Our Neurotic Obsession With Words

Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen- 2nd Timothy 2:14 NIV

Words have become a neurotic obsession for those lucky enough to live in first-world countries.

In Great Britain a person can be sentenced to seven years in prison for saying anything another person and a witness take as racist, insulting, threatening or disorderly. It is tempting to dismiss the Brits as insanely tense and high-strung for outlawing something as inane and difficult to define as “disorderly speech”. That is exactly the sort of silly nonsense along with tea and stamp taxes that led our founders to cut ties with Mother England in the first place. 

However, we are not far behind our British counterparts when it comes to prudishness over words.  The Massachusetts state legislature is currently debating a bill that would ban the use of a decidedly not-nice word that begins with B and rhymes with ditch. There would be legal consequences for anyone who uses the “B-word” word to “accost”, “annoy”, “degrade” or “demean” someone. As a female I am not, nor have I ever been a huge fan of that word. Nonetheless, I have some reservations about banning that or any word.  

But, there’s more:

Residents of New York City can be fined up to 250,000 dollars for using the term “illegal alien”.  Berkley adopted a “gender-neutral speech ordinance” “Manholes” are now “maintenance holes” and “he” and “her” have been replaced with “they” and “them”. New York and California fine people for calling someone by a non-preferred pronoun. Believe it or not, Christians were among the first to obsess over words.  There has been active movement in Christianity for years to forbid the use of words that non-Christians might possibly find confusing.   

The President offends with his words more than anyone in the history of forever. Since day one he has routinely used words that even his most ardent supporters have thought crude and unnecessary. Those same words have caused his critics to go apoplectic with rage on an almost daily basis. POTUS was back at it again this week. He used the word lynching to describe Democratic attempts to impeach him. 

Lynching is not a nice word or a nice thing. It is a stain on the soul of our nation that lynching was used to control, terrorize and punish black men in America for decades with few if any consequences for those who instigated the executions. I will concede that lynching was a poorly chosen word. Although, to be fair, he is not the first person to describe an impeachment as a lynching. That word was bandied about quite a bit during Bill Clinton’s impeachment process. 

One problem with focusing obsessively on words is that our fixation inevitably causes us to become distracted from the issues at hand. The lynching fracas is a relevant example. Every pundit in the Western hemisphere has ranted incessantly about that word for a solid week. I have personally been exposed to hours of commentary on the subject. What the word means, its history, how long the word has existed, why the word bothers people and the history of people who have been affected by lynch mobs. None of this is wrong. It would be a colossal tragedy to forget those people wronged by that repugnant practice. That being said, our collective focus on one stupid word has done a beautiful job of throwing everyone in the whole stinking country neatly off topic. We have forgotten all about the issue at hand and the debate we should be having which is the rightness or wrongness of this impeachment.

Something similar took place in the church with words and phrases like “sin”, “born-again”, “saved”, “believe”, “trust in Jesus”, “make a profession of faith” and “ask Jesus into your heart”. Many leaders in the 1980’s became razer-focused on the fact that some people found those words confusing. The actual problem was not with the words.  The problem was that people were confused by words that were critical to grasping the essentials of the Christian faith. Instead of finding ways to make those words more understandable and accessible to people, many churches stopped using some legit Bible words. Twenty-five years later many Christians cannot adequately explain the meaning of most of those words or lead non-Christians to faith in Christ, as a result, conversions have plummeted. 

Another problem with focusing on words is it keeps us from dealing with the heart attitudes that cause people to use terrible words. I guarantee you that criminalizing the B-word will not make men any more respectful of women in their hearts. It could in fact have the opposite effect. Some men might think that if women are so thin-skinned that a word has to be forbidden to make them feel “safe” then women really are weak, silly and not worthy of respect. Criminalizing words does not change hearts. Education and exposure to different kinds of people does.  

Words matter but not in the way some people think. Words have the power to inform, shape a narrative, change minds and can be the stimulus that sparks transformation in people and cultures. However, words do not have the power to cause people any real harm. They are just abstract ideas not little tiny knives that rip at our flesh. Outlawing words will make us dumber, less able to articulate truth and more easily fooled. 

Nobody wants that.  

The Biggest Liar of Them All

 For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you- Isaiah 41:13 NIV

I love dogs. 

I love dogs so much that I point excitedly at every dog I see and I stop to pet every dog I pass on the street. I love dogs so much that I don’t even care that this behavior makes me look like a lunatic.   All that being said, for most of my life I had some serious questions about people who were insanely devoted to their mean, yappy, horrid little dogs. 

Then we got a mean, yappy, horrid little dog. 

His name was Bruno and he was a pug.  My husband and I decided to we wanted a pug because pugs are not usually aggressive. We wanted a sweet little dog everyone would love.  Unfortunately, Bruno was only sweet to us and very few people loved him. He was slightly larger than a football but he would bark and growl and bully full-grown men into doing whatever he wanted. Mostly what he wanted was for everyone to stay far away me and the rest of our family. When the little jerk got riled up he was so fierce and ferocious that big, burly men would literally run away from him in terror.  But he loved us and we loved him and now I understand why people allow horrid little dogs to live in their homes. 

One day after an exceptionally embarrassing encounter between Bruno and a three-hundred-pound realtor, it occurred to me that Bruno and the emotion of fear had a lot of similarities. 

Bruno was not really capable of hurting anyone. He was short and squat and weighed twenty pounds after a big meal. His teeth were bad and even in his prime they were not really all that sharp. But boy could he act scary.  He had the power to make people believe that he really was going to hurt them. 

Fear should never be dismissed out of hand. There are times when fear can be logical, reasonable and even healthy. The Bible commands us to fear God (Leviticus 25:17, Psalm 96:4, Proverbs 1:7, 1stPeter 2:17). It makes sense to fear crazy people with weapons, stupidity, poisonous snakes and things that kill people. Sometimes fear is even our friend. We have all had those moments when we did something (or didn’t do something) because we suddenly became afraid of doing (or not doing) the thing. Later we learned that if we had done the thing it would have killed us or at the very least ruined our day.  

However,

Those situations are the exceptions. Most of the time fear is just a thief and a liar. There are five things fear will steal from us if we let it and none of them are things any of us can afford to lose:

Our trust in God-

Fear is not usually a “God thing”. The God who commands His people to be strong and courageous would only plant fear in their hearts if there were a really good reason for it. Fear is usually a “Satan thing”. Fear is Satan’s most effective tool. Fear persuades us that God isn’t really good and that He can’t do the things He says He can do. Fear can also convince us we can’t do the things God says we can do (John 14:12). 

The ability to accomplish our mission-

 If a person is drawing breath there is a reason for it.  Every individual has people only they can reach and tasks only they can accomplish. Fear wants us to believe the lie that God cannot empower us to be good enough, smart enough or capable enough to do what God wants us to do.   

Our boundaries- 

Boundaries are the bottom line of what we will and will not allow into our lives. They are like invisible shields that protect us from people and situations that might bring us physical, emotional and spiritual harm.  Good, solid boundaries keep us from sinning and being sinned against and the people who want to lead us into sin. Fear often causes Christians to accept the unacceptable in relationships. Fear of not fitting in, fear of making people mad or fear of not being liked inevitably cause our boundaries to be breached. Anytime we allow our boundaries to be breached misery and sin are sure to follow. 

Our joy-

It is literally impossible to be fearful and joyful at the same time. Anytime we allow fear to run the show we lose our joy, faith and peace of mind.  Fear steals our joy and peace of mind by getting us focused on the “what ifs” of every situation. What if I fail? What if no one likes me? What if the worst happens?

Fear really is like my dog Bruno. 

Fear has no power except what we give it. Fear feels scary and it makes us believe that something horrible will happen if we don’t do what fear is telling us to do. We must remember that feelings are not facts and that faith is the enemy of fear. The more we choose to trust God and believe that He can do what He says He will do the less power fear has over us.