Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones... But Words have Power Also

I have this theory. I feel like it's in line with what the gospel teaches, but it also stems from other religious theories, particularly Hinduism. The main books of Hindi scripture are written in a language called Sanskrit. This is a very sacred language that represents the creation. When God utters something in Sanskrit, it is created and made real. Therefore, how the Sanskrit language is spoken in recitations is very important to Hindus. When Hindu priests learn Sanskrit passages, they say the words over and over again, using complex mnemonic devices so that they get every single word exactly right. Every time. By doing this, they are respecting the life-giving, creation-bearing language of God, and in a way mimicking God's behavior. They are attempting to align their language with their God's language. This brings them closer to deity.

God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.
I see this principle of how language gives life in the Christian  creation story. God says the words "Let there be light," and there was light (Genesis 1:3). And when he saw it, he said it was good (Genesis 1:4). I think this is a scriptural testament to how powerful language can be. In the book of John, we read "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." (John 1:1-2) Through modern revelation (JST John 1:1-2), we know that John is referring to the gospel when he says the Word, and the gospel was preached through the Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Christ embodies the Word. So, in other words, the Savior is the Word.

How interesting, that the Savior is likened unto, of all things, a word!

After reviewing what I know to be universal truths about God, the Savior, and the Plan of Salvation, I have come to the following conclusion: Words matter. They have consequence. As Gods in embryo, we are learning how we can use words to create. While we don't take the time to learn the Adamic language like Hindus take the time to learn Sanskrit, I still think God has entrusted us with the power of language so that we can learn how to be like Him and grow closer to Him. We, too, as God's spiritual offspring and potential heirs to his kingdom, can come closer to our Father in Heaven by mimicking his behavior and allowing our words to create good things.

In Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's conference talk, "The Tongue of Angels, an apostle of the Lord says the following:  Words are sacred.

You know the phrase, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" Well, Elder Holland begs to differ. He quotes an Apocryphal scripture that says quite the opposite: "“The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.”

Words not only possess the power to create. They also possess the power to destroy. Words can hurt.

What kinds of words hurt? Well, hurtful ones. Criticism, gossip, murmuring, complaints, and profanity are hurtful. But also manipulative words. Words of deception. Words of judgment. Words born by foul motivations. Even the way we say words can be hurtful. Shouting, whining, sharp sarcasm, etc. We all know it when we see it. But do we avoid it in our daily lives?

"Negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking."
-- Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Words of pessimism and negativity are, in my opinion, probably the most frequently-overlooked grievances in our religious culture. This is particularly sad because Elder Holland says it is especially important for members of the Church to bridle their tongues and avoid negative language. I think it's very easy for members of the Church to serve two masters with their tongues. In the words of Elder Holland: "The same voice that bears profound testimony, utters fervent prayer, and sings the hymns of Zion can be the same voice that berates and criticizes, embarrasses and demeans, inflicts pain and destroys the spirit of oneself and of others in the process." This passage hits me very hard. It's amazing that the same voice that proclaims forgiveness and love through the Atonement is the voice that can utter words of stubborn judgment and hate. I think this is one of those "unto whom much is given, much is required" kind of deals (D&C 82:3). I have been blessed with a testimony, with a knowledge of the Gospel and the Atonement. Should not my words be in line with what I know to be true?

Our words are a manifestation of what is in our hearts. And as members of the Church, we have promised that we would have pure hearts (as well as clean hands, which I think relates to our actions) (Alma 5:19). Therefore, our words should be as pure as our hearts. Purity is a difficult thing to quantify, but I think it's safe to say that in order for our language to be pure, it needs to be free of profanity, negativity, or unrighteous judgment.

Some of us, me included, have a very loquacious personality.
We are very candid. We say what's on our minds...
Some of us, me included, have a very loquacious personality. We are very candid. We say what's on our minds. Whether it's something I mean or not, there are times in my life when everything that enters into my head comes out of my mouth. While this in and of itself is not sinful, I think we chatterboxes of the world have to especially take this counsel to heart. Often we say things in the attempt to help other people, or just to let our ideas "air out." Sometimes it's how we process information. I think out loud. I solve problems by talking about them and working through them through dialogue. Heck, there are times when no one is around when I still find myself saying things out loud. We often use phrases like "No offense," or "I'm just saying" or "But that's just me" to cushion the blow of some of the more negative statements we make. It can be very easy for us to say something to someone else in hopes that our words will be taken as "constructive criticism" or "just a matter of opinion." But what we need to realize is that everything we say has an impact on another individual, and some very small things we say can leave a negative impact. We do not have a full understanding of another person's spirit, and therefore we do not know the impact that our words will have on another person. Even those who appear to be Teflon-strong against sharp comments can still be affected by words we say. I think the character Thumper from Bambi said it best when he said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."

Honestly, could any WRONG advice come out of this rabbit's mouth?
Honestly, I don't think it's ever our place to criticize other people at all; we have so many faults ourselves! However, if words of correction are to be given, (and there will be moments in our life where God will require us to do this), they must must MUST be done with charity as its main motivator. Charity suffereth long. Charity is kind. Charity is not easily provoked and rejoices in truth. That means our words should be full of patience, kindness, and love. Think in your head how Christ treated those around him. I can think of many cases where the Lord had to deal with people who made some pretty dumb mistakes. The story of the woman taken in adultery is a great example. Not only did Christ wait until he was speaking in private with the woman before he gave correction, but the words he said to her were direct, without guile. "Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more." (John 8:11) I can imagine Christ's tone of voice as he says these words. Not icy and judgmental, but warm and inviting.

"Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more."
Speaking out of pride, judgment, or selfishness is not acceptable before God. In Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord counsels against any act of authority that is performed with ill motivations such as these. We read that "the heavens withdraw themselves [and] the Spirit of the Lord is grieved." (D&C 121:37) While this section particularly targets holders of the priesthood, Elder Holland says that "the sin of verbal abuse knows no gender." Anyone can be moved by pride to say something they oughtn't.

Unkind words may seem small, but they can lead to so much more. In the spirit of this same theory that I described in the beginning about how words can create, I believe that by saying something out loud, we are making it real to us. The more we say we believe something, the more inclined our brains are to believe it is true. That's why it's important that we not only have a testimony, but bear it in public. And that's why we are encouraged to pray out loud to our Heavenly Father from time to time. When we transform something as abstract and visceral as a thought into something physical like a spoken word, we are creating a reality in our minds that, with time, becomes part of our core beliefs, which are difficult to shake and result in action and behavior.

So words inspired by negative thoughts can then lead to negative attitudes and, in turn, negative behavior.

"Hold your tongue, Ella!"
We know that "by small and simple things are great things brought to pass." (Alma 37:6) But it's important to realize that those small and simple things can lead to either great miracles and blessings, or great disasters and failures. We see this all the time in modern society, and we also see it in the scriptures. When James refers to the tongue as the "very small helm" of the ship that is the body or a small kindling that can beget a forest fire (James 3:4-5), he is emphasizing how something very small can yield very large, often disastrous consequences. Most of the time an abusive spouse or parent begins with simple words before turning to physical assault. An unrighteous sexual act often begins with simply casual talk and joking about sex. I honestly don't think Laman and Lemuel would ever have tried to strike their brother Nephi or tie him to a boat if they had nipped their negativity in the bud and avoided all that murmuring. In contrast, look at the kinds of things Christ brought about by using kind, loving, clean words. We don't really know what happens to the woman taken in adultery after her exchange with the Savior, but I have a feeling that the way Christ spoke to her had a profound impact on her future behavior. A bridled tongue can lead to a more positive change in people than an unbridled one. It is through Christ's words, as well as his actions, that we saw miracles performed. As Joseph Smith says, " by words, and with words, its mightiest works have been, and will be, performed."

Imagine what this knowledge of the power of small and simple words can do in our own lives! Not only will we bless the lives of others by using uplifting, positive language, but we will also change our own attitudes about life and about ourselves! How can a person who constantly accosts himself with negative language about himself feel good about himself? He can't! It's one thing to think poorly of oneself, but as I explained, it's even more hurtful to actually say things aloud because then it becomes real to us.

I have a good friend who is very successful and talented. Everything he touches seems to turn to gold. He's got a great job, lots of friends, and he seems to be good at everything! Piano, sports, video games, making friends, public speaking... He's like superman! One time I commented, "Geez, you have been blessed with so many great talents! I wish I was as awesome at all those things as you are, but I could NEVER be THAT good."

His reply was very passionate and from the heart: "Hannah, I think the only thing that separates you and me is the fact that I believe I can do something and you obviously don't. You wouldn't have said that if you did. You need to stop saying 'I can't' and start saying 'I can!'"
How does what we say about ourselves
indicate how we see ourselves?
I responded with a simple okay, but then he said, "And don't just think it. Say it. Say it now."

Elder Holland states: "In all of this, I suppose it goes without saying that negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking, including negative thinking about ourselves. We see our own faults, we speak—or at least think—critically of ourselves, and before long that is how we see everyone and everything. No sunshine, no roses, no promise of hope or happiness. Before long we and everybody around us are miserable."

Have you ever been tempted to say "Man, I suck at this"? I do it all the time! But the more I think about this friend's advice, the more I think that I need to change the way I talk about myself, even if it's just in jest. If we really understand who we are, and more importantly, who we can become, I don't think we would even submit ourselves to the kind of language that we so often treat ourselves to. Our words toward ourselves must be just as charitable, loving, and forgiving as they are towards others! Often there are things we say about ourselves that we would NEVER say about other people. I've called myself stupid, ugly, fat, incapable, worthless... Words I would never dream of directing towards someone else! How is it that we allow ourselves to be so negative towards ourselves, even though we claim to have a knowledge of our unlimited potential and divine nature!? It's almost like we think it applies to everyone BUT our own selves. That is a grave contradiction! Christ atoned for EVERYONE, including you, including me! God loves every one of God's children. And on the day of judgment, he won't stand for any unclean thought, word, or deed that has been committed towards any one of his precious sons and daughters of God (Alma 11:37). And furthermore, how can we expect to show love to other people when we don't show love towards ourselves? The words "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18, emphasis added) come to mind here.

Christ atoned for EVERYONE.  Including you, including me!
I testify that the words we say -- as small as simple as they are -- can lead to great consequences. These consequences can be wonderful, but only if they are spoken with Christlike charity and love. I testify also that the words we say towards ourselves can have as equally profound of an impact on our lives as the words we say towards others. If we start using uplifting, pure language now, we will see positive results in our lives, and we will serve and uplift those around us. If our language is in line with the Lord's language, we will find our will aligning with His will. We will grow closer to him and closer to his blessings.

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