The social psychologist James Pennebaker spent years researching the significance of our use of words. With a team of grad students, he developed a sophisticated software program that analyzes what our words say about us. Pennebaker claims that the words we generate over a lifetime are like “fingerprints.” Even small words - what he calls “stealth words,” like pronouns (I, you, we, they) and prepositions (to, for, over) - “broadcast the kind of people we are.”
No wonder Jesus said “that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Words not only reveal who people are, they have the power to change who people become, for good or evil. In a letter to believers scattered in the Diaspora, St. James makes the point that little words can have giant effects. The entire course of a person’s life can be changed by a few words from a parent or even a friend.
Sometimes the effect is good. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, three years prior to the start of the World War II, the African-American star Jesse Owens seemed a sure bet to win the long jump. The previous year, he had set three world records in one day.
As he walked to the long jump pit, he saw a tall, blue-eyed, blond German taking practice jumps in the 26-foot range. Owens was worried: the Nazis were determined to prove Aryan “superiority,” and they intended to do so by beating Jesse Owens.
On his first attempt, Owens was so nervous he went several inches beyond the takeoff line before he jumped. That left him even more rattled and he fouled on the second jump, too. He was one foul away from being eliminated and he was a wreck.
That’s when the tall German approached Owens and introduced himself as Luz Long. Long, the archetype of Aryan superiority, stood there chatting with a black man in view of the entire stadium.
What Long said to Owens was this: since you only need 23 feet 5 1/2 inches to qualify, why don’t you make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there, just to play it safe? Owens took his advice and easily qualified. In the finals, he set an Olympic record and earned the second of four gold medals he would win in Berlin. And the first person to congratulate him - in full view of Adolf Hitler - was Luz Long.
Owens never got the chance to see Long again: he was killed in the war. But he later said, “You could melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long.”
Words have great power to do good but they also have great destructive power. St. James writes: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
According to James, the whole course of a person’s life can be set on fire by a word. In pastoral ministry, I’ve met adults who were burned as children by words like “stupid” and “lazy” who have never fully recovered from their injuries.
After describing the destructive power of words, St. James proceeds to make a surprising and disturbing claim: people are incapable of taming their own tongues. If that is true, where does that leave us? Are we doomed to inflict the damage on others that has been inflicted on us?
That is not what James had in mind at all. He had learned from Jesus that what comes out of our mouths cannot be controlled by “taming the tongue” but only by changing the heart. This, he had also learned from Jesus, is possible. Heart-change happens in an apprentice-like relationship to Jesus, among people who are aware of God’s presence and confident of his willingness to help.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.