The Uplifting Potential of Our Words

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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.


Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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5 responses to “The Uplifting Potential of Our Words”

  1. Greg says:

    My son played for my wife and I “the daily dose of internet” tonight which is a benevolent stream of mostly funny short video clips. In one of them a person was rescuing a sheep which fell into a 1 foot wide trench someone had dug to bury a pipe or something. He pulled the animal to safety and it gallantly pranced away and 20 or 30 feet from the location of his rescue jumped right back into the same trench! We were dumbfounded! He could have so easily avoided the trench with a single hop over it but noooo- he marched himself right back in.

    The first thing i thought about was me. My God has labeled me and my kind “sheep!”

    And this sheep I see every morning in the mirror definitely understands how discouraging words can feel like a wound. Then again, many times i need to be dissuaded from bounding towards the same trench i just fell into. I might be offended by such because this insinuates my sometimes stupidity…but i am just a sheep. And then again sometimes my fellow sheep who are proclaiming “life giving words’ that seem so encouraging are doing nothing more than encouraging more of my sheepishness that helps me along back into the ditch where they are! One may say, “Oh Greg, you are so negative.” But Im being real and this is nothing new to the history of sheep either. In Galatians 4:17 the apostle Paul says : “They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.” Yep, the history of man consists of the relaying of seeming life giving words that “make much of” others for bad motives- namely so that these who have felt so encouraged by someone may tend to then make much of them even as they stand upon false premise and teaching. These types of words are not gospel rich. They are gospel poor. Maybe seemingly encouraging that might give confidence about what Im so used to in my sheeply ways, but indeed gospel poor.

    Gospel rich words are like this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
    ‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭2:8-10‬ ‭ESV‬‬. The gospel does not make much of me, you or any of us sheep. It makes much of and gives all reason for boasting about the One and Only Shepherd. Placing my gaze on Him who truly directs us away from crags in the rocks and ditches, gives true courage to take good criticism and grow in it by grace, fight through false accusation with confidence and self forgetfulness that sacrifices to love the world with the love message all need to hear about Jesus who absorbed the wrath we all deserve on the cross!

  2. Wendy says:

    I need messages like this. In this prolonged season of political division, my harshest words are consistently for my brothers and sisters in Christ on the “other side”. But have I made a difference – a Jesus-like difference in my relationships with them? I’ve just been angry. And anger can eat away at you. Thanks for the reminders. A soft word turns away wrath, a soft word turns away wrath . . .

  3. Greg says:

    Woke this am and decided to play some Christian music while reading my Bible. My spotify account has a prob two dozen Christian artists, one being Steven Curtis Chapman. I pressed play and spotify randomly picked from his list this song as the very first song…and I just downloaded Chapmans songlist less than a week ago(or maybe last weekend): https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/stevencurtischapman/muchofyou.html

    I literally have goosebumps. This song is perfect alignment w my previous post on this page. Our God is involved in even the smallest details of our lives. I used to have fleeting good feeling at the beautiful things on earth. No longer. Now i tend to see and sense by the power of His Spirit the majesty, brilliance, holiness, greatness, power and love of our Creator and Redeemer in our Triune God who is living and active in anything good on earth.

  4. Gail says:

    In reflecting on Greg’s responses and listening to the beautiful music he shared, yes, we should make much about God and less about us. And part of that is also to be encouragers of one another. There are times when a simple and true word of kindness toward a brother or sister who is suffering or desperately needs encouragement (I think that includes all of us) will carry more weight and help them climb out of a trench more than a word of truth that may not reflect the sensitivity for that person’s, challenge, sorrow or hurt.

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