest or maybe not the wisest thing or just plain mean, but why do some words stick in some words don’t?

Why do some words cause us to suffer? And some words that you would think are hurtful and hateful and I just brushed them off? It does not impact me. That’s fascinating to know. Why are some words so hurtful, and other words I could care less about? In communication theory, we borrow a lot from psychology. And psychologists are very helpful when it comes to this. So there is a term called cognitive conservativism, which means starting roughly at age six, your perspective of yourself starts to get cemented.

What you think of yourself, your personality, are you funny? Can you draw? Am I pretty? Am I handsome? Am I masculine and feminine? According to what I see around me. And it becomes hardened in your psyche and you go around thinking. There’s a woman named Betty Edwards who wrote an interesting book called Drawing on The Left Side of the Brain.

And she said, “Most adults form a concrete impression of variability “to draw that is never altered “in their entire lifetime by age eight.” You decide if you’re good at Pictionary or not at age eight, and that cognitive conservative stays with us. Now it can be changed. And psychologists have noted a criteria we use to determine the impact that words will have us. Here’s the criteria. Number one, the person must be deemed competent. So in other words, do I buy your ethos? Do I buy your credibility? Do I think you’re competent? If you don’t think the person is competent then their words can’t hurt you as much as they would be if I do think you’re competent. If I do know, if I do believe that you know what you’re talking about, I’m susceptible to your words to hit me and hurt me in a very deep level.

Number two, it must be personal, not general. If I were to say, I think Biola faculty are just kinda not that sharp. I’d be like, wow, you know, I think that’s kind of a on flattering description of us and I just don’t think it’s true. But you know what the heck. But they say I tell you what, Tim Muehlhoff, I’ve read some of his stuff not so good.

Then he’s like, Huh? Now immediately I judge whether you’re competent to say that. [audience laughing] And by the way, sometimes we give power to the most unqualified people. Right? Why did that one stick? And that’s an interesting question. Third, this is so interesting. It must be reasonable. Fascinating to think about. So if you were to say to me, you are the dumbest professor I have ever met, I’d be like, you have not taken some of the undergrads classes I have taken. [audience laughing] Okay. Trust me, I may not be the sharpest tool at Biola University. I’m not the dumbest professor you’ve ever met. You need to get out more, right? I can think, it has to be reasonable for me to embrace it. Conversely, if you said, “Your book is the best book I’ve ever written.” I’d say you need to read more, right?

Because that is just not true. Interesting that I filter it. So some of you have been deeply hurt by words, not just hurt but crushed. Another proverb says, a spirit can be crushed by a word. So if you’re sitting here and you have been crushed and you think about it, we’ve all had those nights where we just laying, and we look at the ceiling. You replay these conversations over and over and over and over and over, and you can’t get out of the loop. But what do we do? Let me offer two quick thoughts. Let me use this just very quickly. So when my kids drew a picture of a horse and showed it to me, it looked like a Mutant horse. [audience laughing]

It looked like a horse from the Walking Dead. [audience laughing] But what did I say? What did I say to him? Oh, I love this. You’ve traced this. “I did not trace this.” Oh-oh. [audience laughing] Can I put this on my office wall? Will you giving me more? I want a whole herd of Mutant horses. [audience laughing] I love this. What power it had in my child, right. Deemed me competent. It was personal. Jeremy, you’re a good artist. And it was reasonable. I didn’t say he was a Van Gogh. I said, but this is a great horse, if it’s a horse, right?

Yeah, it’s a horse. Good, yes. [audience laughing] Let me give you one that’s not so funny and then we’ll move on very quickly. So I teach rhetoric. Let me read you the most powerful sentence in modern rhetoric. Now you’ll your recognize it, it’s called Letter From a Birmingham Jail. And then Martin Luther King Jr. is in jail and is asked, do not bring your protest to Birmingham. We’re taking care of it, nine white pastors, and this was his response. Somebody smuggled in writing material. I want you to hear the pain in power of word.

But when you have seen vicious mobs, lyncher mothers and fathers at will and drawn your sisters and brothers at whim, when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick brutalizing, even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity. When you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears rolling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun Town, it’s closed to colored children. Seeing the depressant clouds of inferiority begin to form in our little metal sky and see her begin to distort a little personality by consciously developing a bitterness towards white people.

When you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking an agonizing pathos. “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” When you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep at night, after a night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile. Because no motel will accept you. And when you are humiliated by day, day in and day out by nagging signs, reading white and colored. When you’re first name becomes nigga and your middle name becomes boy, however old you are and your last name becomes John.

And when your wife and mother are never given the respect to title misses. When you’re a harried by day and haunted by night, but the fact that you are a negro living constantly a tip toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect and plagued by interferes and outer resentments. When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of nobodyness, then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. Right?

Words cannot just affect people, it can affect a whole ethnicity. It can affect a whole country. It can affect all of us. So what do we do in the short time remaining? How do we respond to suffering? We have to ask this question, does God’s words matter? Are God’s words more powerful than the words of a spouse? Are God’s words more powerful than the words of a child? Don’t be quick to say yes. I love what C.S. Lewis says, “Do not pray what’s supposed to be in you. “Pray what’s in you.” I get that we all could answer the question.

Are God’s words more powerful than the words of another human being? Technically, the answer is yes, but that is not necessarily true in your case. You’ve made a decision that God’s words are not more important. Let me end with these three thoughts. Is God, competent in your life? Does he know what he’s talking about when he calls you his daughter? Does he know what he’s talking about when he calls you, my son? Ladies does his words trump culture, when he tells you in Psalm 139, “I have formed your body. “I have done that.”

Is that enough to counteract advertisement after advertisement that tells you, you’re not thin enough, you’re not white enough? Do we give his words a competency that can overcome the pain caused by other individuals and culture? Second. Does God love you or does he merely love everyone? I think this is where we blow it. For God so loved the world and it does nothing for me because God loves the world. He loves everybody.

This is what I think is brilliant about Luke 15. In Luke 15 he’s asked about God’s love. What does he do? From a communication standpoint it’s fascinating. He gives us three best stories. He says, “Hey, we’re in a woman loses a penny. “What does she do? “She turns up the whole house looking for the one penny. “When a shepherd loses one sheep, what does he do? “He leaves the 99 and goes after the one. “When there’s one prodigal son who leaves, “what happens when that son comes back? “The father runs.”

I think the purpose of those three parables is the one, the one, the one. Jesus is saying, “Yes, I died for humanity.” “I did at one person at a time.” Right? I love Revelation 21, “He will wipe away your tears.” That’d be a powerful moment. God loves you and directs his statements towards you. Lastly, are God’s words reasonable? I was worth the death of Christ? That doesn’t seem reasonable, and yet is the scandalous nature of the Gospel.

Men and women, words can cause death and words can give life. If you have been hurt deeply, we need community, we need counseling, we need help. But at the end of the day, we need to trust God of what he says about each one of us. That while we were still sinners, he loved each one of us. Thank you. [audience applauding]