Do you remember the last word or phrase you instantly regretted? As soon as you said it, you wished you wouldn’t have. In the words of John Mayer, “How could I forget mama said, ‘Think before speaking’?” Last Friday, in a mixed and somewhat unfamiliar crowd, I released the Jeff Keuss-ism, “revenge porn,” my stomach sinking as it fluttered around the room. Given time to explain, I would have stuck with the label for the Denzel Washington movie we were discussing–it employs gratuitous vengeance for entertainment, similar to the way pornography uses sexuality–but instead, I was left regretting my choice of words until I finally, fitfully, fell asleep around 11:30.
If we were to step back and listen to ourselves, we would discover that many of our words and phrases are much less defensible. If you remember bleached tips or zip-off pants, you probably considered “gay” an acceptable synonym for “bad” at one time, until we learned that we were exacerbating division and enmity with a simple adjective. If you’ve ever used “retarded” as a derogatory attribute, only to find that someone in your conversation has a sibling with a learning disability, you’ve discovered that our vocabulary can suddenly cause pain and shame.
As Christians, we should be particular about the words we use to describe the world. This morning, I want to briefly address the importance of our word choice and then examine a set of words we that should give us pause: “luckily,” “unfortunately,” and “good luck.”
Why Care About Words?
1. Words matter to God
Even if our words didn’t effect us or the people around us, God declares that they matter to Him. Jesus explains why in Matthew 12: he has designed our mouths to verbalize our hearts. Therefore, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” If we offhandedly jab, “I hate you,” it reveals something wicked within us; we may claim that we aren’t really hateful, but we are at least careless.
This may seem like minutiae, but in the next verse Jesus goes on to emphasize careless individual words: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Our words in public matter to God, but so do the times we let down with friends and family. Our meaning matters to God, but so does the words we choose to express it.
2. As we shape words, our words shape us
James tells us that “taming the tongue,” managing our words, is harder than training a german shepherd or riding a bull. Just as we try to control our words, our words, in turn, shape us. When you catch yourself on the edge of an offensive word, you’re training yourself in a vital skill (the ability to control your words) and developing a godly worldview. The more we discipline our speech in daily conversation, the better equipped we will be for especially public or impassioned events.
Thus, as Christians, we have a positive reason to watch our words. Not only must we avoid offending others, we also must develop our theology in our day-to-day conversation. For example, the worldly man may call his neighbor “damned,” but the Christian would rather label him “infuriating” or even “depraved,” because his God-given mission is to rescue him from the former fate. We must catch ourselves, even in our internal dialogue: Damn him–wait, no! He’s unreasonable, mean-spirited; I’m angry–but save, save him, Lord! The vocabulary we adopt feeds our beliefs about God and the world.
Why Care About “Luck”?
For our own theological development, we should work “luckily,” “unfortunately,” and “good luck” out of our daily vocabulary. As Christians, we don’t believe in luck or Fortune. In fact, our moment-to-moment unawareness of God’s sovereign power is doctrinal negligence. Reconsidering this group of words is an opportunity to regularly remind ourselves about His providence.
1. Luck is a pagan idea
Luck is attached to many symbols in our culture: Clovers, pennies in parking lots, horseshoes, creepy rabbit foot keychains, unwashed athletic socks, and expensive jeans. We wish others “good luck,” when good things happen they’re “lucky,” and our colloquialism for “I wish this wouldn’t have happened, but” is “unfortunately.” However, all of these phrases actually hearken back to a real, pagan idea called Fortune. Fortune, in turn, is supposed to be the beneficence of an ancient Roman goddess, Fortuna. Unlike the true God, Fortuna was said to bestow good and bad things regardless of morals or merit, leading ancient pagans to worship her in hope of crops, victory, descendants, etc.
Augustine argued against her existence (or at least deity) in The City of God:
…fortune, which is termed good without any trial of merit, befalls both good and bad men fortuitously…How, therefore, is she good, who without any discernment comes-both to the good and to the bad? Why is she worshipped, who is thus blind, running at random on any one whatever, so that for the most part she passes by her worshippers, and cleaves to those who despise her?*
Christians, we don’t believe in Fortuna, do we? She is, at most, what Augustine concludes: a demon who has stolen credit for God’s providence. We should neither hope in nor attribute power to Fortuna with our words.
2. We already struggle to acknowledge the Almighty
Does it really matter? Starting sentences with “unfortunately,” seems insignificant, but what if the opposite could foster the fear of God in us? The things that we call “lucky” are blessings from God. The things we call “unfortunate” are sad, but not random.
Colossians 1:17 proclaims, “In [Christ] all things hold together!” Hebrews 1:3 announces, “He upholds the universe by the word of his power!” Proverbs 16:33 even declares that the roll of the dice is overseen by God! From grand galaxies to frantic electrons to birds pooping on your head, nothing transpires apart from the providence of our Heavenly Father.
So catch yourself! Tame your tongue, not only to avoid offense, but to praise God with your vocabulary!
“Luckily, I had insurance”? Thankfully, I had insurance. Mercifully, I had insurance. Praise God, I had insurance!
“Unfortunately, I’m already committed next Tuesday”? Sadly, I’m already committed next Tuesday. Regretably, I’m already committed next Tuesday. Sorry, I’m already committed next Tuesday.
“Good luck”? I hope it goes well. I pray it goes well. I’ll pray for you. I’ll be thinking of you. Let me know how it goes. Take a page from the 70s and send them off with “peace.” Take a page from Spanish and send them off “adios.”
How can we offend less often and foster our theology?
What about you? Working “luck” and “fortune” out of my vocabulary is reminding me of God’s sovereignty almost every day. It’s making me more thankful for His providence and less upset when things aren’t what I would choose. Are there words in your vocabulary that would help you offend other less or worship God more?
Why not give up, “that’s retarded,” “that’s gay,” “that sucks,” “I hate you,” “shut up”? They can only offend and have no upside for the Christian. We need to flag those words in our minds and start catching them before they fly past our lips.
Might our latent theology would improve if we didn’t let “worship” become simply a synonym for worship music, if we didn’t let “church” mostly mean a building, and if we made “love” a precious verb?
We follow a speaking God, who revealed His word, sent The Word, and cares about words. We, as His followers, would do well to watch our own more closely.
*St. Augustine (2013-03-30). City of God (Kindle Locations 3345-3346). Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition.