Words: A Basic Subject Often Overlooked

The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? (Eccles. 6:11)

You have probably heard the story about the frog and the boiling water. They say that you can slowly and incrementally heat a frog in a pot of water and it will not jump out, even when the water begins to boil. The frog cannot detect changes in water temperature when they occur slowly. That is a serious problem if someone is trying to boil you.

People, like frogs, have difficulty detecting changes when they occur slowly. When changes occur incrementally, spread over many years, people respond a lot like frogs in hot water. The water in our society, which is leaking into our sanctuaries and homes, is now so hot that it is burning the faith of many of our tadpoles. Their faith frequently folds during the first year of college.

We need to be able to detect and avoid dangerously high water temperatures in order to protect our children’s faith. Accurately measuring the water temperature is impossible without the thermometer of God’s Word. His Word can accurately detect danger when our senses, dulled by the heat, cannot. His Word has a lot to say about our words.

Meaningless words, agreements, and commitments indicate that the water temperature has become dangerously hot within a society. Our words, and the agreements built on them, are becoming increasingly meaningless. Our children will not notice this change because of their age (their limited time in the pot), and perhaps you yourself have not noticed the changes in the way we view and use our words. However, let me assure you, this has dramatically changed.

These newfangled, flimsy words do not transport meaning like the old ones. Our words and the agreements and commitments they support have become hollow shells of what they were only sixty years ago. They are becoming increasingly meaningless. From “Tell them I’m not home” to “’Til death do us part” to “Jesus is my Lord,” our words, like tires, are going flat, and the meaning is leaking out.

The following is a tangible example. A recent article in Christianity Today reported some alarming statistics about the True Love Waits campaign. In his article titled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,” Ronald J. Sider cites research that over a seven-year period followed 12,000 young people who took the True Love Waits pledge. Eighty-eight percent of the young people who pledged to wait admitted that they had engaged in sexual intercourse prior to marriage. Sadly, only twelve percent of this group kept their promise.

Eighty-eight percent of these teens solemnly pledged that they would not have sex before marriage, but they did. Hormones and social pressures faced off against honor and integrity. The final score was “88 to 12.” The home team lost. Honor and integrity will have to spend a little more time in the gym if they want victory anytime soon.

How did these kids learn that their words could be ignored just as if they had never been spoken? Why did Jane’s, “I promise to remain celibate” surrender to Billy’s hormonal, “I’ll always love you” in the heat of the moment? The reason is Jane’s promise to remain celibate prior to marriage carried no more weight than Billy’s promise to always love her.

A growing trend to disregard our words and commitments is emerging. A reflection of this trend is evident in the rapid rise in the number of lawyers in this country: their numbers tripled between 1960 and 1990. Why would one occupation need to triple in thirty years? Hosea knew the answer to that question eight centuries before Christ: “They make many promises, take false oaths, and make agreements; therefore lawsuits spring up like poisonous weeds in a plowed field.” (Hosea 10:4)

We needed more lawyers because we started suing each other more often. After 1969 and no-fault divorce, we started suing each other a lot more often. We started suing each other more often because we could not keep our agreements. We could not keep our agreements because we forgot the importance of honoring our words. Without honor in our words, everything falls apart sooner or later.

Have you noticed how many words it takes to make a simple agreement these days? My apartment lease in 1978 was one page. You would be hard pressed to find one less than twenty pages today. We use more words now than we did in 1978 to do the same job. All these words assure us that people will keep their agreements—right? Wrong. As Solomon said, “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (Eccles. 6:11) We are drowning in a sea of words. Yet, with the abundance of the noise comes a death of meaning.

Numerous biblical illustrations show us how differently men once viewed their words. Isaac is a great example. Why did Isaac refuse to change the blessing that he mistakenly gave to Jacob? Could not he have said, “You tricked me. Because of your lies, I will change the blessing I gave you and give it to Esau”? The Bible says that when Isaac found out he had been deceived, he “trembled violently.” (Gen. 27:33) Nevertheless, he did not change a thing. Isaac viewed his words as if set in stone from the moment they left his mouth. Strong emotions—anger, betrayal, and disappointment—had no effect on his blessing to Jacob. That is a strange notion for us today.

In biblical times, even the godless kept their word—and at great personal expense. Take the Old Testament example of King Darius. Because of his thoughtless decree, his friend Daniel was forced to go into the lion’s den. The reason? “. . . [T]he laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” (Daniel 6:12) This king possessed great powers—but not the power to repeal his own words in an effort to save his friend’s life. Even this godless culture recognized the value of solid words and paid a high price to sustain them.

Herod Antipas is a New Testament example. His promise to his stepdaughter led to the death of John the Baptist. He did not want to order John’s beheading, but he was trapped by his vow to do “whatever she asked.” (Matt.14:7) You simply had to do what you said you would do in those times. What did these people know about words that we have tragically forgotten? They knew that when words are rendered meaningless, so is everything else. They courageously accepted the heavy toll required of honor and integrity to preserve meaning in their lives. We have become unwilling to pay the high toll that honor demands, and now we must face the consequence—meaninglessness.

Time has changed the way we look at our words. We are more sophisticated now. We can change our words easily to protect us from the slightest inconvenience, if necessary. Our words are no longer carefully considered and then chiseled in stone. They are mass produced on word processors, and they come and go with the greatest of ease. There is only one problem. Our words are becoming meaningless.

We will teach our children, consciously or unconsciously, how to view their words, agreements, and commitments. If our kids ace the SAT but fail to value integrity in their words, we will all pay dearly.