It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.
–Words by the Bee Gees
Among God’s earthly creatures, language is uniquely human; and as any lover of poetry, or songwriting, or drama, or philosophy knows, it is one of our most glorious attributes.
Why do we talk? To survive. To be human. To express ourselves. To prove ourselves. To engage with others. To hurt others. To question. To teach.
Language is the primary – although not exclusive – means by which God communes with us, through the Bible from him and prayer from us. It is also the primary – not exclusive – way we create and sustain relationships with each other. I have heard songs written about relationships where neither person speaks the other’s language, and perhaps that happens, but I can hardly imagine a lonelier love.
God’s words are powerful. Genesis says God spoke the universe into existence. When God changed Jeremiah the priest into Jeremiah the prophet, he gave him an idea of the weight and power of his words, which Jeremiah would speak:
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah 1:9-10
Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. Proverbs 18:21
Death and life. There is death in complaining, blame-shifting, name-calling, self-defending, criticizing, distancing, gossiping, misrepresenting. In these we bring death to others and host death in ourselves. We kill relationships and malign the reputation of the Lord.
In praising, thanking, blessing, consoling, advising, supporting, confessing, rebuking, forgiving, there is life. The simplest words can change everything. “I love you;” “I’m sorry;” “We can work this out;” “There is hope.” Life-giving words are the food of authentic relationships.
No one will deny the power of words, for good or evil. At the same time, no one will deny, I think, that our language is limited. I have felt this at many times in my life, and I think it is a universal experience. There are things for which words simply fail. In this life, there will always be some distance left, some of our selves left unshared. The book of Proverbs says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (14:10). There are longings in us, “groanings,” so sharp and so deep, that we cannot even pray them, but must simply, wordlessly, entrust them to the Spirit.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies… Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:22-23, 26