Building with words

by | Mar 19, 2016

Words are not the first thing we think of when it comes to traditional building materials. Nevertheless, the New Testament writers encourage us Christians to ‘build’ one another up in our words. But what exactly does this mean? Tony Payne investigates.

Building with words

Tony Payne

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph 4:29)

The idea that we should ‘build’ each other up with words is a common one in the New Testament. It’s expounded upon at length in 1 Corinthians 12-14. But how do words build?

At one level, it seems obvious: words can build people up, or discourage them and tear them down. But building is also a strange thing to do with words, when you think about it. Words are just words, after all: they have no physical existence in the world. There are so many materials or substances you can build with in order to construct something real and substantial—bricks, cement, bamboo, LEGO. But what can you really construct or build by talking? Or, to put it another way, how do our words actually make any difference at all? Are they not just vibrations in the air? Isn’t it all just… talk?

In this article, I want to explain how Christianity makes a vast difference to understanding how you can ‘build’ with words.

Playing games

Secular humanism has come to be the dominant worldview in our culture over the past 200 years. Yet often we are unaware of the ways in which that worldview trickles down into our lives and communities—particularly in the area of words and language.

Secular humanism is the inherently dysfunctional attempt to make sense of the world and our lives without reference to the God who created everything and who, in fact, gives sense, meaning and purpose to all existence. Secular humanism shuts out that idea and tries to live and make sense of the world without any external reference point. All we have to work with is just this physical universe that we can see, touch and experience.

But when you take away God and the order and meaning that a creator God gives to his creation, all sorts of aspects of human life and experience become extremely difficult to explain and understand. For example, having rejected a Christian view of the universe, one of the problems that western thought has had to battle is whether we can actually know anything for sure about the world. After all, the only point of contact I actually have with the world is via my senses and what my brain makes of it. But how can I possibly know if what is really out there actually matches my sense perception of it? Philosophically speaking, it’s very hard to be sure. Which means I’m left with the prospect that the only thing I really know for sure is my own knowledge—and that may or may not be reliable.

This radical scepticism about our ability to really know the truth about reality leads to a further difficulty: how can we ever be sure that the words we use to describe what our senses and brain tell us is out there correspond to anything real at all?

In the twentieth century, this sort of thinking led to the idea that language is really just a very complicated game with its own set of rules. We can do various things in this game (make promises, assert things, ask things, command things, and so on) and build up a complicated, but tacitly accepted set of conventions to play this game together, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that our word games actually refer to anything real outside of themselves. Words are just symbols, like playing pieces, cards or dice. We can use them for different purposes in relation to all the other people in the game, but they don’t have any certain connection to something that is true—something that is actually out there in the world. Words are not a means for naming something that is objectively true or real, but for making progress in the language game we’re playing.

These ideas have been bubbling away in the cauldron of intellectual debate for most of the 20th century. Inexorably, they have trickled down into the broader culture. For postmoderns, words are increasingly tools you use to exercise power in some way—to achieve something in the game that you’re in. They are not a means of saying something or arguing that something is actually and objectively true (and therefore relevant to both of us), but a means to achieve what I want to achieve—to gain an advantage in the game we’re playing.

We certainly see this in how our public discourse as a community has steadily, but relentlessly diminished in quality over the past fifty years. It’s not Tony Abbott’s fault, Bill Shorten’s fault or Donald Trump’s fault; it’s a problem that’s been brewing for a long time, and is now becoming increasingly apparent. If words have no necessary connection to truth or reality, then my task is not to persuade you of the truth through argument or evidence, but to win you to my side through spin, manipulation, PR, sloganeering, irony, humour, snarkiness, excitement, or sometimes simply by silencing the other side and not letting them speak. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be part of a Facebook or Twitter argument of any length, you’ll know what I mean. If you’ve observed carefully how our political discourse has been trending over the past two decades, you’ll also know what I mean.

What I’m saying is that in the late modern or postmodern period we’re in, truth is no longer the goal of speech, nor is rational or empirical argument the means to reach it. It’s simply about winning the word game, and any tactic is legitimate—including the ultimate sanction, which is forbidding you to speak (usually by classifying your speech as out-of-bounds and no longer within the rules of the game). We see this happening more and more.

Building a world

Our loss of confidence in the capacity of words to represent truth is a form of madness. But that’s what happens when you embrace a big fantastical lie (namely, that God is not God and did not create this world) and build a life and a worldview on it. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; linguistic anarchy is loosed upon the world.

But the real world that is there is not the accidental, random, purposeless product of time and chance; it is the creation of a good God, who made it according to the good and wise order of his eternally good and wise mind.

Furthermore, the expression of that mind and the content of the good order by which God made the world is something that the Bible calls ‘the Word’:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)

The world is built according to the good word of God. It bears his stamp. It really is there, and we know not only that it is there, but what it is truly like—because the God who created it has made it so and has testified that it is so.

In addition, the world has an order that expresses God’s own mind, rationality and character. That’s what the writer of Proverbs was talking about in this extraordinary passage:

“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.

“And now, O sons, listen to me:
blessed are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
Blessed is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the LORD,
but he who fails to find me injures himself;
all who hate me love death.”
(Proverbs 8:22-32)

Who or what is the writer talking about in this passage? It is wisdom. ‘Wisdom’ is the name the Bible gives to the kind of words that explain and teach the truth about the world that God has made. If you listen to wisdom—to words that describe the way things really are—then you will find life. You will know how to live in God’s world.

It’s no surprise that throughout the wisdom literature, words play such an important part in the good and successful life. True, right and apt words—the right word for the right time—bring life, healing, success and joy, because these true and wise words connect you to what is really there, to the good created order that God has made.

Building a life

The words of biblical wisdom, built on the fear of the Lord, are foundations for building a life upon, because they are not just signs or part of a game; they convey the truth about reality. What the wisdom literature foreshadowed, we see coming to a majestic fulfilment in Christ, who is God’s wisdom made flesh:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matt 7:24-27)

The gospel of Jesus Christ is something you can build a life on in this creation because it is the key to all knowledge: it explains where everything fits and how to understand everything. It orients you towards real life—to what is really there, to where the whole of reality is going, and to what it all means.

So to speak the truth of Jesus Christ to someone is to provide them with the material to construct a life that is solid—a life that fits with reality and participates in the kingdom of God.

As the New Testament unfolds, we see the constant importance of using words—the right words—to build other people. True words help people to understand reality, and to participate in it rightly and successfully. True words help us to construct a life that fits with how things really are.

All this radically challenges the way we speak. It challenges us to reconsider the content of what we speak in light of the truth about reality that the spectacles of Scripture allow us to see. It challenges us to reform the manner in which we speak in light of the neighbour love that Christ exemplifies and teaches. And it challenges us to rethink the goals of our speech so that they are in line with the purposes of God for us and other people.

The following essay by Lionel Windsor, for which this short article serves as something of an introduction, explores how a Christian view of speech should be worked out in one particular sphere—the online world, in which so much speech is cast around, but so little of it builds.

Read. Watch. Listen.

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