“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” –Proverbs 18:21
Often we make the mistake of believing that words are mere symbols we use to convey a message. We have an idea, and we try to find the right words to express it.
This is only partly true.
Words do not just represent our thoughts; they shape them. Words do not just represent the world around us; they act as a filter that cause us to interpret that world in a particular way. Words are powerful. “In the beginning was the Word.” God “spoke”and created worlds. God can also destroy with the power of his word. The same goes with us (though on a smaller scale). Our words are more powerful than we think. They have power to cut someone down or build them up. As the above proverb states, our words can destroy, or they can give life.
Research confirms that this is true on a very literal level. The types of language we are exposed to subtly affect our view of the world and our mood. In a study in 1996, researchers ask volunteers to take a test in which they had to unscramble sets of words and form them into sentences. The task was not too difficult, but the researchers were not interested in how well they performed on the test.
When they were finished with the test, the volunteer had to give the test to an attendant at the desk. The desk person was absorbed in conversation with a friend, also at the desk (both actors staging the situation).
The real test of the experiment was to see how aggressively the volunteers would interrupt the conversation to turn in the exam. Two groups of volunteers had been given two different types of exams. The words to unscramble in one exam were words like patient, friendly, happy, and kind. The words in the other exam were words like irritating, annoyed, impatient, and angry.
The results were fascinating. The volunteers who formed sentences with positive words were more likely to wait a moment before gently interrupting the conversation. The group who unscrambled the negative words were more likely to aggressively interrupt and act annoyed. Other factors were controlled, so the only difference with the two groups was the kinds of words they were exposed to.
The implications of this study should profoundly affect a person’s discipleship. We must pay attention to kinds of language that we not only use, but expose ourselves to. It’s worth considering, if we find ourselves in a cynical and depressed mood, have we been unconsciously marinating in cynical and depressed language? Think about the amount of garbage that even unconsciously flashes on our screen on the internet.
Our words have the power of life or death. But “our words” are not just those we speak. They are also those we listen to or read. As an experiment, become aware of the words in your life, and focus on the words that give life.
Sheldon Lawrence is the founder of bibledice.com, an award winning essayist, and author of the recent afterlife novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life.”