People of the word
God’s words exalt the truth, and His followers should be diligent to do the same
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In a year likely to be dominated by campaign promises, it is important to remember that Christians are people of the word.
It is not just incidental that when God comes to man, He comes as “the Word.” As He reaches out to us, He does not do so with ambiguity but with words—the tools of communication best designed to avoid ambiguity and lack of clarity. For His clearest communication, He did not come as “the Rainbow” or “the Song,” even though He did not hesitate sometimes to enhance His revelation with such art forms. Instead He spelled out with specificity who He is and what He is about by coming to us as “the Word.”
Looking at the way God uses words suggests at least these three thoughts.
God often writes down His words. It makes both Him—and us—accountable. Here and there are people who conclude big deals with their word and a handshake. And certainly if there were ever someone with the reservoir of credibility and integrity necessary for such agreements, God is that person.
Good managers appreciate people whose spoken word they can trust. But good managers also regularly insist on written records of important transactions and agreements so that trust can be enhanced instead of jeopardized. When they make such requirements, they are imitating God’s way of doing things.
Accountability is the special distinctive aspect of writing down our agreements with each other. It would be admittedly risky, but imagine a candidate who says throughout his or her campaign, “Here I am publishing the 10 most important things I stand for. Elect me, and then as my term progresses and comes to an end, hold me accountable for what I have promised.”
God is never tricky with His language. You don’t have to worry about the fine print. It was Jesus who said, “Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Most Americans think that if something is in the Congressional Record it has to be true. But it is not necessarily the case that what is quoted in the high-sounding document is according to fact, since a member of Congress can place anything he or she pleases into the record. Much worse, the same Congress member can come back later and change the official record to suit his or her fancy. Not only can embarrassing gaffes be erased, but intuitive insertions are allowed to make officials look better than reality would allow.
God made words to exalt the truth, not to play games with it. People who claim to follow Him should be diligent to do the same.
God is always as good as His word. Students of language will remember its “performative” function. Using it, a person makes something happen just by saying so. Kings and presidents do it when they decree something. So do ministers when they say, “I now declare you man and wife.” Saying so makes it so.
God is the ultimate user of the “performative” function of language. Since that incredible moment when He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, He has always brought to pass His holy will simply by saying so. It’s one thing to be powerful. It’s something a good bit more awesome to have a powerful word. Now of course even those people who aspire to imitate God couldn’t begin to walk in His steps in this regard. And yet there is an important lesson to be learned and a warning that shapes our behavior. We will be more like our God if we are careful to ensure that our behavior matches our words. The one-for-one equivalence between speech and performance will not come in our case because we are not nearly so powerful. But we can at least provide a reflection of God’s glory in this respect by refusing to give critics the opportunity to charge that our walk is totally different from our talk.
Glib words are everywhere. Words that aren’t accountable. Words that are overly tricky. Words that aren’t matched by performance.
Such words don’t belong among Christians. Our witness in the world will be more potent when we learn to leave them behind us, using words instead in the same way God uses them.
—This column was adapted from an earlier version published in WORLD in January 1988
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