A feminine focus

Words Sally Davey

How quickly our greatest blessings become our most regrettable curses! Words are precious soothers, but they are also evil darts. Our ability to communicate with one another is a gift of God. But words, our main tool of communication, can rapidly become a most destructive force. Experience teaches us this all too often. And Scripture abounds in warnings to that effect. Consider James, writer of the epistle: “..noone can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:8-10)

Proverbs, those gems of practical wisdom, are a treasure-store of similar sayings. We are reminded, over and again, that the problem with our mouths is our hearts. Out of the heart the mouth speaks, and so on. If our attitudes are godly, if we are in our hearts cultivating the fruits of the Spirit; if we are working with all our mind and will on developing the 1 Corinthians 13 attributes of love, then what we say will undoubtedly be more inclined to help than hurt others. Clearly, there is cause for considerable discipline in the use of our tongues. But does this call to cultivate our words stop at our tongues? I would like to suggest that we should apply the same ideas of word-cultivation to other forms of communication. Let me explain.

Good Servants

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, God has given us a wide range of useful ways to communicate with the written word. All of them have different uses and, if used creatively and to good effect, they can become excellent instruments of Christian service. Let's explore some of the ways.

Take letters, first of all. Now, I know that most of you probably have little other than bills and junk mail in your letter-boxes these days. Your friends (like mine) have probably resorted to other means of keeping in touch with you (more of that in a minute). But there is something special, and has always been something special, about a piece of carefully-chosen paper, covered with handwritten, carefully-chosen words, arriving after some days at your house in a carefully-chosen envelope. Consider the reasons. When you sit down to compose a letter to someone, you know that it is going to take some time. It always seems to take me at least half an hour. (That's why I'm always putting it off for far too long!) But the mere fact of having to do this is an indication that we concentrate a great deal of thought into what we are going to communicate, and how we are going to do it.

What We Use

For a start, the paper we choose already says quite a lot about our letter and our attitude. Do we scribble away on cheap lined refill, or cute notepaper with fluorescent pink love-hearts along the bottom? Or do we splash out on that really expensive but gorgeous linen stationery? Each choice says something different to the recipient: we are being casual, informal, careless, tackily affectionate, or showing the utmost respect, etc. Now, of course, the choice of our words says even more. Having to commit pen to paper is really committing our hearts. What we write, in black or blue and white, lasts a lot longer than what we merely say, with our tongues. That letter which someone will receive can be read quickly, then more slowly, then again and again, as the reader goes over it, considering every possible nuance that the writer might have intended. It's worth thinking about this when we write letters. It is a joy if the words are a comfort and delight. Don't you remember the letters you wrote (or maybe are now writing) when you were in love or engaged, and he was somewhere a good way away? Didn't you treasure his words for years, and keep them in a drawer to re-read when you had to be apart for a while again? Or what about those letters written to comfort the dear friend who'd lost a loved one? Carefully-chosen words are a genuine balm to the soul. I've got some wonderful letters from dear friends who were thoughtful enough to share some of their Scriptural wisdom and show their practical love to me in a letter. And I know those letters weren't written in a hurried five minutes. In all probability, they took hours - and the message from their hearts communicated volumes to mine. Consequently, I have treasured them and re-read them many times. Sadly, though, the reverse effect is also true. Careless or thoughtless written words, especially if intended to convey a rebuke on a sensitive issue, can do damage far greater than if conveyed by the tongue. They stay with the reader, they are analysed many times, and often the unkindness magnifies with each reading. We need to give great care to what we write.

The Written Word Stays

Of course, there is another important purpose in choosing to write words rather than speak them. It can be difficult, especially if one is a muddled thinker, inclined to get flustered or embarrassed or easily abashed in a stressful face-to-face situation, to communicate one's meaning clearly. Resorting to writing is very useful in that instance, and I've used it for that purpose myself. But we just have to remember how much more permanent written words are. Face-to-face with someone, we can apologise immediately when we sense they are offended. Facial expressions and body language give us all sorts of clues as to how our words have been received. Written words sent across the miles may take months or years to undo.

In the course of various pieces of historical research, I've had the sheer delight of learning something about the effectiveness of written words. Letters are one of the most useful sources for historians; and it is obvious that those who wrote them, most especially if they were well-trained in the use of words, learned to reveal the thoughts of their hearts with some power. For one thing, well-read and well-educated letter-writers of yesteryear had a wide variety of words at their disposal from which to choose. This led to rich, expressive and much more meaningful communication than most of us seem capable of today. But, if we have a will, we can work on this, too. For one thing, reading purposefully will most definitely add to our store of vocabulary. Do you try more stretching reading material, or do you give it a miss because there are words of which you don't know the meaning? Invest in a dictionary and use it! I remember when I was 9 or 10 and beginning on the classics which I grew to love. I needed a dictionary under my bed for several years, but after a while I wasn't discovering any unfamiliar words. And seeing them used taught me how to use them myself. Try it! Study new ways to open and close letters. There were delightful conventions used in times past which may seem amusing now, but which were more imaginative and varied than those we commonly apply today. How about the closing: “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient servant…..XY or Z”? Sounds quaint? Well, why not explore the possibilities? There are many alternatives to “Yours Sincerely” or “love from”. I have one friend who closes: “lovingly, Rebecca” and am warmed every time I read that. Another uses “cordially”, which is respectful and shows some versatility in the use of language. Refreshingly, it is neither slovenly nor over-familiar in a formal, yet friendly letter.

Other Communications

Then we come to other forms of written communication. Email has effected an astounding revolution in the way we converse. To me, it is something between a telephone call and a letter. Like a phone call, it is immediate - provided your correspondent clears his or her email regularly, you can send and receive within minutes. Even across the world, which is quickly becoming a small village. It owns some of the advantages of letter-writing, in that it can be re-run and pondered over. You cannot see the writer's facial expression (yet!), but you can clear up misunderstandings or offence fairly quickly. And it does have advantages over telephone communication: you know you are not interrupting someone's dinner or proposal of marriage when you send it! And you know for sure that you will not be tempted to take up hours of their time by having a conversation that drags on and on. The expense of toll calls used to spare us this temptation (when I was a child my mother and my aunt hardly ever phoned each other - even though they lived only two hours' drive apart - they wrote to each other) but now with $3 calls, the weekend is the limit! However, the immediacy of email has its negatives: it is leading to a decline in the care and expressiveness of our language. Some people have an art and wit that sparkles in the medium of email (that is great!) but others spit out grammatically-illiterate semi-speak. And as for text-messaging via cell-phone….. my nineteenth-century letter-writers would turn in their graves! I shudder to think what “NE14 T” sent to 5 workmates mid-afternoon will lead to. Likewise, “IM L8” is hardly the most expressive (or courteous) way to apologise for failure to arrive at a meeting at the appropriate time!

A Gift

Yes, words are a gift of God. Like all gifts, they need to be used with care, for the good of others; and they should be cultivated and refined so that our use of them is improved over time. Remember, we will be called to account for every careless word we use. However, those that are carefully chosen and kindly expressed will be cause for praise and thanks when we join our Father and the saints in heaven.

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Faith in Focus / NZ Reformed Church / thirty@paradise.net.nz / Copyright 2001