The Worlds Our Words Create

Melissa Shackelford November 20, 2020

I first saw Marilyn McEntyre’s book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009) on a book table at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College in 2018. Caring for words. I love that concept. My BA is in Communication Arts and Literature Education for grades 5-12, which I pursued out of my passion to help students find their voice through reading and writing, and my belief that figuring out what you want to say and how you want to say it is part of finding out who you are.

Even as a young high school reader, I was drawn to books such as Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World: An Inspiring Guide to Transforming the World with Words and Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (a witty primer on the significance and consequences of our grammar use—I promise, commas have never been funnier). These books enlivened my intrinsic awareness of how our words create the world(s) in which we live. What we say matters. So much so that with our words we can prevent, deny, promote, confess, uplift, repent, withhold, condemn, encourage, preach, pretend, ponder, and question, to name a few. Is there a tool, a weapon, or a gift more versatile?

All of these writers affirm a reverence for language, reminding us of the incredible value of this currency we daily exchange with one another. They offer a “call-up” to all word users and lead me to believe that something as mundane and subconscious as our everyday word choice is, in fact, holy. The words we speak are the soil and water that nourish the image bearer in all of us. Furthermore, our words are seeds that can sprout new substance in one another, through a word of encouragement or a perspective of hope. Caring for our words in this way—as both nourishment and prophetic substance—presents us opportunities to cultivate the presence of God in and through our lives.

In this cultivation journey, we need to remember that words come from somewhere—they have roots. Linguistically speaking, words have histories, specific points of origin, and their evolution through time informs their meaning. This is also true spiritually. Words have roots within us as well. Jesus said in Matthew 12:34, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” meaning there is an internal ecosystem within which words are bred. Our words do not arise from a vacuum. They are the result of how we feed our souls, tend our spirits, steward our desires, and nurture our beliefs. At their best, words evidence the unseen, yet eternal, realities of the Holy Spirit’s work within us, shared as common grace through our speech.

Just as words convey grace, they also carry weight. They have agency, and we must be careful how we use them. In fact, Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” What a unique, two-sided weapon we hold, one that can literally deprive someone of life and also breathe life into someone, depending on how we use it. This metaphor might sound extreme, but I think it’s worth taking more seriously. What if we believed that our words have the potential to conceive realities when we speak? We may be familiar with the idea of our word choice being “life-giving” in the form of encouragement or affirmation, but there is another dimension of life that happens when we apply faith to our speech.

Faith is a substance, according to Hebrews 11:1, and as such, it is a supernatural activator of our words, seeding hope and expectation for what may not have existed without that word being spoken. You may have experienced this when someone articulated an elusive thought or feeling you couldn’t put your finger on, but through the faith of their words there was a palpable validation and permission released that wasn’t there before. Words are more spiritually dynamic and generative than we often think—even when used to bring correction or challenge. Like Jesus’s metaphorical vinedresser who, in John 15, cuts and prunes the vine “so that it may bear more fruit,” we should be diligent stewards of our words, cautious of our ability to tear down, and expectantly attentive to our capacity (and responsibility) to build up.

At the end of the day, our words create the worlds in which we live. Speaking isn’t simply a matter of providing information; it’s a matter of creation. In Genesis, God speaks realities into being when he creates the world. He creates something from nothing, just by His word—the heavens and the earth, day and night, all living creatures, and humankind. And then, God invites the first human, Adam, to name all the animals. Likewise, we are invited into the creative process of bringing identity, meaning, and purpose to the people and situations around us by our naming—our words. Every time we speak, we create an environment for someone else, and ourselves, to walk into. We influence the conditions and the boundaries for people to fail or flourish. This is both a gift and a responsibility. My prayer is that we may be people who embrace the holiness and the prophetic possibility of what we say, rooting ourselves in the WORD of God, the ultimate source of nourishment; reflecting upon the ways our words can impart life; and guarding our hearts, the seat of our thoughts, because we know that all of life flows from it.