13 Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings or of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal. 2 Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about him. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all. 3 Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give myself over to a difficult life so I can brag. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIRV) via biblegateway.com
We run a small shop, my husband and I. The other day, a sweet-looking elderly lady came in looking for antique buttons. She was delighted to find a few that would suit her purpose and she came to pay for them. We struck up a conversation, and I was appalled to hear the words coming out of her mouth. It was like listening to an R-rated stand-up comedian–filled with profanities and bigoted remarks–all delivered in quiet, honeyed tones. I was stunned!
Such talk becomes habitual. Most people don’t even notice how often they say offensive words or off-color remarks. In this situation, I simply kept a kind of stony silence– I neither exploded with offense, nor nodded in compliance. She stopped talking and made her exit, knowing she had somehow displeased me, but likely unaware of how she actually sounded. I felt guilty for not having challenged her, but I truly think she was oblivious. She had not been swearing in anger; she had not used obvious slurs, but to me, her language was like a cesspool. My ears felt dirty just listening.
But after I had judged her harshly, I turned the lens on myself. How often do I offend others with my language? I don’t mean with obvious swear words or racist language, but with careless statements or unkind sarcasm? Or with selfish empty boasts about how wonderful my life is or even how good God has been to me? How often do I sound like a clanging, clamoring “noisy cymbal?”
I love to talk, but do I talk with Love? Do I speak words of truth and beauty; blessing and encouragement? Do I speak words of conviction out of love for others, or out of my own contempt? Do I pray with a heart of grieving for those who struggle, and those who are lost? So I assume, as this woman did, that my ugly words will be accepted because I speak them in polite and dulcet tones to someone who looks like me? Or because “everyone else” I know uses such words or spreads such opinions? Do I choose to listen to celebrities, or neighbors, or family members whose speech is filled with hatred and filth? Do I add my nervous laughter when others make careless remarks– worse yet, am I developing bad habits in my own speech or in my social media interactions?
“O ye heights of Heav’n, adore Him, Angel hosts His praises sing. Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him, And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Ev’ry voice in concert ring, Evermore and Evermore!”
“Silent night, Holy night…” Tradition has it that Christ was born on a cold and silent night. The Bible doesn’t exactly say when he was born. It does say that the angels appeared to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night; and that the wise men of the East followed a star to find the newborn King. But the Bible doesn’t talk about the night being unnaturally silent or cold– these are details we’ve added to the story that may or may not be accurate.
But one thing is certain– whatever silence may have settled over Bethlehem near the time of Christ’s arrival; whatever lull in the hustle and bustle of the busy city’s streets–there was no silence among those who heard the good news of His birth. From the singing hosts of Heaven’s angels, to the excited voices of the shepherds, the inquiring whispers among the wise men, and the nervous recitations of the prophecies among Herod’s advisors, Christ’s birth was met with a symphony of reaction.
And so it continues–as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, hymns will be sung, rich with words like “Hallelujah,” “Joy, ” “Blessed,” “Adore,” “Savior,” “Lord,” “Wonder,” “Glory,” “In Excelsis Deo,” “Redeemer,” “King,” and “Emmanuel!” From every nation, and in every language, praise and worship will erupt from homes and churches. And this is in addition to prayer and worship that rises in an unbroken stream around the globe each day, every day.
It fills me with wonder to think that at any given moment, someone, somewhere, is praying and praising our Wonderful God. But millions of tongues are silent– even on Christmas–in response to God’s Everlasting Love and Grace. There are millions, even billions of tongues that will greet Christmas Day without wonder, without hope, without joy. Billions who will grumble about the weather, or the outcome of a sporting match, or their family relationships.
Someday, “no tongue on earth” will be able to keep silent in response to the Messiah. “Every knee shall bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10b-11 NIV)
Can you imagine a choir made up of every single human being–“every voice in concert”– declaring the worth and majesty of God’s Holy Lamb?! This babe born to be the Prince of Peace; this Only Begotten of the Father; our Emmanuel– He is worthy of such a concert! Let NO TONGUE on Earth be silent! Let us Extol Him! How Great Our Joy!!
Children can be very inventive when finding ways to hurt other children. Name-calling, shunning, shaming, or just pushing, shoving, and tripping each other on the playground. As parents, teachers, and concerned adults, we should be working to instill compassion and discipline in our children– compassion to see how such actions and words hurt, and discipline to keep them from speaking and acting out of emotion and carelessness. We also spend time wiping away the tears and comforting those children who have been bullied and hurt by their peers. And we teach them sayings like, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words (or names) can never hurt me.” Such sayings mean well, but they are not entirely true. Words and names can hurt. They DO hurt. And they don’t just hurt the person who is the target of such words. They hurt the speaker and everyone who lets the words fall unanswered, or who picks up the words to hurt someone else.
Christians should stand out as beacons of light and love. Yet many of us are guilty of throwing “sticks and stones” every bit as hurtful and thoughtless as those hurled by playground bullies.
A few years ago, I read with some shock a hate-filled article from a Christian woman who was urging all her Christian friends to boycott “Operation Christmas Child”, a group sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, a charitable organization founded by Franklin Graham, son of the famous Evangelist, Billy Graham. Every year, Operation Christmas Child sends out millions of shoeboxes filled with Christmas gifts, meant for some of the poorest children around the world– orphans, refugees, and those in extreme poverty. But according to this woman, Operation Christmas Child was a hate-filled organization, spreading racism and condescension by sending “white” “western” baubles meant to taunt the recipients–useless articles like dolls and toy cars and color books with crayons. She also called out Mr. Graham as a racist, homophobic, hate-monger who should be — well she did stop short of asking for his assassination, but not by much. (I’m not here to champion Mr. Graham. But she gave no examples of racism and homophobia, nor did she give Mr. Graham any chance to defend his organization.)
Her proposal was that anyone wishing to help someone in a “third-world” country should instead send their donations to a group that provides livestock– goats and chickens–to struggling farmers and families in developing countries, giving them the means to be self-sufficient, independent, and providing practical help instead of “frivolous toys”.
I spent hours crafting a response to this woman’s article– one I later deleted without sending. I believe her proposal came from a heart that sincerely wanted to help others. And I think her hatred and disgust for Operation Christmas Child was based on criticisms she felt were warranted. But her article left me in tears for three reasons:
It was hateful and filled with the kind of name-calling and condemnation that Christians should not just avoid, but mend and correct with love and grace. That doesn’t mean that we cannot say anything negative about other Christians or criticize their actions if they seem inconsistent with the Gospel. But there are Biblical guidelines for doing so.
Second, the article was divisive. She did not allow that anything about Operation Christmas Child could be done with a loving motive or a positive outcome. Because she found issue with the founder and with the design of the boxes and certain contents, she felt justified in condemning everything and everyone connected with it. And because she had found a solution that made her feel virtuous, she wanted every Christian to follow suit.
Finally, I believed her article was driven primarily by the passing emotions of rage and disgust self-righteousness, instead of a desire to do whatever she could to honor God and help those He loves. In fact, the majority of those living in poverty around the world (and thus subject to the goals of the charities she contrasted) live in urban areas–often they are homeless or live in crowded refugee camps or sprawling housing complexes. Sending livestock can certainly help farms or families who have land and food available to tend them. It is a helpful and loving gift to send a goat to a family or small village–it is however, impractical to send a pair of chickens to someone living in a high rise in Nairobi, and her advocacy shows a “western”, “white” naivete that rivals the one she sees in dolls and color books and caricatures printed on the boxes used to send them.
My response was no better–it pointed out her faults (as I saw them), and was designed to make her feel foolish and little and “wrong”. And just because I deleted it then, I obviously have not forgotten the incident. But I bring it up now because I see in it an ongoing problem—one to which I am not immune, even as (or maybe especially as) a Christian. It is very easy, especially with social media, to speak “in the moment”– and often in the emotion of the moment. We react, rebuke, chime in with our “two cents,” and let our tongues (and fingertips) destroy when they should be building up.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” Proverbs 25:11
So, for this new year, am I hurling sticks and stones, as I sneer at those with whom I disagree? Am I like the playground bully, finding delight in calling others names, or laughing at their expense? Am I tearing down other Christians because I hear others being critical? Or am I using my tongue (and my keyboard) to bless others? Do I speak the truth (harsh as it sometimes is) with love and grace, or with pride and condescension? Do I listen more than I speak? Would I want Jesus to read my Facebook posts or hear my conversations? (Because He DOES!) Does He speak through me?
May His words take up residence in our hearts and spill out of our mouths and fingertips today!
Words have weight– I’m not talking about thousand-page novels or multi-syllable legalese terms– some words simply weigh heavier on the mind and heart than others. Some everyday words spill out like dust motes carried on a light breeze. They hang suspended in midair, without any set purpose or destination, and finally settle, forgotten, until someone sweeps them away. Other words explode, sending shards and pellets at unwary targets. Some words thunder like falling rocks in an avalanche of guilt or anger or hatred. And some rare and precious words have the weight of a quilt or a hug, or an arm lifting you up when you are falling.
One of the amazing things about prayer is that as we pour out our words before the Savior, the weight of our words is lifted off our hearts and minds and given to him to carry– the weight of the guilt, the weight of worry, the weight of grief, the weight of anger, the weight of hurt. Not only does God take on the weight of our words (and our pain and guilt), but he makes sense of it all– maybe not instantly, or in the way we imagine– but he brings order and goodness out of our chaos and burden.
And those everyday words swirling around like dust fall into the light, where they shine like gold dust in His presence. When we bring everything to God, he transforms it; he transforms us.
Our words have weight in prayer. And our words to others have weight, as well. Today, I want to weigh my words carefully. Are my words burdening others, or helping them lift a load of care? If I had to carry the weight of my words– my criticisms and clever put-downs, my accusations and angry tantrums, my bragging and comparisons– would I be dragging them behind me with joy and pride? What if, instead, my words were filled with the weight of shared laughter, encouragement, hope, and compassion? What if my words held the weight of truth and kindness and peace?