Are you aware of the words you use in your everyday relationships? In your leadership? In our world today, we do not give much thought or attention to the words we speak, whether in public speaking, in personal relationships, or on social media. Words are powerful. It is important to understand why you use the words you use.
Words are so important that Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, wrote about the use of words while teaching about new life in Christ.
Read Ephesians 4:29
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear (NRSV)
Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift (The Message).
This scripture is part of Paul’s letter to the newly formed Ephesian church. He is writing to a diverse church where there is a clashing of values. There were Jews who had a deep ethical background. They were people who lived with deep religious and traditional values. There were Gentiles who had a different worldview and a different set of values.
Paul is teaching about the new life in Christ, a life where Jews and Gentiles can live together in mutual respect and relationship. His teaching is grounded in love which goes beyond emotion. It is “agape,” the love that works for the good and well-being of all persons, friends, family, strangers, and even enemies. His teaching will become part of the values of the Christian faith.
Old Life and New Life
I can imagine when the two sets of values clashed and created tension within the church. So, Paul, using the imagery of old life and new life, is teaching both the Jews and Gentiles what it means to be followers of Jesus.
After writing in verse 25: “…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors,” Paul writes, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (NRSV). The Good News Bible translates it this way, “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.” (TEV)
No matter how it is written, Paul is instructing followers of Jesus, in a time of conflict, how to speak to one another. When you open your mouth, do not be nasty or malicious. Don’t belittle or be disrespectful. Don’t vilify those with whom you disagree. Say only what is useful for building up as there is a need so that your words may give grace to those who hear. The teaching is similar to Jesus saying, “it is not what goes in but what comes out that defiles…”
In other words, your words reflect your relationship with Jesus as well as express who you are as a person and as a leader. Who you are is how you lead.
The Power of the Spoken Word
Are you familiar with the cartoon B.C.? There are two characters: A woman who carries a big stick and a snake. In one cartoon, no matter what the situation, the woman uses the stick to beat the snake.
One day, as she is walking up one side of a hill, the snake is coming up the other side of the hill. They meet at the top. At that moment, the woman realizes that she does not have her stick. So, she looks at the snake and says, “Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!”
In the next frame, the snake is lying on the ground in a hundred pieces. The caption reads, “Oh the power of the spoken word.”
Words are Powerful
Words are powerful. They create images and assumptions. They shape the way you and I view one another and the world. You can use your words to encourage, build up, discourage, and tear down. Words feed prejudices, cultivate relationships, and set the course for decision-making.
At this very moment, in the United Methodist Church, there are a plethora of words that have given birth to disillusionment and disappointment. Most of them shape viewpoints, creating fear, anger, and defeat. But there are other words being spoken and written that are offering encouragement and hope.
Your Words Make a Difference
So, as a leader, your words make a difference. “…no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself. (The Message)
When you stand to preach or to address a group of people, use words that encourage and support, words that do good to the people who hear them. Put away general characterizations, innuendo, and inference.
Check your references before you speak. Also, check your motive for speaking. If it is anything other than to bring God glory or to introduce people to Jesus, put it away. Your agenda is to be the leader that models the love and care of the living God for all persons. There is no place for anything other than the good news of God’s love experienced in and through Jesus. Your words reveal your agenda.
Speaking to Others
When you are speaking of others, use words that encourage and support, words that do good to the people who hear them. Put away gossip. Share only information you have checked out personally, and don’t share harmful or hurtful words. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings. Speak out of your integrity. Your words reflect who you are.
When you are speaking to others, be generous. Being aware of your own thoughts and feeling will help you speak the words that give care and encouragement to others. Keep in mind that when you are hurting you hurt others. So, care for yourself and be aware of when you are projecting your pain upon others.
Speak to others the way you want them to speak to you. Offer support and praise even in difficult situations. Keep in mind that people are doing the best they can. Give them the benefit of the doubt and offer words of support, praise, and encouragement. Put your words of care and support into action.
Words in Social Space
When it comes to social media, keep in mind what has been said above. Your self-awareness is even more critical regarding your words on social media. Treat others with the same respect you want for yourself. Keep in mind that it is easier to put words on a screen than it is to speak them face to face.
Because people do not see your face or hear the inflection of your voice, your words can be misunderstood. So, take advantage of the opportunity to develop and maintain relationships with your words, whether spoken or written. Your social media presence reveals more about you than you might want to reveal. Remember, even on social media, who you are is how you lead.
Kind, Caring, Encouraging Words
Paul, writing to a church under stress and in the midst of conflict, says to use kind, caring, encouraging words of truth. So, be a courageous leader. Step up and speak words of truth with care and understanding. Be the leader who uses helpful words to build up those who hear them.
Although she is writing about more than words, Brene Brown writes, “In times of uncertainty, it is common for leaders to leverage fear and weaponize it to their advantage…If you can keep people afraid and give them an enemy who is responsible for their fear, you can get people to do just about anything.”
Consider for a moment: How have your words created fear? How are you creating time and space for safe conversations?
Brown also says, “…when we are managing during times of scarcity or deep uncertainty, it is imperative that we embrace the uncertainty…We need to be available to fact-check the stories that team members may be making up, because in scarcity we invent worse case scenarios.” Consider for a moment: Are you making up what you don’t know? How are you helping lower the levels of anxiety with your words?
Right or Righteous?
In times like these, you do not have to be right, but you do need to be righteous. Not self-righteous but holy as God is holy. If you are unsure about God’s holiness, look at Jesus. In Jesus, you will find God’s encouraging Word made flesh. You will find the embodiment of God’s holiness and love.
Remember, it is Jesus who said, “it is not what goes in but what comes out that defiles…” As a leader, take the time to allow God’s Word, Jesus, to take up residence in your life. When you do, it will be Jesus, God’s love, and care, that comes out.
“Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that builds up and provides what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.” (Ephesians 4:29 TEV)
O God, I am grateful for your Word, both written in the scripture and made flesh in Jesus. Put your Word so deep in my heart that I am shaped into the person and leader you created and need me to be. May Jesus be so real in my life that all I say and do brings you glory and encourages and supports the people around me. May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be pleasing to you. I offer myself to you in the name of Your Word, Jesus. Amen
At the end of the day, give God thanks for the people you encountered today. Then, turn to these questions:
- In and through whom did you encounter God?
- In what situations did you find yourself using hurtful or harmful words?
- In what situations did you find yourself using helpful words of encouragement and care?
Give God thanks for the opportunities you had to learn more about yourself and the words you use. Now ask God to empower you to love others through the words you speak in every situation and circumstance of your life. And be reminded that your leadership is only as good as your word.