by Melissa Brotton | 23 February 2023 |
“Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11, NIV)
As she turned her car into her driveway on Tuesday afternoon, Crystal smiled. It had been a perfect day. Her early-morning conversation with her sister had been fun as the two had shared mutually encouraging words about each other’s art pieces. Later, at work, her supervisor had complimented her on a report she’d turned in, and lunch with her husband, Gary, had been filled with loving words. Feeling saturated in warm fuzzies, Crystal nearly danced to the front door and sailed happily into the house feeling ready for a wonderful evening.
As she turned her car into her driveway on Wednesday afternoon, Crystal burst into tears. It had not been a good day. Just after lunch, one of her coworkers had, without warning, made a snarky comment aimed right at her. Later, Crystal overheard two angry people arguing loudly in the parking lot. Being a sensitive person, she felt a sense of dread at their heated words and cursing. At lunch, Gary had mentioned that Crystal was not her usual peppy self. Feeling downhearted, Crystal dragged herself to the front door and slumped into the house wondering how a mere 24 hours could make such a difference in how she felt.
The power of words to affect our lives is underestimated, to say the least. Negative or positive words can change someone’s day and, quite possibly, someone’s whole life trajectory. We’ve known this for some time from studies by scientists such as J. Lodge and colleagues, who found that negative self-talk in preadolescent children contributes to an increase in anxiety. (1)
Think of what happens when a child does not break from this pattern of negative self-talk and takes it into her teen and adult years. According to neuroscience, even a single word has the ability to raise our stress at the biological level. Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of Words Can Change Your Brain, have identified 12 strategies designed to reduce or interrupt cycles of negative thinking. Skills such as developing inner peace, reflecting on happy memories, showing gratitude, and speaking in a friendly way offer a helpful game plan for disrupting negative thinking.
The act of concentrating on a positive word sparks the language portions of the frontal cortex with a resulting ripple effect to other brain areas as we continue to focus on that word. According to the authors, the communication strategies we grew up with are inadequate for promoting good communication and are but mere remnants of our childhood and adolescent years. In order to increase compassion and effectiveness in communicating, we need to retrain our brains. (2)
Two other eye-catching items on Newberg and Waldman’s list were “speak briefly” and “listen deeply,” because my scriptural values tell me to let my words be few (Eccl. 5:2). Being someone who loves to contribute to deep conversations, the first one will offer me many challenges. As a teacher, listening is a skill I’ve been cultivating for a while, but one can always develop deeper listening skills.
Looking more closely at what scripture tells us, the apostle James’s taming-the-tongue sermon is a good place to start. In strong language it conveys the destructive potential of words, as well as our desperate need to control our tongues. Comparing the human tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth, to a rudder on a ship, and even to a small fire that sets the whole forest aflame, James shows us how the words we use about ourselves and others have power to reflect back on us and affect the future of our lives (James 3:2–12). While we can understand James to mean that our words come back to us for either good or evil, he goes on to liken our tongues to a microcosm of wickedness, which corrupts the whole body and sets a destructive blaze over the whole course of life (James 3:6). Using James’s sermon, Rabbi Kirt A. Schneider lists four ways that our words reflect back on us negatively: (3)
- The abundance of words (talking too much): When we are economical with the use of our words, we retain power and goodness in our lives.
- Careless words: When we stop using words recklessly without sensitivity for how they affect others, we experience more peace in our relationships.
- Negative and complaining words: When we exchange negative words for positive ones, we reflect peace and goodness back over our lives.
- Critical or judgmental words: Once we stop talking about people’s faults in a nonconstructive way, we release potential for goodness and hope to spring back into our lives.
By addressing these four areas of how we use words, we can start to see a brighter pathway emerging for our lives. This change will in turn shift our outlook from gloom to bloom. To be clear, I am not suggesting a Pollyanna way of life without adequate ground in reality, but rather a new habit controlled by principles instead of by feelings. Such a life, the apostle James believed, is infused with social and spiritual abundance.
While it is difficult to tame the tongue, James asserts that doing so is not only possible but also vital. His timeless exhortation has likely helped many people change their life of drudgery or helplessness to one of vitality and strength. Knowing we can make this valiant shift should stir our hearts with hope even while we practice these principles of communication. Then, as James declares, we will have a continuous flow of fresh water instead of brackish.
1 Lodge, J., D.K. Harte, and G. Tripp. “Children’s Self-Talk Under Conditions of Mild Anxiety.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 12.2 (Mar-April, 1998), 153-76.
2 Newberg, Andrew and Mark Robert Waldman. Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. New York: Avery, 2012.
3 Schneider, Kirt A. “How Words Control You.” YouTube. Uploaded by Discovering the Jewish Jesus. 19 Feb. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSZX9-WP2qQ.
Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems.