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The Power of Words

I was swapping stories with a friend of mine; he also was from a small town, so even though our experiences were different, we could relate to each other from a vantage point only small-town folks can share. He played high school basketball, and his overachieving team had reached the regional tournament, only to find themselves opposite an urban powerhouse—a legendary team known throughout the state. From tip-off, the underdogs played hard and played well, down by a mere two points at the half. The hometown boys bounded into the locker room, heads high, confidence swelling, victory possible. So when the coach gathered them around, they eagerly awaited the game plan and pep talk from their leader. “If you continue to rebound and don’t turn the ball over,” he said, “you won’t lose by more than 10 points,” That was it. Confidence exited the room before the now-deflated team could even pivot toward the door. They lost by six.

Words are mysterious things. We cannot see them, but there may be no more powerful force on earth than these outward expressions of the innermost soul. With words, we build people up or tear them down. With words, we instill confidence or inject fear. With words, we glorify our God or berate our family. With words, we uphold others’ honor or shackle them with shame. We give voice to the hope in our heart and others take courage. We confess our wrongs and people are freed to forgive. We speak truth to a lie and justice reigns. Our words change the world, even if only the sliver that surrounds us. Powerful, powerful things, our words.

So the apostle Paul writes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. . . . Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:29, 31-32). Tend to your heart, he seemed to say, and your voice will follow.

There was an epilogue to my friend’s story. After the game, the coach took ownership of his leadership lapse and called his team together. He said, “I did you a great injustice. If I had told you at halftime you would win, you would have.” The game was forever lost, but everyone had experienced this lesson for life—the power of words.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,”1 that by your grace my words would bring blessing to others. Amen.

1 Psalm 51:10

[Read today’s Scripture in Ephesians 4:17-32.]

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The Litmus Test for Life

It must have been in an 8th or 9th grade science class when we first witnessed a litmus test. Special strips of paper were dipped into liquids: when a paper came out blue, we knew the solution to be basic, or alkaline; those turning red, on the other hand, indicated an acidic solution. Though the full significance of “acid versus base” was lost on us at the time, paper turning colors in the water was pretty cool stuff for adolescents.

Over the years, “litmus test” has taken on another meaning—it is the primary criterion by which we determine the acceptability of a person, thought, or viewpoint. What is this judge’s view on abortion, and where does that candidate stand on border security? (Did you notice that even political litmus tests come down to red and blue?) We approach moral decisions the same way, i.e., some rely on personal feelings or reasoning, while others inquire of an outside Moral Authority.

In today’s scripture, God had clearly instructed the first couple not to seek the “knowledge of good and evil,” but Eve did anyway. Why? She went with her own feelings, desires, and rationale: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” In short, Eve applied the wrong litmus test, which led to a disastrous decision in the lab of life and an explosion spreading shards of sorrow, fear, and blame.

We all fall to the same temptation as Eve, don’t we, applying the moral criteria of our convenience at times? For some, the litmus test is simply what feels good to us. Others look outwardly and consider how a particular action affects another person, but stop short of inquiring of a holy God. But the true test in life has never changed, rather it is the same for us as it was for Eve—God’s Word. It springs from a fountain of wisdom deeper than any understanding of our own, and it proclaims a holy standard we cannot attain through subjective feelings or human reason. It is life itself and purest wisdom; we do well to subject our will to the entirety of God’s Word.

So we ask ourselves, Do I apply the right litmus test in life? Do I regard red strips as though they were blue, and blue as though red, if I don’t like the outcome? Am I willing to trust God’s Word with my life? Here is good advice for us all: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Lord God, may your Spirit deepen my understanding, sharpen my mind, and strengthen my faith to take you at your Word. I pray this as your child in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[See today’s Scripture in Genesis 3:1-24.]

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This Little Light

flameIt was my sophomore year in college when a friend and I took an overnighter to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Virtually penniless, we slept in his car that frigid-cold January night, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” cycling through the dashboard’s 8-track player on a continuous loop.

If you’ve ever been to this, the world’s longest known cave system, you well know “the moment.” Descending a few hundred feet into the earth, hikers enter a large underground “room.” There the park ranger urges all to close their eyes while he extinguishes his lantern. Opening their eyes again, they find themselves in complete and utter darkness. It is a feeling like no other, as though consumed by something worse than nothingness; the uneasiness is assuaged only by the belief that the guide knows what he’s doing and that the palpable blackness will very soon end. The ranger then flicks his lighter, and, almost miraculously, its tiny wisp of flame illumines the entire cavernous space, much to the relief of all now reassured in its broad glow.

It is in the darkest recesses of our sightless soul that the Spirit of God reveals the Son of God. When Peter confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” his Lord blessed him and assured him, “this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:16, 17). To the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul likewise wrote, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Yes, it is the Spirit of God who lights the flame, sparking new life—the life of Christ—in us.

So we ask ourselves: What was it like when the Spirit illumined my life for the first time? How has the light of His presence transformed me since then? I think you will recall Him fondly and praise Him gratefully. And in that warmth, perhaps today we will carry the fire burning within us to others still longing to see the light of Christ.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)