Craving Words from the Fire
As a child, I was taught by my mother to value all speech. That every argument must be weighed, its logic tested, its validity evaluated, and the cogency of its thesis either received, nuanced, or rejected. Human speech is mysteriously and wondrously unique because it is one of the qualities, which we share with God Almighty as His image-bearers (Genesis 1:28). With our words, we have the ability to speak life or death into another’s life either for good or evil. Like Job, we have been on the receiving end of unfair and malicious words and can empathize with Job’s response, “How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?” (Job 19:2).
Words are powerful and have meaning. That is obvious; but the reason is not always so obvious. Words are powerful because they flow from the heart of those who are made in the image of God (Matt 12:34; Prov 4:23). They are not merely abstract, flee-floating dictum. Rather, their inherent value is in the fact that words find their genesis in the thoughts and affections of a unique, God-created individual. This truth alone gives power to our words. It is why we record the ‘first word’ of a child. It is why we treasure old letters written to us by the ones we love. And It is why even slander spoken against us, which we know to be untrue, often proves difficult. This is exactly James’s point regarding our words in James 3. As ships our guided by a small rudder so James says the tongue “boasts of great things” (Jas 3:5). He goes on to say, “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” (Jas 3:6). Such a warning is a reminder that one, because words flow from image-bearers, they can do great damage, and two, that we should be very careful how we use them.
From James’s statement we may also deduce that not all words are created equal. Some words he says are a “world of unrighteousness.” Words must be evaluated based on their merit. What is the criteria and who is the arbiter of the value of words? The answer is also obvious: God.
Jesus actually addressed how words would be evaluated. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:36). Such a warning should cause us to be very solicitous in how we use our words. God will evaluate our every word based on His standard of truth. Words that deviate from the fabric of God’s righteousness will be counted as evil words.
Furthermore, Jesus said that we would be evaluated based on His Words. “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself give me a commandment—what to say and what to speak” (John 12:48-49). What we do with the most important Word spoken, namely the gospel, has infinite ramifications for our own souls.
The Need to Value Words Equally
Therefore, it eventuates that how we think about words, speak words, and receive words is one of, if not the most important thing about us. It is on this ground that I think we must pay special attention to one of the errors that our broader culture has fallen into recently—and the western church to some extent as well—and that is the adaptation of the lens of identity politics in regard to our words. It is now not uncommon for our words to be evaluated, not on the basis of the imago dei, but based on a person’s perceived privilege, ethnicity, sexuality, claimed victimhood, and so-on and so-forth. There literally is a myriad of constantly-changing criteria for evaluating the worth of words so that it is nearly impossible to keep track of them all. Nor do any two people have the exact same criteria. Therefore, it is an absolutely futile venture to evaluate words using this method. Moreover, evaluating words and thus the validity of thought based on a sliding intersectional scale is a monumental loss for everyone involved, especially those who have adopted this paradigm.
For what is lost when such a paradigm is adopted is the ability to truly listen and evaluate ideas. One becomes immediately closed off and succumbs to predetermined judgments before words are even heard or read, because of who they are emanating from. This in a word is folly. For it flies in the face, not only of God’s standard for evaluating words, but also the search for absolute truth. A true search for truth will lead us to go to any length to listen to anyone who proclaims truth. Indeed, it is often someone from a different ethnicity or a different context that can help us see a universal truth from an angle which we have never seen before. This is to be valued and sought after, not shunned based on a certain view of identity politics.
The Need for Words from the Fire
All of this being said, I actually think the greatest need of the hour is the necessity for us all to hear the most important Word again. In a cultural moment, when so many are speaking out of the lens of our own experiences, we are in need of hearing again Words from the fire. God stands outside of history. He does not share our flawed presuppositions and limited vision. He sees everything. He knows everything. He is Spirit (John 4:23). He speaks truth, not from a specific culture, ethnicity, or status. Rather, He stands above all of our created differences. He cherishes them, because He made them, yet He stands outside of them. “God is not a man” (Num 23:19). In this sense, He is completely other—altogether holy and different from us.
What is needed most is a recalibration of our hearts (and therefore our words) to His purifying Words. After all, it is from His Words that our lives came into being (Gen 1:3). And it is by His Words, that our lives are sustained (Heb 1:3). And at the end of the day, it is only God’s Words which are pure truth. So may we cry out with the Psalmist, “Righteous are you O LORD, and right are your rules. You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness and in all faithfulness. My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words. Your promise is well tried, and your servant loves it. I am small and despised, yet I do not forget your precepts. Your righteousness is righteous forever, and your law is true. Trouble and anguish have found me out, but your commandments are my delight. Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live” (Psalm 119:137-144). It is in the presence of this God and His Words that we should sit and ponder and reflect once again and let our “words be few” (Eccl 5:2).
Every word we utter must be stringently tested by God’s righteous Word. Every thought we think must be calibrated by God’s purifying Word. Every action we take must be in obedience to His good Word. On the last day, we will be held to account for every falsehood and for every senseless tweet. It is indeed quite sobering to think that after all that is said and done, one of the only things that will remain for eternity is the Word of God. For “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet 1:24-25; Isa 40:6, 8).