I glanced at my phone to see a new text:
I’m so sorry about your Grandma.
I sent a response. What do you mean?
When is the funeral?
I shoved my phone into my pocket and rushed from my desk to a quiet enclave away from coworkers. I quickly called my parents. My little brother answered cheerfully, clearly viewing this call as a chance to get out of doing homework.
“Is everyone okay?” I asked. “Did anyone die?” My brother seemed confused as he said everything was fine.
My grandma was very much alive. People had been unclear with their words, and, like the game of telephone that children play, the original message had been greatly distorted. We nervously chuckled and added the event to a long list of uncomfortable family mishaps.
In my family, especially, it can feel like our words pull order into chaos. We have had confusion over politics, directions, times we are supposed to meet, and more. I sometimes wonder at the unity of those who built the tower of Babel. God had to confuse their languages to divide them. I look around today and find more than enough confusion among people who speak the very same language.
“Words are hard,” I grumbled to a friend one day.
“No, words are easy,” he shot back.
I amended, “Maybe the problem is that words are too easy, so people aren’t careful with them.”
First Words, Broken Words
“Let there be light,” were the first recorded words. God literally spoke in 3D. As words left his mouth, they became what was spoken. God created good things with his words. He brought light from darkness. Land from water. Order from chaos.
While the first words brought life, those that shortly followed ushered in death and curse.
“Surely, you will not die.”
“The woman whom you gave me . . .”
“The serpent tricked me.”
Just as sin tainted work and pregnancy and snakes, it touched our language. Now that we have fallen, our mouths have no option but to reveal the death now hidden beneath flesh and animal skins. We do the opposite of what we ought to do with our words. While God creates order and life, we use words to bring chaos and death.
My sister and I did as much when we were kids. My younger sister once pinned me to the ground. I struggled against embarrassment far more than the weight holding me down.
“I won! I’m stronger than you!” Her words hurt my heart more than her arms ever could.
“Well, I’m smarter than you! That’s what really matters!”
I have never been able to recall my too-quick words, no matter how many times I have wished to. As intended, they hurt my sister as much as her words hurt me. Even years later our remembered voices still mock each other. Rather than rejoicing in the diversity of how we had been created, we chose to drag the other sister down. We chose to use our words to stir discontentment with our allotted gifts.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will crush our hearts.
Fortunately, there’s hope for our words.
God called to Adam and Eve in Eden. “Where are you?” He knew Adam and Eve were about to use their words to point blame at their creator, but God still used his words to call them to come to him. Jesus spoke similarly on the cross as he prayed for those who were murdering him: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
His words give such a vivid glimpse of redemption that I need to remind myself to take a breath. Words, in all their power, can bring about redemption, healing, and hope.
When I was five or six, I was sometimes startled awake from bad dreams late at night. Scared to go back to sleep, I would slip downstairs to find my dad still awake, and he’d talk to me. He told me about the stars we saw out the window, even though he knew nothing about stars. He tested himself to see how many random facts he could list—Jacob’s sons, every NFL team, US presidents. His words and the sound of his voice soothed my fears until I was ready to go back to sleep.
I am still not certain that words are easy, as my friend argued. I can use my words to spread peace and empathy one breath before I switch to hypocrisy and hate. Some days I emulate Adam and Eve’s blaming words, but other days I listen to the creator’s words and am granted the grace to mimic his words myself. In Jesus, our words are being redeemed with the rest of creation. Language has and will experience the reality that Jesus declared on the cross.
“It is finished!”
Cover image by Nick Fewings.