Take Care with Your Words

I know I’ve shared with you countless times before that I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare. I’ve also told you with great honesty that I can only take him a little bit at a time. What I mean is that I can read through the entirety of one of his works, but then it’ll be a long while before I pick up anything else he’s written. It’s ornate stuff, and spending too much time it tires my brain.

I do appreciate his usage of language. Again, I’m sure I’ve shared with some of you before that I find his insults to be the most intriguing. I hope that doesn’t offend you. If it does, please recall I didn’t say enjoyable. I said intriguing.

I say this because Shakespeare has such an inventive way with language. He can stab at you grammatically, and sometimes, you don’t even know he’s done it until it finally clicks a few days later. He can say things that while on the surface appear to mean one thing, in their core, mean something completely different. And then of course there are those times when he hides nothing and just lets the innermost thoughts of this or that character explode like brimstone meteors from a furious volcano.

“Such short-liv’d wits do wither as they grow,” he says abusively to another by way of the princess in the second act of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

“O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!” he writes as the angry Lady Anne to Gloucester in the first act of Richard III, her words coming very close to alienating a character needed as an ally.

But there you have it. One would think to admire Shakespeare’s skill for his piercing wit—at least until you see the results in the manuscript. In other words, just like in real life, insults never seem to help to change the situation. They just never seem to bring a situation to a better end. I can tell you I’m no stranger to this. I work with words all the time, and I confess to arranging them in ways I knew might jostle the reader. Let this confession reveal my sorrow as much as my guilt when it didn’t play out as I’d hoped. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

However, and on the other hand, while I wouldn’t encourage you to insult anyone, there’s something to be said for not shying away from calling things as you see them. There’s definitely an honesty in that.

While the rest of the world looks the other way, the Bible has a tendency for steering into things, too. It calls sin a sin. And there’s something to be said for driving right into those troubling situations we’d much rather avoid—defining the scene at hand in clear terms, not sugar-coating it, and then taking action, sometimes stern, to deal with the challenges born from that scene—all the while knowing that when it comes to debris, it won’t be an easy road ahead.

Part of my point here, though, is to once again suggest there’s something to be said about thinking through the words we would use and then employing wit in ways we hope will help rather than be used just to look smart or win an argument with a foe. Even recently, I wrote something that, if analyzed carefully, employed a multitude of styles, forms, and devices. I included satire. I used opposition point-of-view and imagery. I used simile and metaphor. I definitely used hyperbole. Even as I was typing on the fly, I was thinking it through. I was making it so that a long bit of observation would be easy to follow till its end.

Unfortunately, the topic was more emotional than even I expected, and with that, people did what people do. They got mad, drew lines, and went for each other’s throats. I know why they did this. They’d already chosen positions, and my words didn’t land in their camps. It was human nature to be frustrated. In the end, I later admitted to having learned a lesson in this regard. Essentially I wrote in response to the whole situation that when it comes to a writer having sympathy for all readers, no matter how careful the writer tries to be with the tools of the craft, whatever is eventually scribed will never be the antidote that cures the rage of all who’ll read it and respond. In tandem, I submitted that if not even the Word of God succeeds in doing this, what would lead a guy like me to think it would be any different? People are people. They’ll read it how they read it.

In the meantime, if we’re going to take a chance and put ourselves out there in front of others, the best we can do is to realize that words do matter. We can’t ultimately control their reception, but we can care when we put the words in order. Indeed, if you’re going to put your words out for public consumption, such care matters a lot.

As it relates to the topic of writing, notice how Saint Paul hints to this care when he brings together the courage to say what needs to be said as it’s measured by self-control.

“God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

In other words, we don’t need to be afraid to deal with difficult things—people, situations, jobs, you name it. By virtue of our Baptism into Christ, we are new creations, and with this, we’ve been given Christian courage. We can say what needs to be said. Heck, the courage to say anything at all is a pretty big deal in this day and age of internet-shaming and digital vitriol. Trust me. I know. Still, this same courage isn’t absent of reflection before putting our fingers to the keyboard, understanding that even as there is a time for everything to be spoken, as Christians, our hearts are to be set on Christ and His love displayed through self-controlled. To do this is to do everything in its perfect time—the right time (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Will our words accomplish what we want them to accomplish? Not always. But did we take great care in fashioning them? If yes, then sleep well. God is good. He’ll handle the outcomes. Again, the words I wrote that drew ire were fairly complex. Things people took as insulting were written as from the perspective of someone in opposition to what I actually believed. Readers missed that twist, and so I pursued peace. I took the time to go back and fix those parts that seemed less than helpful. In the meantime, God is still handling the outcomes—and I’m sleeping just fine. He’s good, and with that, I have no worries whatsoever.

But I reiterate, in the midst of any particular situation, be sure to come out on the other side knowing you prayerfully considered what you were saying. Ask yourself, is what you’re about to scribe for your own justification or for extending a hand to your opponent in order to convince them to your position? Will your subsequent actions move the ball forward or stop it dead in its tracks? Are you seeking the will of God or your own will toward personal gain?

What is your goal? If it isn’t in some way peace in Christ, step away from the computer and go take a nap.

As Lent unfolds, I’d encourage you to ponder these things. It never hurts to consider the sanctified encouragement of God through His Word as we live according to the Gospel promise that even as we fall short in so many ways, we are forgiven. This forgiveness empowers us to be those who are more than capable of having a genuine stare-off with the world around us, and yet do so in ways that give glory to God and serve to the benefit of our neighbor. And while it is happening, we can be certain that our faithful God continues to love us and promises to keep with us each and every day, His steps matching our steps in every circumstance.

Don’t forget that. It really is a big part of who we are Christians in and against this world.