An ancient story, often retold but never without relevance, has one of the Egyptian Pharaohs making a strange request of his priests. As the sacrificial ox was being slain at the altar, the Pharaoh demands that the holy men bring to him the holiest portion of the animal, and that part of the animal most evil. In the end, the priests brought Pharaoh only the tongue.
This reflects the parallel wisdom of an equally olden Jewish proverb: “Death and life are in the power of one’s words; they hold both poison and fruit.” The ancients knew this – the power of words – but we seem to have forgotten it. For all the trouble afflicting this world today, one of the more insidious but overlooked concerns is the failure of basic civility.
Caustic cable news sound bites, scathing Facebook comments, political mudslinging, rants and tirades against enemies and neighbors: There is a devilish eagerness to rip others apart with our dehumanizing, violent words. This loss of healthy, respectful communication is as big a factor in the loss of a society’s soul as institutional and economic collapse.
What can we do about it? Not much if we continue spewing poison and death with our mouths. But venomous words are not the only option. Our words also hold the power of life and healing. What if we put the same energy, enthusiasm, and creativity into plotting others’ betterment as we did their demise?
What if we learned to lay traps of kindness, not retaliation? What if we learned to use our words and actions, not to critique and tear down others, but to uplift and motivate them? What if we were calculating and methodical with our plans, not so that someone else will explode with rage, but that they react with explosive love and charity.
You actually can – and this is only a reminder – you actually can have a profound, life-changing influence on the people around you. You are able, with your words, to set the trajectory for a person’s entire life. Words, used properly, can do irreversible good for the people around us.
One of the earliest Christian writers wrote to new followers of Jesus saying, “Think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). In the original language “motivate” means “to incite” or “to enflame” as one might start a fire. But the root of the word is even more revealing, as it means “acid.” What does acid do? It burns. It stings. It’s like liquid flame.
When the writer of Hebrews instructs his readers to motivate and provoke others in the direction of love and good deeds, he is calling for all of us to act as constructive catalysts, as those who will ignite and stir up good in others. He’s giving us creative license to be agitators – but not to cause trouble – we must aspire to be agitators of love and excellence in others, and there’s no better way to do that than with our words.
Think about the people in your life. Who do you need to sabotage with expressions of kindness? Who needs to be roused toward love? Who needs the encouragement of life-giving words? That granddaughter who could use a soft place to land? That employee who needs a little boost? That student who has extreme talent but zero confidence? That neighbor who always seems to be alone? Those young parents raising their kids in this world gone mad?
Acts of discouragement are easy and abundant. There’s always someone willing and eager to rain on others’ parades; to kick people in the teeth when they are already down; to criticize, complain, and carp about others’ decisions, performance, or ideas. But there is such a drought of kindness and encouragement, such an absence of inspiration and edification!
So start devising redemptive ways of agitation. Find ways to use your words to motivate others in the direction of love and good deeds. It could change their lives. It could change you. It just might save the world.