Vocabulary of Grace

Aug 10, 2010 |Rachel Starr Thomson

A simple switch in vocabulary can trigger a profound difference in attitude.  

Growing up, my 11 siblings and I were never allowed to say "shut up." Calling each other names was right out, and "stupid" was anathema — along with most forms of complaining. My parents recognized the power of the tongue and trained us, as best they could, to use ours carefully.

As a writer, I deal with the power of words every day. Words damage or heal; impart grace or condemn. On a deep level, they alter the way we see life and respond to challenges. They create safe places or dangerous ones — in my home, thanks to my parents' rules, the overwhelming atmosphere is one of harmony.

Of everything in life we tend to be most careless with our words, yet they are powerful and worthy of care.

Language of Faith

When I was 13 or so, my dad put the kibosh on a word we'd been using for years: "lucky." Why remove something so common from our language? "Because," he said, "we don't believe in luck." Awkward though it sounded to us at the time, we were instructed to use the word "blessed" instead. No more could we look at friends and say "You're so lucky." Now we informed them that they were blessed.

This simple switch in vocabulary triggered a profound difference in attitude. Before, our words had been idolatrous at worst, empty at best. Now we spoke truth and gratitude each time we recognized a special blessing in someone's life. Luck, after all, is arbitrary. Blessing comes from the deliberate hand of a good God.

Christians live in a constant state of transformation. Along the way, we make choices to change things. We choose the clothes we will or will not wear, the influences we will or will not imbibe, the ways in which we will or will not handle courtship. Each choice changes us and makes a statement to others. There's no difference when it comes to words. We do well to choose a deliberate vocabulary of faith and grace — one that edifies others, keeps us anchored in God's reality and glorifies the living Word.

"Bless God, We're Well"

One of my uncles is a rabbi. If you ask him or his wife how they are doing, they will always preface their answer with the words "Bless God." It's a spoken recognition that, as James said, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (James 1:17).

The same James upbraided the believers of his day for the way they talked about the future.

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit" — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." (James 4:13-15)

Does that seem extreme? It certainly forms a stark contrast to the way we usually talk. So often though, our speech ignores reality and refuses to give God His due. When our speech reflects truth, truth will sink deeper into our hearts — and perhaps give others something to think about as well.

Returning the Glory

In his book What's So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey laments the blanched vocabulary of Christianity:

I've found that words tend to spoil over the years, like old meat. Their meaning rots away. Consider the word "charity," for instance. When King James translators contemplated the highest form of love they settled on the word "charity" to convey it. Nowadays we hear the scornful protest, "I don't want your charity!"

Perhaps I keep circling back to grace because it is one grand theological word that has not spoiled. I call it "the last best word" because every English usage I can find retains some of the glory of the original.

If we should choose our words carefully in other areas of life, we should do so all the more when it comes to faith. We use a host of words to talk about God, but many of us are unsure of their meaning. For example, take the word that identifies us: "Christian." What does that mean? What makes someone a Christian? Over the centuries, it's come to mean all sorts of things. It could mean "from the west" instead of "from the east," or "decent and humane" rather than "scandalous."

The Bible itself only uses "Christian" twice. More common identifiers are the words "disciple" and "brethren." Jesus called His followers "children" and "little ones." I'm personally attached to "believer," for I've come to realize that, at core, a Christian is one who believes. If we take each of these words and examine them, looking at their implications for our beliefs and behavior, the word "Christian" is deepened. We begin to take the glory back.

Speaking Honor

We live in a culture of irreverence. In the name of making people laugh, we make a mockery of everything. Paul, though, told believers not to let "foolish talking" or "jesting" be part of their lives (Ephesians 5:3-4). Why? Because as believers, we should cultivate speech that gives honor where it is due.

Few things are dishonored more in our culture than marriage and family. This is true among Christians as much as anywhere else. Engagement is met with crude jokes and comments about life being over. Pregnancy is worse, and those who dare to welcome many children into their lives can expect to be the brunt of plenty of jokes and rude comments (my mother, who has 12 children, was once asked by a cashier if she'd fallen out of a tree). We claim to believe what God says about marriage and family, yet our speech patterns are just as likely to reflect feminism, humanism, and hedonistic values. This should not be.

Our speech alters the way we think about each other, as well. Psalm 1 tells us that the man is blessed who doesn't "sit in the seat of the scornful," yet scorn is not uncommon in Christian circles. We tend to speak with scorn, sarcasm, and judgment of those who hold to doctrinal tenets we don't, who pierce body parts we wouldn't, or who haven't reached our part of the journey.

I remember when a friend told me of a youth group she'd visited where standards were dragging on the floor. I was waiting for words of shock or self-righteousness. Instead, she finished her narrative with "We have so much light!" Suddenly, we weren't better than the kids in that youth group — we were just gifted. God had given us something, so much of something, and that required both that we be grateful and that we steward it well.

We have the opportunity to use words that reflect what we really believe, that strengthen our highest ideals and give glory to God. Why not take it?

According to the Need

Ephesians 4:29 instructs us to "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear" (NASB).

We can probably all think of a time when someone's unexpected words lifted us up and gave us the strength to keep going. Ultimately, the words we speak are gifts — to those around us and to God, who always hears. As my friend Joshua Strickler once wrote, "Words mean things. I am convinced of it."

Consider the meaning, and choose your words well.

Copyright 2007 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.

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