This is a guest post by Scott Grorud. He serves as a pastor at my home church, Faith Lutheran Church in Hutchinson, Minnesota. He and his wife Shelly have two children. Kirsten is a sophomore at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL and Andrew is a junior at Hutchinson High School.
It seems that we humans have a kind of love-hate relationship with language. We proclaim that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but insist that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We uphold the importance of dialogue and conversation, but also believe “talk is cheap” and that “actions speak louder than words.” Every child learns to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” when they all know perfectly well, from their own painful experience, that words often hurt worst of all.
The Conversation Hub podcast and blog is devoted to a very high and constructive view of conversation—and that is great. The ability to converse is one of the definitive marks of humanity, in contrast to all other creatures. We can and do use conversation so that “friendships are formed,” “knowledge is shared” and “life happens and finds meaning.”
However, the question raised by our own language about words is whether we believe, deep down, that conversation really can accomplish such things. I have to believe that it can, but to make that claim necessarily raises another question.
If conversation is capable of such good results, why does it so often result in destructive ends? The reason people declare that “talk is cheap” or “actions speak louder than words” is because they have experienced how words are so easily and often used to deceive or inflict harm or manipulate others. Here, too, we see a kind of double-mindedness among us. People feel betrayed when gossip is spread about them, but relish passing on “news” about others. Folks praise the conflict-solving power of direct confrontation, but regularly share their tales of woe with anyone and everyone but the person who is involved in a dispute and could possibly do something to resolve it. We discipline our children to speak respectfully, but lace our own conversation with “colorful” language of various sorts–and then feign shock when we hear them repeating it.
Words, language, conversation certainly do have power. The highest human accomplishments and best human experiences are achieved in, made possible by or communicated to others in words. To laud the goodness of conversation, however, requires that we also acknowledge its dark side and power to inflict harm, as well.
As a Christian and a theologian, my own personal conviction is that we humans are not able to use language purely for good and never for self-serving or harmful purposes. I think that explains the love-hate relationship we have with words. Finally, we need to be redeemed by a Word that is beyond us, one that became flesh to rescue us from the hopeless quandary of our speech. (So, Merry Christmas!)
Even apart from such convictions, though, it is only honest to recognize that the power of conversation cuts both ways. To the extent we are able, it is incumbent on all of us to direct our conversation to pursue the better and avoid the worse uses of it. (The problem, of course, is that it is so much easier said than done. As just one example, the best use of speech is not always positive. At times, we are called to critique or admonish, not only to praise. Can that always be done in a constructive and up-building way?)
To control our conversation and direct it to its highest purposes may be the most demanding form of self-discipline, certainly one that is sorely needed in society today.
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