If you want to order a pizza or get married or teach your dog to juggle, you’re going to need a very important tool: language. Words have incredible power. The Bible does not mince words about mincing words, and the call to be careful with our speech has a heavy presence in Scripture. Words can praise, curse, tear down, build up, invite evil and heap praise (see James 3).
While the discipline of watching our mouths isn’t always easy, it is somewhat straightforward. “You are terrible” doesn’t build someone up. “I love you,” does. But I think there’s another facet of watching our speech that’s a bit more complicated, though no less important. It has to do with saying what we mean — and not saying what we don’t. Culturally, I think we’ve developed a lot of sorry ways to avoid this discipline. A few examples are below.
Have you ever wanted to ask someone for a favor but not quite felt comfortable doing it? You may have taken the passive-aggressive route. Instead of saying, “Hey roomie, I’d appreciate it if you’d clean your dirty dishes,” you may have said to her, “Gosh, I just hate it when this kitchen is so dirty,” and then, you know, given him or her a real strong evil eye before slamming your door and blaring Evanescence.
Saying No, But Maybe Yes, But Really No
This is a biggie. If your band is playing their first headlining show next Friday and you ask your friend if she’s going and she tells you she’s got to check her calendar and sometimes she gets headaches on Friday afternoons but she’ll try to be there even though she almost always gets gum on her shoes when she walks in that part of town but she really hopes she can come … listen. She ain’t coming.
I once told my boyfriend in college that I was going to start reacting to people as if everything they said were completely literal. That was the BEST MOVIE YOU EVER SAW?! Did Bruce Willis defeat Joaquin Phoenix in a vampire-related gladiator battle while Ewan McGregor and Kate Beckinsale fell in love on the side? SIGN ME UP. It was just National Treasure? We can’t hang out anymore.
I’m not going to play light with this one because it bugs me so much and can be particularly harmful. Unfortunately, I think political discourse, 24-hour news cycles, Twitter and, you know, pretty much all of modern culture have gotten us into the habit of saying things (and believing them) because we simply want them to be true.
Let me offer an example. In my past life, I worked at the district office for a U.S. Congressman. One of the most common ways my conversations with constituents over the phone would begin was with him or her saying, “Why is no one in Washington talking about _____?” Inevitably, they would have some grand, gloriously simple solution that was going to solve all of our problems, bring about world peace and force the Black Eyed Peas to take a break already. But “no one is talking about …” always threw me. No one is talking about it? Are you sitting in the Capitol building right now? Did you put baby monitors in the gallery? How could you possibly know that?
Making a statement like that, to me, often made the constituent seem absurdly arrogant — as if he or she were saying, “If I’m not hearing it, it’s not happening!”
It’s with much the same sentiment that we make generalizations. Are the unemployed abusing their benefits? Do corporations steal from their workers? Have you read the studies? Have you seen the proof? Which ones? How many? How much? Did you work at a corporation that stole? Were you a worker who was stolen from? Were you unemployed on purpose? Or did you hear someone say it, who heard someone say it, who felt like it was true? Does it simply fit your worldview?
I think this particular mis-speak is evidence of a greater problem: a lack of humility. As a young generation, it’s important that we enter our daily lives with the acknowledgment that there are things we don’t know. There are studies we haven’t read, places we haven’t visited and experiences we haven’t lived. I truly believe that if we could grasp this concept more fully and hold it just a little bit closer to our chests throughout our daily activities, talking to each other would be much more peaceful. And we might just learn something.
What I’m trying to get across here is that being careless in our speech — not just our words but our patterns — can be harmful. Some of the examples I used above are silly. I don’t actually think it’s sinful to say you just saw the best movie ever. And I don’t think you should automatically verbalize every thought you have. But passive aggression, for example, can take a toll on relationships, not to mention our own hearts where we bury the frustration we’re desperate to mask. Not being up front with people about turning down a favor or an invitation can lead to future hurts and disappointments, and truthfully, it’s just childish. We should be OK enough with our decisions to own them up front — and if we’re not, maybe we’re making the wrong ones. Making generalizations can be hurtful and can close our hearts to learning more. To go even further, making generalizations that aren’t true doesn’t get us any further down the field as a society. And if you’re not helping, friend, you’re hurting.
God gave us enough words to say what we really mean, and He gives us plenty of advice to watch it. If you feel like making a generalization, say, “It feels like this is true,” and then explore it. But remember to say what you mean, don’t say what you don’t mean and don’t believe something will have to be true once you say it.