The Power of Words

The Power of Words

Sigmund Freud once said “Words have a magical power.  They can either bring the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.”  The apostle Paul encourages the church in Ephesus to use words in ways that build up one another and lead to unity.  In the same light, we can remember three key words as we communicate with each other:  LISTEN before speaking, INTEGRITY by being truthful, and PAUSE to think before we speak. (The acronym spells L-I-P).   

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Ephesians 4:15-16, 25-32


If your experience is anything like mine was, when you were a kid there was a lot of name-calling going around.  I remember names like “loser” or “sissy” or “crybaby” or “scaredy-cat” or “stupid”.

Sometimes I was the target of the name-calling, and if I’m honest, sometimes I was the name-caller.   And what was the response that we were taught by our parents to give when we were called a name?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”

That’s what we were taught to believe—that being insulted or made fun of  couldn’t hurt us, that the words could just roll down our back and have no effect on us.

But the reality is that the name-calling and teasing and insulting often DID hurt us, these words had an effect on us, even if we tried to believe that they didn’t.

It may be true that actions speak louder than words, but words can speak pretty loudly themselves, both when we’re young and throughout our lives as adults.

Sigmund Freud once said, “Words have a magical power.  They can bring either the greatest happiness or the deepest despair.”

We have been reminded of the power of words during the Olympic games, specifically last week when Simon Biles pulled out of several events at least partly due to pressure she felt from comments coming from social media.

Social media has this ability to exponentially amplify the power of words, whether they be positive or negative.

Biles and other Olympians had seen posts from fans criticizing athletes, saying things like “you let the whole country down” when they didn’t win a medal.  They literally felt the weight of the world on their shoulders, and Simon Biles understandably needed a break from it for her mental health.

Words have power.  I remember when I was Campus Pastor at Bluffton University, there were several times when a student was in my office in tears because of untrue rumors that had been spreading around campus about them.

The book of Proverbs is filled with many short sayings, proverbs, about the power that words have in our relationships.

15: 4    A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

16:24   Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.

Proverbs 18 is almost all about the words that we use.   I like the way the Message version translates some of the verses:

The words of a fool starts fights; do him a favor and gag him.

Fools are undone by their big mouths; their souls are crushed by their words.

Listening to a gossip is like eating cheap candy; do you really want junk like that in your belly? 

And on the positive side:

Words satisfy the mind as much as fruit does the stomach;

Good talk is as gratifying as a good harvest. 

And in sum, there’s this proverb:

Words kill, or words give life;

They’re either poison or fruit—you choose.  ( Prov. 18:21).

The passage we heard today from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church is an encouragement from Paul for these Christians to live in the new way of life that Jesus had taught and modeled with his own life.

Paul is calling them to continue to grow into maturity as followers of Jesus, resisting to be swayed by the negative influences of the world around them.

About 16 years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Ephesus and the surrounding area of west-central Turkey, known as Asia Minor in biblical times.

Ephesus has some of the most well-preserved ruins of the ancient world, and I found it fascinating walking through the remains of the old city, which included a large amphitheater that seated 10,000 people, the library of Celsus, Roman baths, and temples built to various gods and goddesses.

Ephesus was a bustling city of 300,000 people on the Aegean Sea.  And since it was a large port city, it was a crossroads of people from the ancient world.  It was a very diverse and multicultural city that was made up of people from many walks of life and worldviews.

Ephesus also was home to the cult worship of the goddess Diana, or Artemis, and the temple to worship her was so impressive and important that it was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  If you ever get a chance to go to Ephesus, do it.

The apostle Paul spent at least three years in Ephesus, first planting the church there and then nurturing it along, encouraging its members to BE a church that modeled the way of Jesus, which was an alternative way of living to the surrounding cultures and the gods they worshipped.

And in order to stand firm and not be swayed by the myriad of powerful forces around it, Paul emphasized growing in maturity in their faith and being united as a Church. 

And to Paul, one of the keys to growth and unity was in how people spoke to each other, the words they used when communicating with one another.

Let me recap what Paul says about words in the passage from chapter 4:

First,  he says “Speaking the truth in love” is a key to growing up in Christ and being unified as a body that works together in harmony.

He encourages them to get rid of speaking falsehoods and lying to each other.

He warns them to not fly off the handle when they get angry.

He challenges them to not let evil talk or foul language come out of their mouths, but only speak what is helpful and useful, to use words that show grace and build up others, not tear them down.

Paul keeps emphasizing the importance of words when he tells the church in Ephesus that there’s no place for slander, or backbiting and gossip and finger-pointing words.

Instead, he says, replace those words with words that radiate kindness, that are tender and gentle, use words that have the power to speak forgiveness.  This counsel is as true today as it was back then, right?

This kind of speech, this use of words, Paul says, will be a sign that the church is growing in maturity and will bring the church together, instead of tearing it apart.

What do Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus mean for us today, here at Daniels Run Peace Church in Northern Virginia in the 2020’s?

I’d like to offer three words that I believe can help us to use words in ways that build us up as a church, helping us communicate in healthy ways and thus help unite us instead of divide us.

The first word is Listen.  When we take time to listen carefully to each other and understand each other, we will then be able to choose the right words, the best words to share with each other.

On the other hand, when we make assumptions without listening, or don’t take the time to listen to one another, our words can fall on deaf ears, be hurtful, or cause misunderstandings, and there’s a greater chance that we will put our foot in our mouth.

Another verse in Proverbs 18 says, “if you give an answer before you listen, it is folly and shame” (vs. 13).  Or as the Message puts it,  “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude”. 

The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi takes listening a step further, when it says “O Master grant that I may never seek so much to be understood as to understand”.

That should be our goal, to understand others before we expect them to understand us.  That’s in line with the servant way of Jesus, to put others first.

I would guess that our context here is similar in some ways to the context that the church in Ephesus lived in.   Like the church in Ephesus, we are located in a bustling, urban, and very diverse environment.

They were probably a church that reflected the diversity of their multicultural environment, as we do here at Daniels Run Peace Church.

And in such a context where there are different cultures and people come from different countries with different languages and different worldviews, communicating can be especially challenging.

Accents and the ways that different languages structure sentences and say things are often different and can make it hard to understand each other.  We really have to work to listen to each other.

I learned this lesson the hard way the other day at the barber shop.  You might notice that my hair is cut a little different than usual.  I know there’s not much of it, so you might not have even noticed, and it’s been almost two weeks since I had my haircut.

But it’s shorter on top than I usually have it cut.  I have my hair cut at a barber shop run by Vietnamese women.  They’ve always done a great job.  But this last time it was a new person, and she asked how I wanted my hair cut.

Well, I didn’t explain myself well, and I didn’t listen carefully to her.  And before I knew it, she had taken the clippers and buzzed it short all the way across from front to back.  By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late.

I take responsibility for it, for not communicating and listening well enough.  And it was a reminder to me to listen attentively to people that I’m with.

So Listen is the first key to using words that bring people together and help us live in unity and harmony with each other.

The second word I want to suggest is Integrity.  The apostle Paul mentions being truthful with each other, of speaking the truth in love.  To me, this has a lot to do with living with integrity.

Where there is diversity, you can expect a lot of different beliefs, viewpoints and perspectives.  This kind of environment can be energizing and provide opportunities to learn and grow in new ways.

At the same time, a diverse setting can make it harder to know the truth, and more challenging to deal with people who fall prey to distortions of the truth like conspiracy theories.

I read recently that there’s a correlation between Christians who attend church regularly and those who believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon.  It’s disheartening to hear that Christians are being led astray by these kind of lies.

And we see how these kinds of falsehoods are dividing and tearing apart the Church and also destroying the integrity of the Church  in the eyes of the world around us.

Now more than ever we need to be committed to seeking the truth and speaking the truth to those around us, with conviction, and also with humility, all in a spirit of love.   That’s living with integrity.

Another key way that our words show integrity is found Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, in Ch. 5:

Do not swear, and let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ by ‘no’.  Our Mennonite church tradition take these words to heart by applying them to the courtroom and other places where we are asked to take an oath. 

We believe that we don’t need to swear on the Bible or on anything else in order to tell the truth.  We should just affirm that our words will be true when we give testimony, just like they would be in any other situation.  That’s living with integrity.

The third word I’d like to suggest for becoming people whose words reflect maturity and build up those around us is Pause.

Basically, pause means to think before we speak, so that the words we choose will be the most appropriate, the best words in a situation or conversation.

Taking time to pause and take a deep breath is especially important when we’re angry and a little hot around the collar.

I know that our scripture passage says that we shouldn’t let the sun go down on our anger, but at the same time, it’s important that we cool down and try to calm down before we talk about what got us angry and upset.  Conversations go a lot better when we do that.

Taking time to pause can be challenging to me because I’m kind of a spontaneous person, and so I sometimes just say what’s on the top of my head without thinking of how it might come across.

Pausing is also something that’s hard to do if we’re people who are uncomfortable with awkward silence, or any kind of silence for that matter.

But periods of silence are sometimes the best “response” in a conversation or group setting.  Times of silence give us time to reflect on the words that have been said, and also listen for the still, small voice of God together.

While on vacation, I finished a really great book—it is a recent biography of Eugene Peterson called “A Burning in My Bones” by Winn Collier, who was a good friend of Peterson.

Eugene Peterson passed away a couple of years ago, and he left a legacy as the author of the Message translation of the Bible, and also many other wonderful books.  I have benefitted greatly from Peterson’s wisdom and insights in his books.

And his biography also gave me a glimpse into his life as a pastor for 20-plus years at a Presbyterian church in Bel Air, Maryland, outside of Baltimore.

One thing that people mentioned over and over again about Peterson was that he was a great listener, and someone who was comfortable with silence when he met with people who were seeking guidance or just needed a listening ear.

He resisted the temptation to quickly give advice, to “fix” people, and instead often just sat with them, listening, reflecting back to them, and often just sitting in silence.  There were lots of pauses in Peterson’s interactions with people, and it was a life-giving, building-up experience.

The other day I saw a really cool quote called “Practice the Pause”.  It was written by someone named Lori Deschene and here’s what it said:

Practice the Pause.

Pause before judging.

Pause before assuming.

Pause before accusing.

Pause whenever you’re about to react harshly,

And you’ll avoid doing and saying things that you will later regret.

There’s so much truth in these words.

So Listen, Integrity, and Pause.  These are the words that I encourage us to remember in our conversations with one another and with those around us.  As an acronym, it spells L-I-P, so maybe that will help us remember them.

There is power in the words that we speak.  So may the words that come out of our lips be thoughtful, truthful, grace-full, and life-giving, so that our relationships will be healthy, and our church be built up in unity and love.  AMEN.