By David Timms
Words matter. What others say to us can inspire or crush us. What we say to others can have a similar impact. We all remember the labels people gave us when we were young, especially the hurtful labels.
Based on considerable research, Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has concluded that negative terms have exponentially greater power than positive ones. So much so, that the ratio of positive to negative words should be five-to-one just to break even!
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Bible. Words have always held sacred, God-touched, grace-filled, life-producing potential. God spoke the world into being with the simple words, “Let there be. . . .” He did not grab a little of this and a little of that and mix it all together in a science lab. He simply spoke. His words created the world—and words still create our personal worlds.
The first order of business once the Lord created Adam and Eve was for him to bless them, to speak words over them that would produce a new reality for them. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’” (Genesis 1:28). These words were not an instruction of what the man and woman should do, but a blessing so that they could do it. The words themselves actually gave Adam and Eve the capacity and authority to reproduce and have dominion.
The patriarchs of Israel pronounced blessings over their sons. For example, Jacob blessed his sons with a blessing appropriate to each one (Genesis 49:28). And these words, empowered by God, shaped and directed their lives.
God instructed the priests of Israel to speak a blessing over the people. “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace’” (Numbers 6:23-26). Importantly, a promise followed this instruction. “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:27).
Even Jesus’ own ministry repeatedly demonstrated the power of words. A leper came for healing and Jesus said, “I am willing. Be clean” (Mark 1:41). No concoctions. No brews. No medicine. Just words empowered by God to change the reality and destiny of someone.
James concluded, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). However, despite the restlessness and negativity of our tongues, we can also use them quite intentionally to bless others and bring healing and hope where hurt and despair exist.
The Whisper Test
Mary Ann Bird came into the world with multiple birth defects: deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided feet. Every day she endured the stares and taunts of other kids at school. She felt highly self-conscious, embarrassed, and ashamed—until she met Miss Leonard; a gracious and sensitive elementary school teacher.
Each year the children had their hearing tested at school. The classroom teacher would call each child to the front desk and have the child cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would then whisper something to the child, such as, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” If the children could repeat the phrase, then their hearing was apparently fine and they passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann always cheated on the test, casually cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could hear what the teacher said.
When the time came for Mary Ann’s hearing test, Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear as she had done so many times before and strained to hear what Miss Leonard would whisper. “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann later wrote, “that God must have put into her mouth; those seven words that changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” She whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.” And those seven positive, powerful, God-touched words produced a watershed moment in Mary Ann Bird’s life.
At one level, nothing changed for Mary Ann. She remained disfigured and continued to experience her classmate’s ridicule. But at a deeper, more profound level, her life completely changed. She realized, through seven short, divinely used words, that the unkind taunts of her classmates were neither the only words about her nor the final words. Something deeper penetrated her heart and transformed her soul. Years later, Mary Ann Bird herself became an acclaimed teacher, telling her story in a book, The Whisper Test.
Our Loss of Confidence
It’s understandable that we should have little confidence in the power of words. Words wash over us every day. Radio, television, the web, texts, billboards, and magazines pour out words until we feel that no word has any power any more. It’s what French philosopher Jacques Ellul once described as “the humiliation of the word.” He wrote,
No one consciously tried to bring it about, yet the situation of the word in our society is deplorable. . . . The habit of speaking without saying anything has eaten away at the word like a cancer. . . . These days we speak without saying anything; we just chitcat . . . and no one can any longer take any word seriously.
But our loss of confidence in words does not limit God’s ongoing capacity—and desire—to use words to create and shape our lives.
Wonderfully, when we read the Bible we discover that blessings (words taken and empowered by God to shape the destiny and future of someone) were neither lengthy nor complicated. It’s not erudition or education that matters, but availability. Anyone with the capacity to communicate—through writing, art, music, or in person—can offer words as a gift for God to use as he might like. None of the benedictions or blessings in the Bible extends beyond a few sentences at most. Some ancient blessings comprise just a single word spoken with sincerity—shalom, for example.
The proliferation of words in our time does not hinder the power of God to work through words.
Tom Hagan and Haiti
Tom Hagan moved to Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1997 and began working in the city’s largest and most miserable slum. For 13 years he and others built a ministry that educated 9,000 children, offered a free clinic for 20,000 people, and fed hot meals to more than 10,000 people a day.
On January 12, 2010 a devastating earthquake struck the region, leveling many buildings and killing more than 300,000 people. In a letter Tom Hagan wrote just 12 days into that catastrophic chaos and carnage, he commented,
The people here have a great faith. . . . What makes me most proud of my church is that the message we give the people is that they have enormous worth in the eyes of God and that they are infinitely loved and that this terrible disaster is in no way a punishment from God.
I recently said this in a sermon and the people all stood up and began clapping and cheering. I had to ask the altar server why they were clapping (I thought that I had said something wrong because my Creole is not good) and he said, ‘Father, no one ever tells them that they have worth.’
You matter to God. How hard is it to say? Four short words. Life-changing potential. And with poor Creole, but a heart to bless the people, God took the words of a faithful priest and touched the lives and hearts of the crushed and oppressed at that time. Surely we can be equally available.
Whom might God want to bless through you today? A spouse? A son or daughter? A neighbor? A colleague? A friend? A stranger? It takes little more than willingness on our part to speak a word of life or hope, and faith on our part that God can take the most faltering sentences on our tongues and turn them into life-giving, destiny-shaping, hope-restoring messengers in the lives of others.
We may have lost sight of the power of a blessing in our day, but the Lord has not.
David Timms is a freelance writer and professor at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.