Using words well is tough. This thought hit me as I moved some books around and got to my shelf of books about writing. These books exist because using words well is necessary to flourish as a writer. Books about writing, which excavate good writing to teach what makes communication effective, provocative and beautiful, have helped me as a writer and also helped me grow as a Christian. Using words well is not just for writers. According to the Bible, using words well is necessary for human flourishing.
James compares our words to a spark which sets a forest ablaze. He says, “The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:6–8).
Our words show affection and distaste. They rip apart and stitch together. They tear down regimes and build communities. They can light an unquenchable fire or douse an impending inferno. Our words, by God’s grace, can speak courage into the fearful and even build defences against sin. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17 ESV).
With this much power comes the responsibility to use words well. No wonder my parents taught me to watch my mouth. God helps us do this as his word speaks to us with honesty and comfort.
Nobody begins their quiet time praying to be cut up and put back together, but that is precisely what God’s word does. “For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
Revelation 1:16 pictures a sharp double-edged sword coming from Jesus’s mouth. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases Isaiah 49:2, from Jesus’ mouth comes “speech that would cut and penetrate” (The Message). The word has sharp edges to make surgical cuts. As much as it hurts, we need this cutting ministry of the Word.
The father figure in Proverbs warns his son to pursue wisdom and watch out for foolishness. The smooth words of folly and flattery, personified as dripping from the lips of the forbidden woman, lurk in the shadows along every path. Her lips “drip honey and her words are smoother than oil” (Prov 5:3). Wicked words taste sweet and go down smooth. It’s part of their enchantment.
Why would we want the sharp edges of Christ’s wisdom when we can gobble down the honey-baked delicacies of folly? Because the sweet coating hides the poisoned apple.
She seduces him with her persistent pleading;
she lures with her flattering talk.
He follows her impulsively
like an ox going to the slaughter,
like a deer bounding toward a trap
until an arrow pierces its liver,
like a bird darting into a snare—
he doesn’t know it will cost him his life. (Prov 7:21–23).
God’s Word cuts through the smooth flattery because God is truly honest about us. What Proverbs 8:8 says of wisdom is true of God “All the words from my mouth are righteous; none of them are deceptive or perverse” (Pro 8:8). There is no deception, no flattery, just honest truth. We refuse this cutting honesty at the cost of our lives.
Chase Replogle writes about cultivating integrity in his book The 5 Masculine Instincts. He says, “To claim integrity is to claim to know the whole truth of who you are. It is an honest awareness and evaluation of your whole life… no matter how honest we imagine ourselves to be, our lives harbor all sorts of half-truths and incongruent secrets lurking in the shadows.” Integrity is impossible unless we allow God’s word to cut and reveal our willful and hidden sins (Psalm 19:12-13).
God alone searches hearts and knows the whole truth of who we are. We need the honesty of God’s word to know the whole truth about ourselves. To use words well, we must commit to the painful work of being honest.
“A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples in silver settings” (Pro 25:11). Cutting is not the only business of God’s word. His honest word is a good word that brings joy, strength and comfort. In John 13-17 Jesus prepares his disciples for his death by reminding them what he has told them and why he told them:
- In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? John 14:2
- I have told you now before it happens so that when it does happen you may believe. John 14:29
- I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. John 15:11.
- I have told you these things to keep you from stumbling. John 16:1.
- I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” John 16:33.
Jesus points his disciples to what he said. His constant care comes through his word. He knows “how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isa 50:4). His word is a two-edged sword that cuts deep but also is a suture that stitches us back together. To use words well requires this two-fold ministry. If we only aim to comfort, we slide from honesty towards flattery. If we only aim to cut, we leave behind a bloody mess.
We learn from Jesus that our words have a responsibility to be honest and bring comfort by pointing to him.
What is the secret to using words like Christ? Become Christlike.
William Zinsser, one of the most revered writer teachers of his generation, said, “Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound” (On Writing Well 25th Anniversary Edition, 264).
What is in our heart comes out of our mouth. Paul tells the Ephesians “Obscene and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable” for his dearly loved children in Christ (Eph 5:4). Using words well requires the hard work of sanctification, building character, and keeping close to Christ.
This is a hard truth to swallow but as Peter said, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).