Words hold great power. When we speak, we create. Although not in the way that God creates, of course, we still cause something to be in a legitimate, genuine way.
Consider a sixth-grade girl who, after receiving a less-than-desirable grade on her math test says to herself, “I’m so stupid.”
That one speech act created something—a belief about herself that she perhaps is not as smart as she had thought or hoped. If this speech act becomes a habit, she will continue to reinforce this negative thought, in time causing her to essentially believe herself to be less academically capable than she really is.
If someone were to ask her verbatim, “Do you really think you’re stupid?” she may not admit to it, but she will probably still believe, deep down, that she is. That if she were to try harder, nothing would improve. (Such a belief, if left unchecked, will go on to permeate her life and actions in myriad ways.)
I say this to present the power of words to shape our thoughts and beliefs. Unexamined phrases that become habitual utterances are neither benign nor neutral. They will shape what we think and believe for better or worse—and usually for worse.
Unexamined Phrases in the Workplace
Let’s take a common example from our day jobs. It is typical to hear the exclamation, “Thank God it’s Friday!” Or perhaps the less famous, but likely just as prevalent, “Three days down, two more to go,” and other such permutations.
What do these utterances communicate about how we view our work? Additionally, what are they doing to shape the way we view our work?
First, they elevate the weekend above the weekdays, creating the belief that humankind was made for the equivalent of “the weekend.” That rest is the pinnacle, the goal of our existence. That the weekdays are simply something to be survived—it is on Saturday and Sunday (even Friday night after 5:00 p.m.) that humanity truly lives.
Second, in devaluing the workweek, these utterances devalue work. Many of us spend between twenty and forty hours a week engaged in some kind of waged work. Perhaps even more. This is a significant chunk of our lives each and every week! But when the days on which work is done—and which, more or less, represent that work—lose their value, so does the work itself.
The early chapters of Genesis paint a starkly different portrait, countering both of these depressing ideas about work. In regards to the former, even though God sets a pattern of work and rest—six days of creation, one day of shabbat—he does not rest in order to elevate that action above all former action. Both are good in the right context. There is a proper time for work and a proper time for ceasing from that work.
As for the latter, Genesis displays work as inherently valuable. God’s commission for the first humans to work came prior to the Fall. Although work certainly has been impacted by the Fall, work itself did not come about because of the sin of humankind. Work is inherently good. God established work, he himself works, and he invites us to cooperate with him in his good work. (See especially Gen. 1:26-31 and 2:15.)
Being More Intentional about Stewarding Your Words
So how does the discussion of Friday in the workplace relate to stewardship, particularly the stewardship of words? It comes down to understanding, and thus wielding well, the power of our words.
Stewarding language well includes responsible, thoughtful consideration to how words are employed. When reacting or responding to various situations, we have a choice. We can blurt out the first words that come to mind (whether from habitual firing or gleaned from those we place ourselves around), or we can thoughtfully consider our response before speaking.
I have had to exhibit care in my own word choice when I notice colloquial phrases crop up in my speech. In recounting a frustrating situation to my husband, I finished my story with the tagline, “Life happens.” (I didn’t really think about it, I just tagged it on. It’s what people say, right?)
He immediately questioned my statement—gently, but with evident concern. “What are you giving power to?” he asked. He had a point.
Simply saying, “Life happens,” was not only a sort of cop out, but it gave control to “life”—neither to myself as a steward of my bodily existence nor to God, who is ultimately sovereign over all.
Thus, reacting to a situation without much thought tends to put us in a dangerous place. We often yield power to the situation at hand, failing to consider the deeper impact that these unexamined words can have on our present (and may continue to have upon us down the road).
However, responding intentionally—carefully crafting one’s response—can work redemptively, seizing the opportunity to foster good in both self and other (Eph. 4:29). By thoughtfully shaping our responses we are selecting our words based upon and for the sake of our values and beliefs, rather than the other way around.
Consider some of the words you utter on a consistent basis. What do your words show about what you truly think? What are you training yourself to believe?
Our speech choices often become habits, and habits shape our character, which has important implications for our life at home, work, in church community, and elsewhere. Thus, it is imperative that we steward our words well. May the speech habits we form shape our beliefs and our character to be that which faithfully images God to a watching and listening world.