The Uplifting Potential of Our Words
In a moment of transparency, Mariah Carey, one of the most successful artists in the history of pop music, said in an interview that if she hears a thousand words of praise and one word of criticism, that one criticism will eliminate the thousand praises in her mind.
Can you identify with this dilemma? I certainly can.
The praises and positives slip through our fingers like Jell-O. The shaming and criticisms, on the other hand, stick to us like Velcro and can feel impossible to shake off, no matter how hard we try. The serpent that tempted Adam and Eve, also known as the “accuser of the brethren” or Satan (Revelation 12:10), is the same deceiver to us—whispering constantly in our ears, “Has God really said…” (Genesis 3:1)?
Has God really said you are forgiven, blameless in his sight, and forever loved? Surely not! We both know that you are guilty, shameful, and worthless!
The serpent hisses these lies to our hearts constantly.
This is why nineteenth century Scottish minister, Robert Murray McCheyne, said that for every look we take at ourselves, we should take ten looks at Christ. Similarly, Martin Luther said that we need to hear the gospel every day because we forget it every day. These are simply ways of saying that most of us have the volume turned way up on the serpent’s voice of accusation and bondage and turned way down on the Father’s voice of pardon and freedom. We must reverse this.
One way to turn up the Father’s voice is to practice what Scripture calls “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) with each other. We must, as writer Ann Voskamp says, “Only speak words that make souls stronger.” As the beloved, blood-bought daughters and sons of God, we must use our words to call out the best in each other versus punishing each other for the worst. To speak the truth in love is to offer encouragement…to put courage into a soul. One of our primary resources for this is carefully chosen, life-giving words that God has already declared over us all.
Do you remember that silly phrase that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” I think Mariah Carey was a lot more honest than this in her interview when she admitted how criticism—especially the mean-spirited kind—hurts. While sticks and stones may break our bones, words can also actually wound us deeply and crush our spirits. Anyone who has received bad news, been shamed and criticized, been the brunt of a mean joke or gossip understands this as self-evident. Millions of men and women are in therapy because of wounds inflicted on them by wounding words spoken over them either by others or by their own hearts. Words such as:
You are worthless. You are ugly. You will never amount to much. You disappoint me. Why can’t you be more like your brother? You are too fat. You are too thin. I want a divorce. You should be ashamed of yourself. I hate you. I wish you were never born.
However, words not only have the power to crush spirits; they also have a mighty power to lift spirits, to bring strength to the weary, to give hope to the hopeless, to put courage back in, to make souls stronger. Words like these…
You matter. You are the Image of God. You are loved at your best, you are loved at your worst. You are uniquely gifted. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are God’s child, the bride of Jesus, the vessel of the Holy Spirit, and an heir of the universe. I see potential in you. I value you. I need you. I respect you. Will you forgive me? I forgive you. I like you. I love you.
These are the kinds of words that lift a heart and bring healing to a soul. They can free the chameleon from hiding in fear and empower us to discover and live from our true identity. These life-giving words can provide courage for the performer and poser in each of us to come out of hiding, step into the light, and tell our true story – our blemishes, struggles and sin, as well as the beauty, goodness, and mercy of God that we experience in the midst of it.
To help our people turn the volume down on shame words and turn the volume up on words that make souls stronger, we at Christ Presbyterian Church nurture what we call a culture of benediction, a Latin term meaning “good word.”
Every Monday, we begin our staff meetings by openly speaking life-giving words toward each other. The purpose is to offer public encouragement, appreciation, and blessing. As expressions of God’s grace in each other’s lives, we want to convey, “I see you, and I see the work of God’s grace in and through you. I want you to know that you matter, that you are important here, that we are much better because you are part of us.” We try to get very specific.
Mika and team, you are helping us see and love the kingdom of God in all its fullness. Mallory and team, you are showing great leadership for all of us. Bob, you bring out the best in everyone around you. Sarah and team, our guests are constantly telling us how hospitable and warm our church is—you are the inspiration behind this. Nate and team, the music was brilliant…again. Kyle and team, thanks for helping all students belong. Lee Eric and Cammy and Mary Claire, thank you for connecting our community to the poor, the marginalized, and those who are easily forgotten. Steve and team, those graphics are stunning. Scott, you kept your sermon under thirty minutes…We knew you could do it!
This benediction culture then works its way out to the congregation during our worship gatherings, especially as congregants surround the many tables throughout our sanctuary to receive the Lord’s Supper each Sunday. As people surround the tables to receive the bread and cup, pastors and other leaders look them in the eye and speak life to them, in hopes of turning the volume down on their shame and guilt and sorrows and turning the volume up on their identity as daughters and sons of the Most High God:
The body and blood of Christ, given for you. Take, eat and drink, and be satisfied! In Christ, God has moved your judgment day from the future to the past…you are forgiven, blameless in his sight, and dearly loved! The last words spoken by Christ before his death, “It is finished,” have now become the first words for you as his new creation. The pressure is off! Now live in light of how loved you are.
Then, after being refreshed by the bread and the cup, our people connect with others around the sanctuary as they “pass the peace” of Christ to one another—offering prayers, confessions, greetings, and words of encouragement between men, women, youth, and children alike—speaking words that make souls stronger, putting courage back into each other’s souls.
These benedictions extend far beyond staff meetings and worship gatherings. One time I was feeling like a failure because of a criticism I had received. The hardest thing about the criticism was that every bit of it was true. When I shared my discouragement with a friend, he responded by saying how proud he was of me, how he looked up to me as a leader, and how he sees God’s hand upon me. Then he reminded me that the gospel I preach week after week to others is also true for me. Sometimes after a sermon, he will come up to me and say, “Hey man. Nothing but net!” (We both share a love for basketball.) These kinds of interactions mean the world to me. They turn the volume down on shame and turn the volume up on grace. They put courage back into my soul.
Recently, my wife, Patti, offered me life-giving words that I desperately needed. I was feeling ashamed and grieved about some unkind things I had said about another person. I flat out asked Patti if she thought that I was a fraud. Should a tongue that gossips and tears down another person presume to step into a pulpit and speak the words of God? Can a hypocrite preach the gospel, or should I start exploring other career paths? Patti reminded me that I should listen to my own preaching—that I, too, am worse than I ever dared to think and infinitely more loved than I ever dared to hope. Staying tuned into these realities is essential as I teach and lead, because God tends to do more good through preachers who step into and out of their pulpits with a limp, not a strut.
Another time, when a friend sensed I was feeling discouraged, he sent me the following, life-giving words, which he attributed to Pastor Joe Novenson in his effort to encourage (put courage into) a younger believer:
I continue to pray for you in the struggles you face. I’ve been so helped as I’ve thought about some of the following things. I don’t want you to ever forget that Moses stuttered and David’s armor didn’t fit and John Mark was rejected by Paul and Hosea’s wife was a prostitute and Amos’ only training for being a prophet was as a fig tree pruner. Jeremiah struggled with depression and Gideon and Thomas doubted and Jonah ran from God. Abraham lied miserably and so did his child and his grandchild. These are real people who had real failures and real struggles and real inadequacies and real inabilities, and God shook the earth with them. It is not so much from our strength that He draws, but from His invincible might. I am praying that He will give you courage in this quality of His.
How I needed to hear this benediction, this good word, spoken over me! It’s true, is it not, that preachers need the gospel preached to them just like everybody else.
As my friends have preached the gospel in these and other ways to me, it has increased my courage to come out of hiding and renounce my inner chameleon. Instead, I am free to lean toward the more honest, transparent ways of Scripture’s saints—and to consider how I, too, might see my story of rupture and rapture, of sin and redemption, as a means to help others see that if God’s grace can reach me, it can reach anyone.
As Jack Miller once said, God’s grace flows downhill to the low places, not uphill to the pompous and put-together places.
And along the way, as we increasingly come out of hiding, maybe we will all become a little less lonely, too.
Shall we go there? The health of our souls and the authenticity of our life together depends on it.
And whatever may come, Jesus will surely be in it with us.