The Words We Use, Part 2By Greg Vanderleeuw
November 24, 2020
In 1993 Lois Lowry published a book titled The Giver. If you’re a millennial in ministry (or just an avid book reader), chances are good that you read this book back in school as part of social studies or English class. In the novel, a society of children who grow up in a faux utopia where at the age of 12 they are given a life assignment of how they will contribute to their society. It was in The Giver that I was first introduced to the concept of “precision of language.” However you feel about Lowry’s book, the idea of the precision of language being used to verbally remind society’s children to use their best words that they might convey with intentionality and clarity what they are trying to say is intriguing. For any full-time preaching pastor, the labor you spend each week crafting a manuscript falls exactly alongside this premise. You desire to say, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, exactly what you believe God has burdened you to herald to your congregations; precision of language, in part, already matters you.
As my children have grown over the years and have been adding to their lexicon, my wife and I have often used a similar term of reminder and correction in how we parent their speech. “Use your best words” is how we put it. They know what we mean. In those moments they are reminded that the words or the order of the words they have just chosen may not be the best use in that moment, because they may not be God-honoring. For my wife and I, our foundation for this reminder is not rooted in any utopia we live in as it is in The Giver, but it’s rooted in a belief that the Word of God instructs us as parents to keep a watch over our children’s words and to help them learn how to speak in God-honoring ways. But how in fact do we do that?
Words Reveal What’s in the Heart.
James famously writes in chapter three about the need for believers to work hard at taming their tongue. In chapter three he writes, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” (3:5-6)
Ministry leaders must keep careful watch over their speech and how they use their words to build up rather than to destroy. James goes on a few verses later to write that the irony of our tongue is that with it we can use it to “bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” But why is keeping a close watch over our speech important? Ultimately, your speech is an indication of what’s in your heart. Jesus’s frustration with the Pharisees is recorded in Matthew 12. After calling them a brood of vipers he says that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks about the fruit of a believers life and how good fruit is shown through how and what they speak about. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).
Pastor, if you were to run a filter on all the words you might use on a regular basis, what might they reveal about what’s in your heart? If you’re like me, we often watch out for the temptation to speak in profane or vulgar ways. Are we paying attention to our words and not just the things we choose to speak about? Might I encourage you today to call to mind David’s prayer in Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Would that be your prayer?
Speaking Well Takes Effort.
Anyone who has spent any measure of time writing an essay, book manuscript, sermon, paper (provided it wasn’t written the night before) knows that finding the right words to say is difficult. Through many edits, you arrive at your final copy, and even then you sometimes doubt if it is in fact what you exactly meant to say. I would argue that as followers of Christ, speaking well takes just as much effort and discipline. Think about the number of times in your life you have been misunderstood or have had to ask for forgiveness because “you didn’t mean to say it like that.” I would suspect in those moments we either weren’t “using our best words” or as previously discussed, we quickly revealed what was in our hearts.
As I reflect in my own life about how to best do this, I believe that learning to speak well and with godliness comes down to three important practices: self-control, wisdom and discernment. Being a ministry leader involves practice and a conscious, caring effort to get our best words in the best order. I’m reminded of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in his second letter regarding the use of his speech. In 2 Timothy alone Paul advises Timothy to not get “entangled in civilian pursuits” (2:4), and “not to quarrel about [useless] words” (2:14) for it ruins your hearers. He continues and tells Timothy to “avoid irreverent babble” for this sort of speech spreads like gangrene. He says to “not be quarrelsome” (2:24) but rather to teach patiently and to correct his opponents with gentleness. All in all, Paul summarizes these characteristics in chapter three by telling Timothy to “avoid such people” (3:5b) and to be prepared and ready to combat evil with righteousness. So how does one do this in ministry, in this season, in my context?
Don’t Get Caught Speaking “Good”
We cannot settle for speaking “good” in our ministries, we must practice and work hard at speaking “well”. Here are three godly ways for a pastor to use their speech in this season that will pay the greatest dividends in your ministry: Exhorting, Encouraging and Evangelizing.
Exhorting. How might God be using your words each day to spur on others, to appeal, to plead, or to instruct them to life and godliness in this season? Is there someone in your life who needs this sort of urging, correction or reproof?
Encouraging. Who in your ministry or on your staff this season is in need of your words of encouragement? Perhaps God would use your words in that moment to keep them from a place of despair, doubt or discouragement. I often wonder how good at this Barnabas might have been, his name literally means “son of encouragement.” Be a Barnabas this season!
Evangelizing. As it was discussed in part one of this article, your words have the power to speak life. In the season that you are ministering in, the world needs to know the hope that is found in Christ. Are you actively praying for opportunities or finding ways to share with your neighbors the good news found in Christ? Perhaps God is asking you to articulate your life story in this season with the life altering truth found in the Bible to present to someone who needs to hear about salvation by faith in Jesus?
I’ll conclude with a short comment on Aaron Burr’s quote from Hamilton: The Musical, referenced in part one of this series: “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” It may have been good advice for a young up-and-coming Hamilton. But for you, pastor, there is too much at stake these days. Many studies suggest that a grown adult uses 20,000-40,000 words in their lexicon. That’s a small percentage of the more than 170,000 active words recognized by the Oxford Dictionary. Certainly we can find a few of them to arrange in our daily speech that would either exhort, encourage, or evangelize others to faith in Christ.