Category Archives: words

Talk is Cheap (or is it)?

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(Originally posted Nov 1, 2006 on randehle.com.) I’m sure you’ve heard this. Usually it is meant to express doubt that someone will follow through on what they’ve said. We may be extra sensitive to this right now, with elections just a few days away; it seems that every candidate claims the high ground by focusing on their own promises kept and their opponents’ broken promises. But when was the last time you actually believed a promise made by a political candidate? If you are anything like me, you expect the promises to be broken, if you pay any attention at all to them.

Talk becomes cheap when our lives don’t match our words. Paul warned Titus of this, speaking of people he described as corrupted and unbelieving: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” (Titus 1:16, NIV) Yet there is another aspect, as well, and that is in our choice of words. We do this by overusing or misusing two kinds of words: First, words that should have special meaning or significance; and second, words that are profane or vulgar (or stand-ins for them).

I was driving through town last week when Megan, my four-year-old, looked out the window and exclaimed, “awe-some!” I don’t know what she saw that so gripped her, but I knew she had little idea what she was saying and certainly no recognition of the real value of the word. As all young children do, she was simply parroting her older brother and sister; she has learned from watching and listening to her siblings that when we drive, it is appropriate to look out the window and exclaim, “awesome!” with a degree of enthusiasm. But was whatever she saw – or whatever the older two generally remark likewise about – truly inspiring awe, “A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might”? (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/awe) Probably not. And I’m sure that none of my kids knew (before I told them) that in the Bible, the words awe and awesome are used almost exclusively for God, his works, or his messengers.

The second trend I hear – and it is more prevalent and disturbing than the first – is the casual use of words that not many years ago would have been considered vulgar or profane. We see this in media; words that in 1980 would have condemned a movie to an R rating are heard today in PG movies. The hit show Everybody Loves Raymond carries a TV-PG rating for language because one of the lead characters can’t seem to finish a sentence without saying hell, crap, or god. Walk into…well, just about anywhere…and you’ll probably find someone who punctuates every utterance with profanity. I expected it in when I was in college and the military, but was naively surprised to have found the same language in the professional offices I inhabited for a dozen years.

I am disturbed to find this trend increasing as much within the Christian community as outside it. We have adopted alternatives to some of the “hard core” words, thinking that they are less offensive to our listeners, but I wonder if we have considered whether God might be offended. But maybe that’s not even the right question. Maybe it’s not enough to just not offend him; maybe we need to ask whether God is glorified in our language. I will readily confess that I need to ask this question myself. A number of circumstances over the past few years have led me away from the staunch conservatism of my youth and toward freer expression of myself. At times, that freedom has been expressed verbally, using words that I never would have even thought to utter five or ten years ago. But perhaps in wandering away from any legalistic bent of the past, my liberty has sunk into license.

During a stint in the Air Force in the mid-1980s, I sat in an adult Sunday School class in which the teacher suggested that even saying darn instead of damn, or fudge instead of … well, you know the alternative – violates the command to not take God’s name in vain. I didn’t agree with him then and I don’t think I do today, either. But neither do I think that our standard is simply, “Is it sin?” As Paul wrote – twice – to the Corinthians, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Cor 6:12, 10:23) James says that “we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1) Don’t these words suggest that we as Christ-followers – and especially as church leaders – need to be very careful about our words? And not only the message of our words, but the individual words themselves.

I know that word meanings evolve with time and use, and that words have different meanings within distinct cultural settings. Anyone who has listened to middle schoolers for any length of time has seen that evolution. Bad, sick, cool, awesome; all mean essentially the same thing to a sixth grader, and none means anything close to its etymological root. I wonder, though: Is there a legitimate need to regain some of the value of words?

How does this devaluing of language impact us as Christ-followers, and especially those of us who would be church leaders? Do you need to watch your tongue?