We live in a world in which the quality of language is deteriorating. Many conversations are sprinkled, or even saturated with curses and other words that divide and dehumanize people. Profane language can be heard at school, work, and at entertainment events. "Trash talking" has become an accepted practice at professional sports events. Rude or disrespectful comments, under the disguise of honesty, are heard on television and radio, especially "talk" radio. They're also seen on bumper stickers, billboards, and even on some greeting cards. Some uncomplimentary language may be legitimate, especially if it's accurately documenting past event or conversation, but much is not. Language that passes for humorous today would have been labeled as unacceptably obscene a few decades ago. Many conversations, intentionally or unintentionally, carry an antagonistic tone. Young people today are frequently exposed to profanity.
Not as openly hostile, perhaps, but ultimately just as harmful, is the exclusive language, used in many churches, which recognizes only males. Like cursing and racist labels, it also divides and degrades people.
In contrast, the words associated with the birth of Jesus are words that comfort and uplift. "Do not be afraid," and "fear not," were spoken by angels to Joseph (Matt. 1:20) and to Mary (Luke 1:30). The intense fear of the shepherds, some of whom were probably teenagers, or even younger, was dismissed by the calming words of the angel: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Note the inclusiveness of the angel's message. The good news is "for all the people." No exceptions.
There was much to fear in those days. The lack of housing was a concern for the young couple. Soon Herod would be trying to kill their firstborn, similar to the way selfish and sinful governments today jeopardize the lives of young people by sending them off to war. But the divine messengers made a deliberate effort with wholesome and compassionate language, to comfort people and remove their fear.
Concern about language is found throughout the Bible. Matthew 5:37 tells us to keep it simple: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'..." The wisdom book of Proverbs has numerous references to speech. Perhaps the most sobering passage of all is Matthew 12: 36-37. "But I tell you that you will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word you have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."
Words are powerful instruments of communication. Often our keenest memories are of words which brought either healing or hurt to our hearts. Harsh words are frequently a prelude to war. Soldiers use derogatory labels to dehumanize the enemy and make it easier to kill them. Of course the vast majority of war victims are not soldiers, but innocent civilians. In my work in a hospital emergency department, I frequently see patients injured in conflicts initiated or aggravated by harsh words or language. Such confrontations are sometimes fatal.
What can we do about this problem? It's important to remember that the words we use not only reflect our thinking, but also shape it. It's possible to change our thoughts and our behavior by changing the way we talk. Perhaps the main reason it's so difficult for women to gain equal status with men in many churches is because the language used still excludes them.
The temptation to use profane and divisive language or labels can be very persistent for youth and adults alike. How do we avoid the infectious nature of such talk? One solution is to simply quit listening to it.
Let's take our verbal cues from the angels on that first Christmas. They spoke words that dispelled fear and brought peace and comfort to the listeners. They also invited everyone to participate in the joyous celebration of the birth of the Savior.
We can improve our language with practice. It's easier to talk our way into a change of thinking than to think our way into a change of talking. Can you imagine a war continuing for long if the enemy troops started saying nice things about each other? Seeing every person as created in God's image, as a living picture of God, reminds us that from our mouths should come only words that bless. The language of those who celebrate the birth of Jesus should bring peace and hope to the world. Young people today are growing up in a lost world that echoes with divisive sounds of hate and hostility. The peaceful compassionate language of Christian youth can make their presence an oasis of comfort and hospitality for others this Advent and Christmas season.
Published in slightly different form in the October, 1999 issue of Builder