A Lesson We Must Learn: Words Matter

Words matter. They have power. The world operates by words. Yet, experts tell us that when someone speaks, we do not exactly hear words; we think them. The process is a complicated one.

Speech, like every other sound we hear, causes the air to move in wavelike patterns, which we call “soundwaves.” These waves of air are funneled through the outer ear and ear canal to the middle ear, vibrating a small drum of tissue that is about 8 millimeters by 10 millimeters in size. Its vibrations set in motion a chain reaction through three tiny bones, which in turn causes fluid in the spiral-shaped cochlea to move. Hair cells in the cochlea transmit neural signals along the auditory nerve to the brain, where the signals are interpreted as words. And words matter. They have power.

Years ago, my family was sitting in the car, waiting to cross the border into Canada. When we reached the border services officer, I was stroking my upper lip with my thumb and index finger. I had just shaved off my beard and it was the first time I had been mustache-less since 1975, and it felt odd. The officer thought I was fidgety and probably hiding something, so he told me to pull over and open the trunk. We were then ordered to wait inside the border office until our car had been inspected.

I stopped at the counter to inform the officer there, then the five of us sat on metal-framed chairs against a wall and watched the people coming and going. Forty-five minutes later, we were still sitting there, and I wondered if we’d been forgotten. I approached the counter again and said to the officer: “Excuse me, but we’ve been waiting for about forty-five minutes.”

She looked up and said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but we’re having to do a lot of strip searches today, so we’re running behind.”

The soundwaves that vibrated my eardrum sent those tiny bones in my middle ear to work. The fluid in the cochlea washed over the hair cells and sent signals down the auditory nerve. In less than a second my brain pieced together the meaning of what I had heard, and the power of those words couldn’t have been more obvious. They sent me back to the waiting chairs, where I sat down, shut my mouth, and meekly waited my turn.

Words matter. They are powerful. That’s why the Apostle Paul ordered Jesus-followers to “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth…” Words can save a life or destroy it. As the ancient proverb puts it, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

This is not something that we sufficiently appreciate. Hitler devastated Europe and killed six million Jews and nearly as many non-Jews. His weapon? Words. Armies marched, bombs fell, and people died at his word.

The tongue also has the power of life. I entered pastoral ministry through something of a side door. I never wanted to be a pastor, but two years of church ministry was a denominational requirement for the overseas service for which my wife and I had trained. During those first two years, I didn’t feel that my sermons were helping anyone. I doubted they were any good.

Some college friends visited one Christmas. In my hearing, one of them told another that he thought I was among the best preachers he knew. The soundwaves did their work in my middle and inner ear, signals were transmitted along the auditory nerve to my brain, and the power of his words brought life. Nearly forty years later, I still remember them. Had I not heard those words, I might not be in the pulpit today.

Words have power, and God’s words are all-powerful. The biblical writer declares, “By God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed.” Ours is a world of words, brought into being by words and operated by words. When Jesus, quoting Moses, said that “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he was not spiritualizing. He was stating facts.

It is a lesson we must learn. Words matter – God’s and ours.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/11/18

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