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The Power of Words

Words are highly revealing. And powerful.

Indeed, the power of words can hardly be under-estimated. Not only did God speak creation into existence, but his supreme revelation is through the Word, Jesus. And this revelation is described in the Word of God, the Bible.

In Christian thought, words have immense power. They create, they exert power, they both build up and destroy. Much more could be said, but today I’d like to focus on just two uses of our words.

One to lift, the other to warn.

First, encouragement. It should go without saying that leaders should be in the business of encouragement. It costs us little, it’s in short supply nowadays, and its benefits are off the charts. Just a few well-chosen words can quite literally make a person’s day. Or week.

So a couple of tips on how to encourage your people.

Never be vague. Always be specific. It’s no good saying, ‘thanks for all the work you do, Jennie.’ Jennie’s already thinking, ‘you don’t really know what I do, do you? You’re just giving me the socially appropriate response.’ Instead, when you speak to Ken, the man who always stays late to clean up, say, ‘Ken, I’ve noticed that you’re often the one who goes the extra mile, to clean up when others have left the building. I want to tell you how much I appreciate that.’

Be specific. Why?

The same reason you use people’s names. It shows you’re interested in the details of their lives. ‘Thank you everyone’ is not enough. So be specific and stop what you’re doing. Look them in the eyes and tell them what it is you’re seeing and why you’re grateful.

Second, frequency. Here it’s the Goldilocks principle. Don’t overdo it or underdo it. Aim for ‘just right.’ The only way that’s going to happen is to be intentional about it. If it’s just an afterthought, then the words you use won’t contain the sincerity of heart which you intend.

Why is encouragement so important?

Encouraging words bind up our souls. They speak into the secret places of our hearts, where we are wounded and suffer from the false pictures we carry of ourselves. Kind words heal and lift the spirits. But only when they’re offered sincerely, carefully and with real attention to detail.

Now, a warning about words.

I started by saying that words are highly revealing. The irony is that sometimes we believe that we can use our words and still hide. This is particularly the case when, as leaders, we exercise power.

Church leaders have an extremely complicated and awkward relationship with the word power, not to mention the word authority. Some enjoy using power, but most – certainly the ones I know – they squirm at the very mention of the word.

Me? Exercise power? I don’t do that.

But you do, I’m afraid. You do exercise power. All leaders exercise power. They either do it well or badly. If you don’t do it, you’re not a leader.

Which brings us back to our words.

In the process of exercising power, church leaders are no different to any other leader. They are seeking to lead a group in a particular direction and to do that, words are central. The problem – and this is the warning – is that we’re not honest with ourselves about how we do this.

So we become manipulative.

We’re frightened to come out with what we want, so we use various techniques to achieve our goals. Here are just a few:

Pity me – My job is so difficult right now. (Translation: Sympathise with me. That way, you’re more likely to agree with me.)

Insider – I’m only telling you this, because I trust you. I haven’t told Jennie yet. Do you think this is the best plan?

Ego massage – Jim, you did such a great job on Sunday. And you know that Bill isn’t the easiest to work with, so I’m just wondering if you’d consider taking over on the AV.

Belittling – You know, it’s important to give people a chance but Kathy’s just not cut out for this task. Last week was an embarrassment, wasn’t it? I’m sure she’d be great, but just in a different role.

Vote stacking – Carl, it was great to have you over for lunch the other day. So glad we got to know your family a little better. So you probably know we’re deciding on the plans for the new building. Just wanted to make sure that you’re on board when it comes to a vote.

So here’s the thing. You may not see yourself in any of those. I hope you don’t. But you still need to be careful about manipulation. It is one of the most insidious character traits of all, because we pretend we’re not doing it, when, in truth, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We just won’t look ourselves in the mirror and admit to our behaviour.

Why do we do it? Fear, mostly.

How to avoid it? How to lead with a pure heart?

Through confession.

Through wise counsel.

And by growing in self-knowledge. That requires a lifetime of honesty before God’s throne. We do an awful lot of pretending in our human relationships, but we all know it’s impossible to fool God. He sees right through us. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Plumbing the depths of our broken, sinful human desires can only be done by inviting God’s Spirit to do a deep work in our hearts.

So this week, be especially conscious of how you use your words. You can’t go wrong if you seek to encourage. The rewards are rich and often long-lasting. But when it comes to the exercise of power, be especially cautious of the temptation to manipulate. Seek the Lord’s help with an honest, open heart.

He is a Wonderful Counsellor, a very present help in times of trouble.

There is nothing to fear when we commit our ways to him.

Do so at the beginning of each day.


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