The Power of the Word

Did you know that we speak an average of 16,000 words per day? Men and women alike, we use words for everything: we say good morning, we order coffee, we talk to the clerk at the store, we explain to the librarian what we’re looking for. We talk to each other, we talk to strangers, we talk to our pets, we may talk to ourselves. And also, in our own personal ways, in our hearts or aloud, we talk to God.

And those are just the words we speak. For most of us, inside our heads is a running monologue of endless words, narrating the ideas that shape our experience, the memories that come to bless and haunt us, the worries and plans and hopes that build our futures—sometimes pictured in images, but most often arising in words. We have a conversation going on with ourselves internally almost all the time, and sometimes the words we hear are encouraging and affirming, but often—and perhaps more than often—they are critical, demanding, even harsh.

So many words, all carrying forward the intention of the heart that spoke them, filling the air between us while at the same time, making the journey from our heads to our hearts.

Of course, the first, original words were spoken—perhaps at the time of the big bang—when God spoke the world into being: Let there be light. And there was light. And perhaps in one sense or another, all the words that have ever been spoken since have been our whole creation’s response to that Original Word. We are still trying to figure out—individually and collectively–how to get it right.

In our Old Testament reading today from Isaiah, we heard about the creative and transformative power of a word from God. Everything has its purpose and intent, Isaiah says, and God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. In the verses we heard, God is offering examples to show that God’s goodness always accomplishes what it sets out to do:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Isn’t that a powerful and eye-opening idea? God’s word does not return empty, it never fails to achieve the goal God has planned for it. And that plan is always good. Two weeks ago we talked about God’s beautiful promise in Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” That is precisely what God’s word will accomplish in us, if we let it in and give it the room to grow.

Just this morning I read a quote from Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian professor who lived at the turn of the last century: “The whole world’s treasure is too small a price to pay for a word that kindles the soul.”

I wonder if the creative power of our own words sometimes gets in the way of us seeing God’s promise at work in our lives. Our words are creative too—much less powerful than God’s, of course, but as God’s children, made in God’s image, our words do create. We can see their effects every day. We see how people respond to a kind or encouraging word. We also see how they recoil from words said in a sharp or impatient tone. Our words can create possibilities—like when we plan something fun that involves others—and our words can instill fear, as we paint images of scary things in other peoples’ minds. The words we speak can sow seeds of anger and distrust, judgment, and division. And thank goodness the opposite is also true: our words can be soothing and calming; reconciling, forgiving, even healing.

And not only can our words bring others down or lift them up, but we can make ourselves a playground or a prison with the words we speak. Our words reinforce our beliefs—both when we think them and when we say them—and they gain momentum as we speak them to others and others agree with us. As the Persian poet Hafiz says, “The words we speak become the house we live in.”

Most of us aren’t too aware of the impact and potential of our words—because we use so many of them, for so many different purposes, all through our day. If we’re listening, our consciences serve as a good guide here; they let us know when we’ve used our words in an unhelpful or hurtful way. But we can easily get swept up in the conversation of the day, perhaps affirming or participating in something that we don’t entirely feel comfortable with. To help us get clear on how God would have us handle a situation like that, George Fox suggested that Christ’s Light lets us know when we’ve been saying something counter to God’s best in us:

The light checks you, when you speak an evil word,
and tells you that you should not be proud or unrestrained,
nor fashion yourselves like the world;
for the fashion of this world passes away.

And similarly, Quaker Caroline Stephen, who lived in the late 1800s, offers that turning away from outward things toward the quiet of the heart will help us hear what God would have us do:

"Everything, all beauty and rightness, seems to turn upon a right subordination of the outward to the inward, the transient to the permanent, in our lives and thoughts. Yet this right subordination cannot be achieved in a hurry. If we are to learn to assign to the weightiest matters their true place and predominance, we must allow ourselves, or rather we must steadily resolve to secure for ourselves, quietness enough not only to know our own minds, but to listen to the still small voice of conscience, or of God, speaking in our own hearts."

Our New Testament reading today is one that is very special among Friends. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,” John says, “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

We heard in Genesis, that at the beginning of all things in this created realm, there was God’s word—Let there be light—and there was light, and that light was the light of Christ, John tells us. Although God’s spirit was already in the world, people across the generations did not understand it—the Old Testament is full of their stories of struggle. And so Christ—God’s Word to us—clothed himself in humanity to come and be with us in an intimate way, to show us personally the path back to God. Christ’s light shows us where we have still work to do—that’s what George Fox said earlier, when we speak an evil word—and the Light also invites us to see our potential, how much love we can share, how much light we can shine, when we let him be our guide each day.

One week in our book study, Marilynn mentioned Louise Wilson, who was a recorded Friends minister and a popular speaker and workshop leader among Friends for many years. She also served on the boards of many Friends organizations, including Pendle Hill, Earlham School of Religion, and Guilford College. Marilynn recommended Louise’s book, Inner Tenderings, which gives an account of her spiritual journey over many years. She describes the start of her journey this way:

“My conscious spiritual journey began in the fall of 1952. The children were in school, Bob was at work and I had time to look at myself and I didn’t like what I saw. I had my social life, my intellectual life, and my religious life. I was many persons, not one, and I continued in a pattern, not liking it, but making no changes. 

Finally I began to get up an hour before anyone else awakened. I read Scripture. I prayed. I waited upon the Lord, and I made notes on thoughts that seemed important.

One morning I was given a message from within: Read the book The Soul’s Sincere Desire…Much to my surprise it was not hard to follow the instructions in the book. I was to pray that I would meet the right people at the right time, be at the right place at the right time, and say and do the right thing at the right time. I took the words seriously as I let them become my prayer.”

That last line there is important. I took the words seriously as I let them become my prayer. And as I read Louise’s story, I took her words—and her leadings—seriously, and I got a copy of The Soul’s Sincere Desire and read it for myself. That’s about the highest recommendation there is—if Spirit recommends it, you can trust there must be truth in it.

The book provides a fascinating and unique look at both the effectiveness of prayer and the ministry and power of Jesus. The author—his name is Glenn Clark, and he wrote the book in 1925—says it was the greatest discovery of his life to see Jesus in a new way. Here’s how he described it:

“And this is what I found—that Jesus’ attitude toward life was one of converting everything He saw and touched into parables. He stood on this earth as a symbol of a greater world. He gripped the issues of life as mere symbols of eternal and heavenly Realities. Petty problems and sorrows and disasters He converted into beautiful symbols of eternal and infinite goodness. Thus nothing was petty, nothing was trivial, nothing was without meaning in Jesus’ world, for all things combined to reveal the Kingdom—the Kingdom of Heaven in which He lived and moved and had His being.”

Clark says that “Jesus looked at Reality through the lens of the divine imagination,” and on page 26, he writes,

“To Him Reality does not consist of that which is made, but of that which eternally is. Love is—quarrels are made; joy is—unhappiness is made; truth is—lies are made; loyalty is—betrayals are made; purity is—impurity is made; life is—sickness is made.”

So where Jesus was confronted with a hungry crowd, He knew that God provides perfectly for every one of his children, and so the loaves and fishes had to come. When Jesus saw the man with the contracted hand, He saw God’s life in that man as perfect and whole and complete, and the hand was healed. Jesus saw the eternal meaning behind all the surface happenings in our world, and as He held to what was true, circumstances changed.

And this to me says something about the power we each have behind the words we speak. They are not just empty meaningless noises that float along in a constant stream. They are like little envelopes of creative energy that move with purpose from the intention of our hearts to the intended recipients. Our words don’t return void—they have an effect. The question becomes: Do our words align with God’s purpose in the world, adding understanding, love, hope, and welcome for all? Are they little valentines, carrying love and encouraging ideas to others, or are they junk mail, or worse–hate mail, full of discouraging, dark, and fear-provoking ideas? George Fox said:

“The intent of all speaking is to bring into the life, and to walk in, and to possess the same, and to live in and enjoy it, and to feel God’s presence.”

To ensure that the words we speak are in line with God’s hope and promise for each of us, we can simply quiet ourselves and listen for the reality Christ would have us know. When we speak from that perspective, the words that come naturally will comfort and uplift, encourage and assist others. Even if our outward circumstances seem to be full of challenges, we each have a place within where we can find a moment’s peace and reconnect with our deepest truth—the Original Word—that is still shining in the center of our hearts. The darkness has not—and will not, ever—put it out.

I’d like to close with this quote from Louise Wilson:

“In a lifetime we come to really know only a few persons. At some unexpected moment we may glimpse the inner yearnings of another and for the first time touch that still small place within where there is no separation. Sometimes this happens with a friend, sometimes with a stranger. Sometimes we share a precious moment with another when nothing is said: the silence undergirds. A knowing is experienced that goes deeper than words. At those rare moments we touch, and are touched, from within.”

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