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Words Do Matter. A lot.

The uproar over late night comedian Stephen Colbert’s rant has focused a lot of attention on how far you can go in public discourse. Colbert often talks about his faith and I do not doubt his sincerity. However, I would challenge him to take a look at what Scripture has to say about the words we say and the power they have. That is an uncomfortable challenge I have taken.  I have included an excerpt from my new book Waking Up Slowly about the power of words.

When it comes to social media people seem to be on the attack all the time. We say truly ugly things and assign terrible motives to people we don’t know. I quit going negative on social media many years ago. I affirm where I can and stay silent when I cannot. I just don’t understand what satisfaction people get from savaging someone or something from the safe bunker of the Internet. Maybe I should invent a program that prompts you to pray before you hit send?

The meaning of words can change over the years. Sometimes we diminish the power of words by overuse and misuse. One annoying example for me is the word awesome. If a breakfast sandwich is awesome, then what descriptor can you possibly pull out for a sunset that evening? Another word I would like to reclaim and limit is hate. Hate is a powerful and deeply affecting word. But we toss it around so casually that it makes me wince. We hate everything from Congress to broccoli. I am not sure that this chapter would have made it into this book if my journey had been taken in a non-political year.

I am saddened, sickened, disturbed, and frightened at how the word hate is being hurled in our national discourse. Red-faced people running for office spew vitriol at those they disagree with. It can be an honest and complicated issue that candidates are reacting to, but they reduce the debate to hating their opponents.

Author James Baldwin made this insightful observation: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

Isn’t that the truth? It is so much easier to demonize than understand. It is up to me and to you to change the discourse. We need to start by allowing God to be the one who defines hate. After all, He does have that righteous and holy thing on His resume.

In the Book of Proverbs, there is a list of seven things that God hates.

eyes that are arrogant,

a tongue that lies,

hands that murder the innocent,

a heart that hatches evil plots,

feet that race down a wicked track,

a mouth that lies under oath,

a troublemaker in the family.   (Proverbs 6:17-19, The Message)

It is heartbreaking that we, the body of Christ, have communicated a very different list of what we think God hates most. Perhaps we do that because the list above deals with the darkness in our own hearts. It is far easier to judge sin that isn’t my issue, instead of the painful work of confronting my own sin. As Philip Yancey wisely observes, “Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.”

And, inexplicably, we get incredibly angry at people who sin, but who do not share our hope in Jesus. What in the world do we expect them to do? Isn’t that part of why God graciously allows us another day, so that we can be light to those who do not share our faith?

Shouldn’t step one for me and for you as believers be to see how many items on this list that God hates still lurks in my own heart? Does this list look anything like the list of things that we say God hates to many non-churchgoers? To be sure, there are other sins that go against God’s perfect plan and Word. But the consistent thing that I keep confronting is that He is annoyingly more concerned about my heart than the actions of others. God is not attention deficit and I cannot distract Him with a shiny sign condemning someone else’s sin. The politician’s favorite tact of justifying bad behavior with other bad behavior does not work with a holy God. Frankly, I am grateful He loves me too much to give me a pass on my blindness.

Pastor Mark Mitchell is one of many people who has reflected on Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s assessment of the power of words.

Rabbi Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, has lectured throughout this country on the powerful, often negative impact of words. He often asks audiences if they can go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, another person. Invariably, a small number of listeners raise their hands, signifying “Yes.” Others laugh, and quite a few call out, “No!”

Telushkin responds, “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you can’t go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you’re addicted to alcohol. If you can’t go 24 hours without smoking, you’re addicted to nicotine. So if you can’t go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you’ve lost control over your tongue.”

Perhaps I am more finely tuned because of this journey to connect more with God and others, but it seems that people talk a lot about things and people that they detest. Hate is a very serious word to use when talking about anyone, and especially another believer. As Christians, we simply do not have that option.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?  1 John 4:20

If anyone claims, “I am living in the light,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is still living in darkness. 1 John 2:9

Ouch. It’s very clear—and uncomfortable to hear—that I need to pray for those I disagree with in the faith community.

But beyond that, I think we need to be extraordinarily prayerful about throwing the hate card at anyone. I would suggest that we often allow ourselves to slip from hating the sin to hating the sinner as well. A wise man tells us that “the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate” (Proverbs 8:13).

All of those—pride, arrogance, the way of evil, and perverted speech—are attitudes, not folks. We have a really hard time separating those two and we need to be cautious about flinging around the “hate the sin and not the sinner” cliché. I need to work at that distinction in love.

We certainly see the first half of this Proverb played out every day on cable news.

Hatred stirs up strife,
but love covers all offenses.
(Proverbs 10:12)

The second half of this Proverb has been demonstrated by a few brave souls in my lifetime. Martin Luther King Jr. had some legitimate reasons to hate, but he chose not to. His words have not lost their power: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Another courageous African-American, Booker T. Washington, made a similar choice. “I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”

I know there are some people who are so evil that they seem unredeemable outside of a true miracle. But I have found the majority of folks that disagree with me are generally decent people, when I take the time to hear their stories and get to know them. We hate people we don’t know and, without a doubt, that suspicious attitude prevents us from ever engaging with them.

I have decided to severely curtail my use of the word hate. I am making the choice to permit no man to degrade my soul by making me hate. And for the spiritual hall monitors, be aware that I am not going squishy on sin. There are actions, attitudes, and sins that I hate.

I have to remind myself that the actions that make me angry are the result of our fallen nature and sin. Hating people will not fix either of those issues. I can’t influence hearts by using inflammatory words. Words do matter. A lot.