The Power and Poverty of Words
In his confrontations with the Pharisees, Jesus repeatedly unmasks their hypocrisy—from their personal external observances, designed to be noticed, to their relentless critical evaluations of others. It is easy to pay lip service to God’s commands, but the measure of true obedience is in the integrity of performance.
The example of the Pharisees may provoke a few clichés about the futility of the multiplication of words. “Words are cheap.” And from childhood: “Sticks and stones will hurt my bones but words will never hurt me.” (Tell that to the judge.) But the clichés are worth resisting because words can be powerful, words can wound, and—with or without action—our words define us.
God’s word has inherent power. In the account of Creation in Genesis, we see the simplicity of His power. “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) The account continues down to the creation of man. In creation, we see the unity of God’s thought, word, and deed. God’s word has an infinite, absolute, and perfect integrity.
God confers the dignity of his freedom and integrity on man. As a result, God’s word in a sense can be “held hostage” by man’s ability to choose against Him, abusing the gift of freedom. After the Fall of Adam, sin seems to consume the world in a maelstrom of evil. Cain and Abel; the Deluge; the Tower of Babel; Sodom and Gomorrah; the innumerable acts of evil recorded in the Old Testament. All sin derives from the words of Satan: Non serviam, I will not serve.
Sin can be defined as violating God’s word or deliberately refusing to allow our words to participate in his truth. All sin is a lie: deliberate actions detached from words of truth. Jesus teaches us about the vital importance of our words: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt 12:36-37)
In the mystery of God’s providence, God’s word may be obstructed but only delayed. In our day we are witnessing stunningly effective attacks on the integrity of words. By reducing them to platitudes and wishful thinking, a more sinister diabolical agenda is served. Some insist, for example, that Islam is a “religion of peace” despite immense historical and doctrinal evidence to the contrary. But even the Catholic faith cannot be said to be “religion of peace” this side of eternity. After all, the Church’s tradition includes the doctrine of just war and the right to self-defense. And Jesus Himself, the Prince of Peace, promises to bring “the sword” of truth that will even divide families. (cf. Mt 10:34-36) Hence the use of the term “religion of peace” reveals an inability to distinguish between good and evil, just and unjust use of force.
Similarly “terminating a pregnancy” really means killing an unborn baby. Insisting on being “pro-choice” is merely Orwellian code claiming the right to kill an unborn baby. The approval of “gay” sexual behavior is really surrendering in an unhappy slavery to a sinful lifestyle. A complaint about someone who wants to “impose morality” simply means disapproval of the Ten Commandments. Even clergymen use the term “transgender” when the word really means lying about one’s sexuality and, at times, employing horrible surgical mutilation.
And no list would be complete without Chesterton’s quip about “birth control” having nothing to do with birth or control:
I despise Birth-Control first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word; and is used so as to curry favour even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does not control any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control.
At the foot of the Cross, it appeared that our rebellious words would forever defeat God’s word and that all is futile. Satan loves discouragement, and we may find ourselves inclined to despair today, surrounded as we are with what appears to be insurmountable evil. Saint Paul recognizes the futility without the Resurrection: “…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-18)
But the Prophet Isaiah reveals the promise of the final victory of God’s word as it moves through the complex history of human impediments. “…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Is 55:11) Good Friday is not a defeat, but a victory, the Triumph of the Cross, God’s definitive confrontation with evil.
The teachings and ministry and promises of Jesus are validated by the Resurrection. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:20-22)
During the Ascension, the Word made Flesh returns to the Father, his mission accomplished, just as Isaiah prophesied. What remains are the everlasting saving words of Christ: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mt 24:35) The saving words of Jesus make it possible for us regain our integrity in union with the Word of God and provide the only hope for mankind.
Ultimately, words reveal who we are. I am a man of Christian integrity or a hustler for my selfish desires—or somewhere on that continuum. In light of the Cross and Resurrection, with God’s grace, we must strive to regain our God-given integrity, the unity of thought, word, and deed in Christ. Words are never cheap.
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