June 4, 2017

Wise Words

How many of you have seen the movie, Miracle, starring Kurt Russel as the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team coach, Herb Brooks?  It was produced by Disney in 2004 and is another of their sport-story gems in the same vein as Remember the Titans, Secretariat, Million Dollar Arm, McFarland, USA, and many others.  The movie is about the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.  When it came to men’s hockey, the Russians had dominated the sport for almost 20 years.   That year, though, a tough-minded coach named Herb Brooks got the nod to lead the U.S. men’s team.  At the time he was the coach for the University of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.  He convinced the committee to let him build his team his way and the results made an inspiring story, an important moral victory in the tense waning days of the Cold War, a huge point of national pride, and a great movie.  The trailer does a pretty good job of making this case.

The big drama point of the movie is obviously the end because that’s how sports movies work.  You couldn’t have asked history to write a better made-for-the-big-screen story.  The game was tied and time was running down.  If something was going to happen, it was going to have to happen sooner rather than later.  Coach Brooks called a timeout and huddled the team in close.  What exactly happened in that timeout none of the players would later share except to say that Brooks said a single word to them.  That word, whatever it was, was enough to give them the inspiration to go out and score the winning goal.  Without that word, the team likely would have lost, the Russians would have had something else to hold over us in the Cold War, and we wouldn’t have this superb movie to enjoy.

Words are powerful.  The things words can accomplish really go beyond what we could imagine if left to our own devices.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words are what inspired the nation to make badly needed changes on the matter of Civil Rights.  On the other hand, the words of Adolph Hitler are what inspired many Germans to embrace the Nazi ideology which ultimately propelled the world into World War II.  On yet another hand, the Gospel is primarily conveyed through words and it has the power affect a person’s eternal destiny.  Words have incredible power.

Well, this morning we are in the sixth part of our series, How to Do Life.  For the past few weeks we have been looking at different ways we can do life well as followers of Jesus.  The reason for this is that as Christians, we are called to do life better than the people around us who are not Christians.  And this is not so we can hold it over their heads, but rather so that, by our lifestyle, we can offer them a positive invitation to embrace a way of living that actually leads to life instead of whatever else it is they are doing now.  As we’ve seen, for better or for worse, there are lots of different areas of life in which we have the opportunity to practice doing life well as followers of Jesus.  So far in this journey we have talked about money, sex, family, prayer, and confession.  The theme that has emerged as we have journeyed is that living well is something that comes when we learn to think rightly, surround ourselves with the kind of community who can be a positive support to us, and use the tools we have been given to their fullest capacity.

This morning as we continue our journey, I want to look with you at an area of life whose potential to impact our overall lives for good or for ill is perhaps greater than any of the other areas we have touched on so far.  Money can make or break us, but we can recover from financial disasters.  People do it all the time.  Getting sex wrong can certainly have lifetime consequences, but those generally stay in a fairly limited pool of influence, and they won’t necessarily affect every person we meet.  Families certainly do have incredible shaping power over our lives, but it is what we are talking about this morning that is most often the vehicle for that power.  And prayer and confession are both more positive tools that can get us out of messes, but they won’t usually get us into them.  But our words?  They can and do leave a trail of either life or death, of healing or poison everywhere we go.  They impact every person we meet.  The playground adage that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us could not be more wrong.

The fact is, again, that words have incredible power.  This power is something the Scriptures make abundantly clear.  Listen to another passage from Jesus’ brother, James starting in 3:2: “For we all stumble in many ways.  And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.  If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”  Think about that.  If we could control just our words we could be perfect; without sin.  Why?  Because if you can get control of your tongue, the rest of your body will be a piece of cake by comparison.  The dichotomy possible in our words—blessing and cursing people who are made in the image of God—is one of the most devastating effects of the sin in this world.

That’s not everything, though, as far as the power of words goes.  Jump back with me to the opposite end of the Scriptures.  Listen to what I suspect is a familiar text out of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light . . . And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ . . . And it was so . . . And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’  And it was so.”  And God said, and God said, and God said…  Over and over again we get this refrain.  And what is God saying?  He’s speaking creation into existence.  God could have used anything to make that happen.  He could have simply thought it and poof! it would have been here.  But He chose words.  Words convey logic and order and direction and meaning.  Those are all part of the character of God.  Then He made us in His image.  Part of our creation in His image is our ability to use words similarly to create…but also, because of sin, to destroy.

If we are going to do life well as followers of Jesus, then, getting our words right is a must.  And while there are lots of places in the Scriptures that talk about the power and importance of our words—James 3, for instance—there is one that has always stood out to me in terms of its practical worth.  In Ephesians 4, Paul makes a shift as he does in several of his letters from theological exposition to practical application.  Ephesus was one the churches Paul knew best.  He spent three years there with the believers after planting the church and came back to visit on subsequent missionary journeys.  One of Paul’s real concerns for the Ephesian believers was that they live out their faith equally well in the community, as individuals, and in their families.

After wrapping up a series of instructions for walking worthy of the calling they had received in Christ in the church, Paul shifts gears in Ephesians 4:17 to focus more on individual application.  Check this out with me: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.”  Now, could we hope to find a clearer statement of the big idea of this entire series than that?  “I don’t want you to live like people who aren’t following Jesus.  They aren’t thinking right.”  He goes on in v. 18: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.  They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”  They are, in other words, perfect examples of the kind of people Paul talked about in Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”  Tough words, yes.  Challenging words.  Unpopular words in today’s culture.  But it doesn’t take a whole lot of reflection to see that they are also true words.

As followers of Jesus, though, we are called to something else.  Stay with me now in v. 20: “But that is not the way you learned Christ!”  In other words, “You know better.”  Or at least, you should know better—v. 21 now—“assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Are you with me?  In Christ, we have been called to a different life than the people around us live.  We have been called to do life well.  In light of this, look where Paul immediately goes next.  Verse 25: “Therefore [that is, in light of what we just talked about], having put away falsehood [that is, all the lies our old self tells us and the fantasy worlds we try and construct to live apart from God], let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor [and he’s talking specifically about Christian neighbors here, but we shouldn’t lie to anybody], for we are members of one another.”  So, of all the places Paul could have gone after the foundation he laid in vv. 17-24, he starts here: speak the truth.  Live in light of what is true and not what is false.  Do not use your words to create fantasy worlds.  All fairytales eventually come to an end and the real secret that most modern retellings hide is that most of them end badly.  At the very least, wrapping yourself in a fantasy world will make entering back into the real one painful when the blinders finally come off.

And the reason for all of this?  Community.  We are members of one another.  Using our words to speak falsehoods will do damage not just to our own lives, but to the lives of all those who are connected with us. And since we are all connected in the body of Christ, using our words poorly can cause cracks in the foundation on which the whole structure is set.  If we are going to do life well when it comes to our words, we must make certain we always speak the truth regardless of how inconvenient or even painful it may be.  We need to speak the truth in love—that is, we need to speak the truth out of our intentional commitment to see the people around us become more fully who God designed them to be—as Paul wrote back in v. 14, but we must speak the truth.  The truth will always lead to life; to a life done well.

In what follows, then, Paul offers a whole series of commands aimed at helping us move in this direction of doing life well.  Look at these with me starting in v. 26: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”  Now, Paul does not outlaw anger here.  That would be silly.  Anger is a natural response to perceived injustice and unrighteousness.  It is whether or not that injustice is merely perceived or actual that determines whether or not anger is really the appropriate response.  What he does call us to leave behind is using anger as an excuse for sin.  Well, what is the vehicle in which much of the sin we commit when we are angry is carried?  Isn’t it our words?  Now, again, there is a time and place for anger, but too often we get angry at the wrong times and for the wrong things.  Too often our anger is fundamentally selfish—we are angry because we are not getting what we want in some way; we perceive a personal injustice when really we just haven’t gotten what we want.  In those times, our most common reaction is to lash out with the goal of changing our circumstances to better suit what we want.  And what is our weapon of choice in such times?  Again: Our words.

Instead, and this goes even if our anger is genuinely righteous in character, we need to let the anger go as quickly as we can.  That’s the heart of Paul’s admonition to not let the sun go down on our anger.  It may be more than one day can handle, but the sooner we can get rid of it, the better.  The longer we hold onto it, the greater the temptation will be to fling our words around like a flail, doing totally unnecessary damage to every single one of our relationships.  Staying in such a place will give our enemy an endless array of opportunities to multiply our sinfulness into the lives of all the people around us.  Maybe it’ll feel good in the moment, but it’s just not worth the risk of broader harm.  We need to move in the direction of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration as soon as possible.  Move heaven and earth to get it resolved.  The death that our words can bring can create a conflagration that quickly spreads well beyond its point of origin.  That will not lead to a life done well.

Verse 28 talks about living honestly in our work.  Listen: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”  Even as we are striving to make certain we are being honest with our words, we must also be honest with our work.  Our walk must match our talk.  And again here we see that Paul’s reasoning is communal.  We should work hard so that we can share with others in the community.  Remember how Luke described the early church in Acts 2:44-45: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

In the next verse, we see that the power of our words is so important to get right that Paul is drawn back to the topic yet again.  Look at v. 29 now: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  Let’s camp out here for just a minute because this is pretty critical.  If we are going to do life well with respect to our words to the benefit of not only ourselves, but of our entire communities, we must use them to bring life, not death to those around us.  Verse 29 here lays out a pretty clear pathway for how we accomplish this feat.

It starts with letting no corrupting talk come out of our mouths.  Well, what does that mean?  The operative Greek word there is sapros which describes something that is rotten to the core, worthless, and no longer fit for use by anyone.  The idea here is that our words should not make a situation worse than it already is.  How many times, though, have you opened your mouth and let a bunch of garbage fall out before you even realized what was happening?  You fired off a snide comment before you could stop yourself (notice, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that you would have stopped yourself if you could have).  Perhaps you told a joke that was not only off-color, but offensive in its form.  It could be that you ridiculed someone or drew undue, hurtful attention to their failure.  You yelled at your kids and left them feeling worthless and discouraged.  You communicated arrogance to a friend.  You put down your spouse and devalued her contributions to the relationship.  That’s all corrupting talk.  You opened your mouth and made the situation worse by the words you injected into it.  Don’t do that.

Okay, but what are we supposed to do instead?  Paul tells us that too.  We are to only use words that build up the people around us, that make the situations we are in better, that are appropriate to the occasion, and that extend unmerited favor (grace) to those who hear them.  To put that more simply: We should use our words to bring life, not death.  Yeah, but still, how do we do that?  It can start by asking a simple question before we let a single word come out of our mouth: Is this going to help or hurt the other person in situation I’m facing?  Once we’ve asked it, we need to set about answering it with great care and even greater honesty.  Here’s why that last part is so important: If we’re not careful, we’ll be honest about the fact that our words will somehow be to our benefit, but not so much to the benefit of the other person or people in the situation.  What we need to do is to look for ways to speak in such a way that will actively be to the benefit of the other person.  What will lift them up?  What will give them margin to fail gracefully?  What will ease a tension or a burden they are carrying?  Such words will always be appropriate to the situation we are facing.  This is the grace part of what Paul was saying.  Our words should extend favor to those around us whether they deserve it or not.

This is hard to think about practicing, but it is easy to recognize.  You’ve talked before with someone who was exceedingly gracious in their speaking.  They always extended the benefit of the doubt to the people around them.  They took blame that wasn’t theirs for the sake of the other person, but not in such a way that they were a doormat.  Their words were always kind and never merely in kind.  In other words, their words always brought life to the situations they were in.  Our words should be used to bring life, not death.

Life-giving words are an amazing thing.  They can open a person’s eyes to see the possibilities of the kingdom of God.  They can enable a person to wrap her heart around her real worth.  They can inspire a young person to accomplish incredible things.  They can move mountains of culture.  They can soften the edges of needed criticism to make it more palatable.  They can turn a heart of stone into one that is able to love again.  They can give confidence where it is flagging.  They can convict the nagging conscience and draw a wandering sinner into repentance.  They can strengthen a weak spirit.  They can create hope where there was not any.  They can inspire a hockey team to score the winning goal.  Need I go on?

If we are going to do life well when it comes to our words, these and others like them are the things they should accomplish.  Now, is it easy to get to such a place?  No, of course it’s not.  But then, you already knew that.  Getting to such a place takes time, intentionality, discipline, and lots and lots of practice.  But think about it: Imagine what it would be like to be known as a person whose words always bring life.  Imagine the joy of having the reputation of being someone who was gracious of speech.  Imagine getting to be the person God used to speak life into dead and dying situations and getting to witness the transformations that took place by those words.  That would be a life lived well, would it not?  Use your words to bring life, not death.  And then sit back and enjoy the results.  Enjoy sharing in the life of Christ, our perfect example of someone who always used His words well.  Enjoy living to the fullest and sharing that life with those around you.  Use your words to bring life, not death.