[James 1:18-22 and 3:3-12]

Today marks the beginning of our new series, Transformed by…Words.  Transformed by Words.  Today we’ll talk about the power of words, their ability (like most things) to be used for good or harm, and over the next few weeks we’ll talk about the kind of words we can use when our hearts and lives have been transformed by Jesus Christ: words of compassion, honest words, plain words, wise words.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been affected by words.  That old phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones…but words….” Yeah that never worked for me.  Growing up, my usual playmate was my cousin Tom, three months older than me, whose house was just a couple miles away.  We each had a younger sibling, but they were three years younger, so for a long time—we were each other’s playmates.  Except…we were not peaceful playmates.  Tom took special delight in teasing me.  And I was quick with an angry response.  (My mother called it my “redheaded temper”)  Often our playdates would end in tears and arguments.  I think our moms knew they only had about 30 minutes to catch up before their two oldest would come rushing upstairs, one crying, each blaming the other one.  I remember every birthday party ending the same way.

Words are powerful, not just for children, but adults.  Sure, we’ve learned to play well in the sandbox as adults, to act professionally in most situations, but we know our dark sides.  We know how we’ve been wounded by words (the gossip overheard, the sarcastic comment in a meeting, the accusation in a relationship), and how we have gone on the verbal offensive (casually dropping confidential information into a conversation, text-messaging angrily about a colleague, hearing words leave your mouth that you swore you’d never say to someone you loved).

Our words have power.  Words can be weapons of harm and destruction, but they can also be the binds that tie us together, cementing relationships.  After all, words are what are used in a marriage ceremony.  But words don’t necessarily have equal power.  Have you ever had someone say something unkind or plain nasty to your face?  How long do those words haunt you?   Awhile, right?  We rehash the conversation, reread the email, trying to understand, often getting angry and defensive, feeling stung and hurt by the words.  And when a friend tries to comfort us, does that dismiss the pain right away?  Sometimes…but often not.

Well there’s actually scientific evidence that negative words have a stronger effect than positive ones. The Harvard Business Review published an article a couple of years ago entitled “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio,” meant to help managers understand the best way to provide feedback and improve performance in their teams.  Citing research from Heaphy and Losada, they found that what set apart the most successful and top performing teams from the least successful teams was the ratio of positive words to negative words.  Things like “That’s a great idea” versus “We shouldn’t even consider doing that”.  Negative words included sarcasm and criticism.  The highest performing teams averaged 5.6 positive comments for every one negative comment.  Nearly 6:1.  In the middle of the pack, those performing at a medium level offered an estimate of two positive comments for every negative one.  The least successful teams, however, had a negative ratio: one positive comment is matched by three negative comments.[1]  What’s the ratio like in your workplace?  In your organization?  On your team?  In your classroom?

Similar results were found in marriage studies.  In his book What Predicts Divorce? John Gottman analyzed the likelihood of married couples getting divorced or remaining married.  The single biggest determinant is the ratio of positive to negative comments partners make to one another.  Couples who stayed married offered five positive comments to each other for every one negative comment.  For those who ended up divorcing, the ratio was three positive comments for every four negative comments.”[2]  You know, in many wedding ceremonies, we read 1 Corinthians 13 and we read that line, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”  Boy—I don’t know about you, but sometimes that’s the hardest part of that chapter for me, because I know I often remember the negative comments before the positive ones.

Words have power.  But why do negative ones affect us so strongly?  Check this out…  The Neurochemistry of Conversations, again from Harvard Business Review.  When we experience criticism, fear, the sense of being minimalized, “our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors.  We become more reactive and sensitive.  We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists.  These effects can last for 26 hours or more…like a sustained-release tablet—the more we ruminate about our fear, the longer the impact.”[3]

Postive comments, however, produce a different chemical reaction.  Positive conversations and affirmations cause our bodies to produce “oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate, and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex.  But oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, so its effects are less dramatic and long-lasting.”[4]

Interesting stuff, eh?  Now when someone says, “Just get over it”, you’ve got proof that it isn’t quite that easy to forget an insult or negative conversation.

Words have power.  And I believe that God meant them to be powerful.  After all, in James 1:18, our first passage today, we read that we were given birth through the WORD of truth.   This is a spiritual birth, a transformation if you will.  We are transformed when we encounter the WORD of God, the essence of God expressed in Jesus Christ.  We are transformed when we hear the words of grace and salvation, “You are forgiven.  You are free.  You are beloved.”  But I believe transformation is a continual process.  John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, would call this sanctification.  I believe that God wants to transform our words.  The letter from James does a great job again demonstrating how powerful our words are—a tiny flame can light a forest ablaze, a small rudder can turn a huge ship.

What if God wired us this way on purpose? What if He wired us so that negative words would have such a painful impact that perhaps we would learn and begin to only speak in life-giving ways?  What if He wired us this way so that we might be more like him?

Our words are powerful.  They can be used for good or harm.  What are the words you say to others?  Good or harm?  What are the words you say about others?  Good or harm?  What are the words you say to and about yourself?  Good or harm?

Our words are identifiers.  In the early creation accounts, God gave Adam the power to name the animals, to identify all of creation.  Today we carefully select baby names based on meanings or family history or preferences.  Our words label things and people and situations and ourselves.  And often, once we’ve identified a thing or a person or a situation or ourselves in the negative—we can never rename it.  We choose to see our boss or our marriage or our weight or our children in the negative light, and we never allow God to work.  We never allow God to bless us through those things or people or situations.  We identify those places as beyond the redeeming power of God—and we suffer because of it.  The opposite is also true.  Words can be used for good, to remind us who we are.  Who are the people who remind you who you are?  A mentor, a parent, a friend?  Who is it that you call when you are worn down, beaten up, lost, and you aren’t sure what to do next?  Who is it that reminds you who you are, reminds you who your God is, reminds you of your history and what you’ve come through, who is it that speaks life and breath back into you?  Words identify us.

Our words are prophetic.  Our words speak into others and ourselves what we want them to be.  I read a parenting article online this week and it suggested that what you tell your children, what you call your children, influences who they become.  If you’re telling your child she’s a brat, that won’t inspire her to act in a different manner.  Rather, she’ll lean into that.  When we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough or smart enough, we won’t apply for that new position or go for a promotion at work.  When we tell ourselves we’re not worthy of love, guess what?  We won’t experience real and healthy love.

When I was first starting out in ministry, I noticed the senior pastor doing something interesting during his sermons.  He would tell the congregation they were kind, they were a movement for good, they were generous, they were loving, etc.  He’d still offer them a challenge, but he would affirm them.  I asked him about it one time, especially after experiencing some less-than-kind and not-so-generous moments from church members.  He told me, “Tell people who you want them to be and they will rise to the occasion.”  Tell people who you want them to be, who you think they can be, by telling them they already are that and they will live into that prophecy.  It worked.  What if instead of telling your wife you’re tired of her nagging that you are grateful for her reminder?  What if instead of telling your child not to worry on their first day at a new school, you looked him in the eyes and said, “You are brave, smart, kind, and loving.  You are a great friend to have.”  Our words are prophetic.

Finally, our words are a barometer for our very soul.  A barometer measures change, it tells the truth about what’s going on.  In James 3:9-11 it says this, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?”

What comes out of our mouths (what we say to others, about others, and to and about ourselves), paints a pretty clear picture of what is broken in our own soul.  Do you hear what happens in this passage?  It’s a pretty logical argument:  We praise God.  We curse other people.  (Now: for clarification, this isn’t a passage about “curse words”…this is about any language used in harmful ways, so don’t let yourself off the hook just yet)  But people are created by God in God’s image, so when we curse each other, we curse God.  When we use our words to tear down classmates, colleagues, spouses, children, fellow church members, neighbors, strangers in traffic, your waitress at lunch today, your own reflection…you’re revealing broken parts of your own soul (whether you say those words to yourself, to the person’s face, or to someone else).

But praise God—he is always in the business of transformation.  That’s what the cross is—a blessed exchange of our sin, our brokenness, “into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life.”[5]  He is all about making old things new, redeeming and restoring our broken places.  Listen to the words you say today, the words you say to your friends, to your neighbors, to your fellow volunteers, to your children, to your spouse, your family.  Ask the Holy Spirit to wake you up to those harmful words, and ask Him to reveal the wounded part of your own soul that causes those words to bubble up out of you.  Make that your intention this week: listen to yourself and ask God where these words, this anger, these responses are coming from.  Pray and reflect.  Throughout this series, we’re going to continue to ask you to listen, pray, and reflect.  And then each Sunday we will reflect together, and offer you a new tool so that you can speak in a new way.

One final story to end our time together.  This comes from author Glennon Melton.  “Remember back when we read that story- Genesis- about how God might have made this beautiful world we live in?

Does anybody remember what God used in Genesis to make the world? Was it bricks? Was it stones?

It was WORDS.

God said: LET THERE BE LIGHT. And there was light. God’s words built the world.

Maybe the writers of that story wanted us to think about how powerful our words are. God created us in God’s image so, like God, we can use our voices to create beautiful things. Every time we open our mouths and speak we are either saying LET THERE BE LIGHT OR LET THERE BE DARKNESS.

When we gossip, when we criticize, when we lie or tell hurtful jokes or use labels that categorize and demean people we are saying: let there be darkness. We create a world around us that is not so beautiful. And then we have to live in it.

When we offer a compliment, when we defend a friend or a stranger, when we stick to the truth, when we say speak a kind word to anyone- we are saying: LET THERE BE LIGHT. We are creating a more beautiful world, and then we get to live in it.”[6]

Are you speaking death and darkness?  Or are you speaking life and light?  Friends, may you speak life.



[1] “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio.”  Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.  Harvard Business Review.  Published March 15, 2013.  Accessed September 7, 2015.  https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism/

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations.”  Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser.  Harvard Business Review.  Published June 12, 2014.  Accessed September 7, 2015.  https://hbr.org/2014/06/the-neurochemistry-of-positive-conversations/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber, p. 18, Accidental Saints

[6] Glennon Melton, Facebook post on Momastery, April 12, 2015 https://www.facebook.com/momastery?fref=ts