We sat in stunned incredulity at the dinner table as the two words that our 10-year-old son had just uttered hung in the air like that stale fried food smell in a Southern luncheonette. Did my sweet little boy just answer his mother’s inquiry—“Would you like another piece of chicken?”—with the words, “Hell, yes”? My wife confirmed what I hoped had merely been a product of my hereditary hearing loss: yes, he did say that. Gathering myself, I asked the obvious question: “Where did you hear that?” From my son’s demeanor, it was clear that he did not understand the derogatory nature of the phrase: “I don’t remember, but I think it was from a boy on the playground at McDonald’s.” What he said next made my inner Pharisee feel a bit better: “Is that a bad word, daddy? I didn’t think so because hell is in the Bible and you use that word in your sermons.”
Indeed. He had heard me use that word many times in the context of teaching the biblical doctrine it describes. I took the opportunity to teach him about the use of words and their importance because the Bible, itself God’s Word, talks to us about how we talk to others.
Culture of Talkers
We are a talking culture. TV news channels prattle ceaselessly, analyzing the day’s events and issues, many of them mundane. Enough books are published each year to sink Noah’s ark. And we talk. We talk to our spouses, our children, our co-workers, and in our worst moments, we talk to ourselves. The conversation is endless. It has been estimated that the average human being utters between 10,000 and 20,000 words per day. Consider that fact in light of Solomon’s words in Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” If the average person speaks between 10,000 and 20,000 words each day, then we are looking at 10,000 to 20,000 opportunities to sin.
The timeline of history is dotted with seismic words. Adam and Eve, our first parents, spoke in the garden. The serpent spoke. God spoke. Our Lord’s opponents spoke (“Crucify him!”). Think of history outside the Bible. Think of Luther (“Here I stand…”), Lincoln (“Four score and seven years ago…”), MLK (“I have a dream…”), Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.”). Encouraging words. Inspiring words. Revolutionary words. And, thanks to the words “Did God really say?” there are also terrible, destructive words.
In the world after Genesis 3, there is trouble in our talk, so how should we use words? Is it okay to vent? To rage? To “tell it like it is”? To use profanity? In our evangelical sub-culture, these questions sometimes spawn debate, but this much is certain: Words wield incredible power, and the proper/improper deployment of them gets a lot of ink in Scripture. Our God is a speaking God who inspired a book to tell us about himself and our relationship to him. Thus, it is important that we develop a biblical theology of words for the sake of our sanctification, for the sake of the church, for the sake of my son’s vocabulary, for the sake of the glory of God.