The Words We Use, Part 1By Greg Vanderleeuw
October 20, 2020
It’s 1776 in New York City. A young and aspiring Alexander Hamilton questions a man he looks up to—Aaron Burr, who would become the third Vice President of the United States and who would put a bullet in Hamilton’s chest in a heated duel 28 years later.
Hamilton asks Burr for advice on how to succeed in life. In his musical based on the intertwining lives of these two Founding Fathers, Lin Manuel Miranda imagined Burr responding, “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
Perhaps lately you’ve been asking yourself how, as a pastor, you should be speaking more in moments and on topics you’ve been all too silent about. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve struggled with questions like: “What do I say?” “How do I say it?” “Will what I say even make a difference?” Or perhaps you’re in ministry and you’ve never thought about the words you use on a daily basis—words you use when you’re frustrated, words when you describe your favorite show or movie, words of exclamation, words of doubt.
Consider this: We have red-letter Bibles highlighting the spoken words of Jesus. We have ancient creeds that have withstood historical arguments and debates surrounding particular word-order. We have denominational disputes over what statements of faith say or don’t say. If that all fails, we can hop on the most convenient social media platform of choice and search what the latest pastor said or wrote about in their latest sermon or book. To some degree, we must admit that our words do matter. But do we ever stop and think hard about the ones we use? Because pastor, your words matter. They matter to God, and they should matter to you, too.
Your Words Must Matter
It’s ironic that even as I am writing this article I’m cautious of the ever-increasing word count located at the bottom of my computer screen. That’s mostly because my editor requested a specific word limit. Therefore, because I am limited in what I can say, I’m conscious to the fact that I must attempt to collect my thoughts so as to say precisely what I mean to say. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Perhaps I should’ve. Another nine words.
Consider how in every electoral race, nominees are judged for the truth they speak, the promises they make, and the hope they can give. The reality is, in our world today, you are bound by what you say or don’t say, what you defend and what you advocate. You are crucified if you misspeak and you can be ignored if you speak too much. If you’re still unconvinced as to how much your words matter in ministry, let’s briefly examining what the Bible says about the words we use.
The Use of Speech in the Bible
The first reference of speech we read about takes places in Genesis 1:3. Have you ever stopped to think about how and why God created the world simply by speaking? Other than the all-knowing members of the Trinity, who needed to hear the words that God was speaking when the darkness dissipated, and the void vanished? Perhaps even as you’re reading this, you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, we don’t actually know that God literally said that when He created the world.” And that’s exactly my point. Words must matter. Because if they don’t matter to you as a pastor, it’s only a matter of time before someone in your congregation comes to you and says the words of the Bible don’t matter either.
The Bible contains many instances, laws, instructions, wisdom and even promises for what should be said, how things should be said, what will be said, and why things are said. We not only see that words create, but they sustain. We see words are used to encourage and used to curse. Words in the Bible are used to pray, to worship, to bless, to preach, to warn, to teach, to heal.
But why do the words we use matter?
Words Have the Power to Speak Life
Perhaps one of the most convincing reasons why words should matter in your ministry is found in Romans 10. Let’s start with a reason we see in verse 14.
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”
Paul’s argument covers a number of points. Particularly, he argues that salvation comes by an individual hearing the good news of Jesus preached to them. The act of “confessing” with your mouth (v.9), “calling on” the name of the Lord (v.13), and the “preaching” good news (v.15) are words we use to call out, herald, or proclaim truth and faith.
Likewise, in Romans 10:9, he argues that upon hearing the words of the gospel, the faith one has in this good news is confessed with their mouth. Therefore, it is the saved follower of Jesus that then uses the words of their mouth to confess what is in their heart—that Jesus is Lord, and God raised Him from the dead. Do the words we use reflect this truth?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Prose equals words in their best order; poetry equals the best words in the best order.” So, what is so special about the words we use that they have the ability to speak life and death, as it says in Proverbs 18:21? Believer, you have been given a book which contains the greatest news the world will ever know. It’s a combination of the best words in the best order—that a holy God came down to save the world from sin. When those words truly penetrate your heart and shape the way you do ministry, it will change the way you speak and what you speak to.
Broadway’s Aaron Burr’s advises us to “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” But pastor, there will be times every single day when you will need to use your words. The generation you are pastoring right now needs to know what you’re against and what you’re for. You will use your words this week to preach your next sermon, to counsel a struggling couple, to defend the widow and the orphan, to advocate for love and racial equality, to encourage the downhearted, to teach a children’s lesson, to thank your spouse for their sacrifice in ministry, to love your children. Many of those things require wisdom, precision and intentionality; to use the best words in the best order that you might point them to Christ.