“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Utter nonsense, and every beating heart knows it.
The truth is that the deepest injuries any of us ever sustain are due to words, and the cliche is just bravado. Most, if not all, of us wander around our adult lives carrying the scars of the misplaced words of a parent, relative, friend, or rival. We don’t just know the pain of words, we honor their power.
Through my whole life I always liked fantasy stories. I liked the epics of wizards and rangers and warriors, elves and orcs and dragons. The characters I always liked the most were those who wielded magic. I relished the idea that such a thing could exist, that I could escape what I saw as a painful and trapped future by wielding magical power, exerting a relieved measure of control over my life that I could not conceive coming any other way. At the core of magic is always words: ancient or special languages of particular power whose utterance allowed the bending of reality to the caster’s will. In Harry Potter it was mostly Latin. in Camelot Merlin and Morgan Le Fay wielded ancient Welsh. H.P. Lovecraft wrote of the dark, gutteral languages used by the Old Gods which, when spoken by mem, would summon those tentacles monstrosities.
We have a societal fascination with that idea: the idea that some languages, some words, have more power than others. We give legitimacy to it when we only whisper the word cancer or fret about wiccan spells or Haitian curses. We are wholly onboard with the idea of the power of language. Even in the church. Think about it.
Catholic mass takes place in Latin not because God requested it — no original manuscript was ever written in Latin, but because it is felt to be a more pure, more powerful language than our watered-down English and because there is the belief that your soul can interpret the Word more effectively if your mind is out of the way (not to mention the freedom gained by corrupt priests who want to keep the congregation ignorant of the truth of Scripture). It presses the idea that you and your soul are two segregated beings that speak entirely different languages.
Many of the charismatic denominations clarified this idea and call it prayer language: a special kind of speaking in tongues that pours from your spirit to the Holy Spirit that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but you and God, your shared heart cry that strips away your mind’s interrupting nature. Paul discusses this at length in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. Let’s delve into that for a minute.
The technical term for speaking in tongues is glossolalia, based on two very interesting Greek words Paul used in Corinthians: glossa, γλώσσα, that refers to language and laleo, λαλέω, which refers to speaking. But the power of words is evidenced in these two, because there is much more behind them than what their Strong’s definition belies, and it has everything to do with the “wizardry” of the apostle who wielded them. Let us start with Paul.
For the purpose of word study Paul is a frustrating author because he often used words that were not, which is to say that he at times created new words and at times used words that were already obsolete in his time. If you have ever read a post of mine in which I referenced the Civil War you’ve likely noticed I have a tendency to do the same, to use words and phrases from an older era, a more formal voice to evoke more impact. And at times I will create or redefine a word or phrase, such as death-worship, to drive home a new point.
This makes discerning Paul’s true meaning quite difficult because without deep etymological study you only scratch the surface of his writing and he wasn’t as verbose as I. Mark Twain once wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Paul had the time. In his brevity lies the critical power of his style. Consider one of the more contested of the words he used in 1 Corinthians: arsenokoitais, άρσενοκοίτης. It is translated as either “homosexuals” or “abusers of themselves with mankind”. But the word itself didn’t exist outside of his usage, which has led to a huge divide over what it means. I, myself, fell into this chasm because I didn’t really understand Koine Greek well enough until recently.
Koitais is the plural of koitai. Koitai is the term for a marital bed or an adulterer’s bed, and from it we get the word coitus, so you get the picture that is about bedding someone sexually. Arsen is the word for man, or rather, the term for a male in all our maleness. It is the essence of being a man. Arseno means “a man of”, as in “a man of valor” or “a man of distinction”. So then arsenokoitais is men of the marital bed, or maybe a man of marital beds; the trick of this word is which part is plural? I long argued that it was the bed that was plural, so this was conviction of men who slept around promiscuously. Many have argued it’s the men that’s plural meaning men who sleep with men. Both are correct and neither is. It is the whole word that is plural, so it means multiple instances of “a man of the (marital) bed”.
What does that mean, though? Well, it means everything I thought, and everything other people think: it refers to any man who treats the marital bed without respect, any man who sleeps with someone he shouldn’t, any man focused on or living around sex. That can include adulterers, players, gigolos, gays, child molesters, men who don’t work to please their wives, men who… you get the picture: any man who uses sex as a tool, a weapon, a casual activity, a begrudged task, or an idol. This is Paul warning men that we, as with women, have a duty to respect and practice Godly sex, Holy sex; that all else — including avoiding sex for those of us who are married — is abusing what God gave you your, um, parts for.
That is a lot to say in one word, a lot of responsibility to pass to the readers, interpreters, and translators. I just spent three paragraphs explaining it, and even if you say I used too many I’m telling you I could have expanded that list considerably. The Spirit, through Paul, compressed large amounts of information into tiny amounts of data. So it was with Christ, too: squeezing eternal meaning into fleeting little utterances we call words. He doesn’t have much to work with in us, but He is the God of the Impossible and He can make miracles through any broken thing. So back to glossa and laleo.
Glossa is interesting. It is used 50 times in Scripture, and has two meanings there: the actual tongue and a language. The interesting usage is the language one, because in both the Bible and in historical literature it refers almost exclusively to an unknown language, which is the usage that gives us “glossary” — the thing that defines for you words you may not know. Glossaries fell out of style in favor of dictionaries, which also give diction — pronunciation and usage — in addition to the definition, but you can see how the focus on an unlearned language plays in here. You can get the evolution of the idea behind the word, but it hides another secret. The root word for glossa is gloch, γλωχ, a word that takes some explaining, and for that we go to Hebrew.
The word for tongue in Hebrew is lashown, לשון, which can mean the actual tongue, the language, or a wedge. The root for lashown is lashan, לשן, which is a verb that means to slander or to accuse. Now isn’t that interesting? And like I said lashown can also mean wedge. So now we know what kind of wedge we’re talking about. Back to Greek, what does gloch mean? A projecting point. Yeah. That’s right. The description of the tongue in every language is always synonymous with something sharp, something dividing, something dangerous. Why? Because we do believe, and have always believed, in the power of words as weapons.
Laleo doesn’t refer to the spoken word itself, that word is logos. It’s also not the word for the act of speaking, that word is epo. No, laleo is the uttering of sound in a structured, purposeful way. It doesn’t just refer to people, either; its most common use is actually to describe the chirps of birds. It’s the making of noise voluntarily. There is a word for speaking words, but Paul didn’t use it. Why? Because he was driving home that when the Spirit gives you speech it isn’t words to you, it’s not a thing you understand, so it doesn’t count as language.
So when added together glossa laleo does mean speaking with an unknown language but, perhaps more descriptively, it means to make noise you don’t understand but which has meaning to someone else (even if that someone else is God). And there is the interesting, fascinating thing about language, because what are words? I don’t mean that passively, I want you consider what a word is. Webster defines a word as:
A speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning, usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use
And a meaning is what? An idea. And a symbol is what? A representation, a name. So a word is literally the name for an idea. That’s interesting, because we as humans have always believed that names have special power. Many pagans believe names allow control, Bible believers know that names signify who God sees a person as, and even in science the ability to name a discrete thing means you have knowledge about it, you have power over it. But there is weakness there, because names are subjective, as are ideas. If I say the word Roger to you we have a shared understanding that the word is a name, and that it is likely a male. But if I’m thinking an animated rabbit and you’re thinking your high school bully we are not sharing an understanding, and worse: I may have summoned in you a negative response that was never my intent. I’d have spoken a word I didn’t understand, but which had meaning to you. Glossa laleo.
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul is confronting the commonality of glossa laleo in services and discussing the difference between tongues and prophecy. Verses 2 through 4:
For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.
To edify is to strengthen or to build up. So what he is saying here is that glossa laleo does build you up, and that makes sense: your spirit is allowing the Spirit to take hold of your voice and use it to confess the Lord. That of course builds you up, makes you feel Him, makes you feel stronger in faith. But notice that distinction: it’s a mystery to you. In verse 14 he says, “my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” If you don’t know what your spirit is saying all you get is the warm fuzzy of knowing it happened, not the revelation of understanding.
He goes on to tell them how he’s spoken in tongues more than any of them, and so he condones it, but that people shouldn’t focus so much on the laleo and instead pray for understanding of what is said during it. He points out that glossa laleo is intended as a sign for unbelievers, so shouldn’t be sought in the company of believers but rather to seek prophecy, as that is useful to believers and unbelievers alike. Ultimately the entire chapter is an attempt to heal the rift between prophets and speakers of tongues because these were people at odds with each other over which words have more power: understood or unknown. It is this that caused me to write today: for all the power we attribute to words we miss the most critical part of the definition: to communicate a meaning. Paul is trying to make them, and us, aware that tongues are for talking to God, prophecy is for talking to men. That communication in tongues only happens when God receives it; you don’t understand it and neither does anyone else because the moment your speech is understood it moves from glossa laleo to logos.
I don’t imagine this much settled the issue for the Corinthians, and indeed it’s not much settled today. The church fights internally over when, and how, and how much people speak in tongues. We wring our hands about prayer language versus tongues, and some believe you aren’t actually saved until you’ve spoken in tongues. It’s a deep struggle in us, particularly in a time when secularly we’re constantly told that such practices are crazy, antiquated, superstitious, and meant for self-aggrandizing. Surely some do speak nonsense in an attempt to garner attention or adoration. Some certainly do it out of duty or the belief that it is part of the ritual. But these are dysfunctions borne of the lack of communication. The latter do it because no one ever communicated the truth of tongues to them, the former because they feel alone and need communication.
Words are only words when they are communicating an idea, that is where they have power because it is in the receipt of that communicated idea, the understanding, that they evoke joy or anger or peace or Love. We have lost that recognition. We no longer care about the words we use our how they are received. We don’t consider the context, the appropriateness, or the effect when we make posts or share our thoughts. We don’t know or care if there was a better word, a more descriptive or gentle or caring word. We don’t read with an eye to receiving information or to empathy. No, we read only scanning for confirmation bias, for just enough to know if the words should give us a good feeling or bad so we can then throw out our affirmation, critique, or thrashing. We are constantly awaiting our turn to speak next, to write next, to garner our rush of validation when someone agrees or retweets or likes or shares. We use many, many words, but communicate very, very little.
It’s why we start staring at our watch during minute 47 of church service or why we interrupt people or why we scan through posts like mine without reading fully: we just need to get on with the next thing we want to do or say. That is why I took a break from this blog for a few weeks: I was terrified I was using this as my platform to say things I didn’t get to say to others in person, that it was just my turn to speak unfettered. We have to turn back from this. We have to redeem the time. We have to focus more on listening, on hearing. We have to focus more on crafting our words to evoke the proper response. I often tell people: “communication is not about what you say, it’s about what they hear.” In the context of this post that makes sense, because what you say are the words, the names, for the idea in your head, but what is heard may be an entirely different idea. Glossa laleo.
We are so harshly divided, so very impatient to and unresponsible for the ideas in other people’s heads. The two most frequent posts on social media are variations of “I hate people” and “I’m so alone”. Each of us small, distant islands floating around screaming our opinion at the top of our lungs hoping to see another island and apathetically unaware that the thing keeping them all away is all the screaming. There is a picture that the Lord put in my mind for this a few years ago and I’ve been itching to get it on a T-shirt or poster. It is of a sad man holding a brick and a trowel, crying as he is building a brick wall between himself and the world. On the other side of the wall is a crowd of people wandering by unaware of him and one girl who sees him and she is holding her arms out to him because she can’t see the wall, only the man. But he can’t see her, only the wall. It is the picture of Everytown, USA. This is who we are, particularly on the internet. We seek comfort while pushing away all who might act as sources of it.
We have to recognize the power of words. We have to stop using our tongues as a projecting point or a wedge. We have to cease the zeal of glossa laleo and move to logos. We need to think more about how we are interpreted and listen more to what others are trying to transmit. We can talk to God in any language or any lack of language; He knows what we’d say before we even open our mouths. It’s what we say to others, what we hear from others, that requires attention. Christ left two commandments, and the second of them was really two: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” As I’ve said before, that requires that you Love yourself as God Loves you. So really His commandment was one: Love. Love God with all you are, Love yourself as He Loves you, and Love others as you Love yourself. Just Love.
I don’t care that they hurt you, I don’t care that they didn’t listen to you, that they are voting wrong, or dressing wrong, or dating wrong. I don’t care if you’ve got an important point or if they deserve it or if you’re in a bad mood. Love. First rule of the Kingdom: before you do anything you’d better have God’s Love in your intent. Care about what others think. Not so much that it derails you, but enough not to hurt them. Care about what others say. Not so much that they derail you, but enough to give them a chance to be heard.
Father, I feel the weight of conviction here. I am so ready to speak with disregard and to half-listen. I so deeply apologize to You and to all I have bruised through my callous, boorish trample through this life. If we’re to see goodness flourish we must foster good communication, we must focus on the connections, not the differentiations. I again don’t know if my ideas are clear enough, if they will walk away with the right message You intended, but what I have muddied please make clear. I need Your help to do better, Lord, to communicate better and to accept communications better. Lead me by the hand; I seek Your instruction with all that I am. I Love You. In the name of Your Word, and my Brother, Jesus, I pray. Amen.