I was once a member of a church that was part of what we in South Africa called the ‘Word of Faith’ movement. Those outside of this group referred to it as the ‘name it, claim it, and frame it’ church. At the heart of ‘Word of Faith’ theology was the idea that our words create our reality. I remember how people used to speak with great passion about what they ‘confessed’ and making sure that they didn’t inadvertently ‘confess’ something negative that could bring disaster into their lives. It’s in my nature to put what I believe to the test and so I embraced this version of faith passionately for a time. But in the end I found it exhausting and it felt a little dishonest to constantly claim that everything was wonderful even if it wasn’t.
THE IMPACT OF OUR WORDS
Over the years I’ve learned that ‘Word of Faith’ theology isn’t all wrong. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, in my view at least, it is a version of truth that is taken to such an extreme that it becomes distorted. There is truth in the idea that our words impact what we perceive and believe about ourselves, others, and our world. Studies have shown that the way we describe our experiences affects how we feel about and remember them. And our words do impact how we behave and what we believe is possible for us. I’m reminded of the famous words of Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”
This doesn’t mean that we should be so anxious about our words that we give them more power than appropriate. It won’t help us to become so paralysed by the fear of saying something ‘wrong’ that we are unable to speak naturally and communicate well. But our words and our thoughts tend to go together. We speak what we think and what we say shapes how we think. And that means that it can be a valuable and transforming life practice to become more conscious and intentional about the words we use.
CHOOSING YOUR VOCABULARY
Most of us have a personal vocabulary—a set of words that we use often and that form the basis of our thinking and communication. It can be very enlightening to identify our key words and evaluate how much they speak the truth about ourselves, our neighbours, and our world. We can measure the extent to which they are an accurate reflection of how we want to engage with the world and the beliefs that we really want to embrace. And if we find ourselves shocked or disturbed by our chosen vocabulary we can make deliberate changes and create a new way of speaking and thinking. It takes time, but we can manage our words and thoughts to enrich our lives and relationships.
Have you ever been in a heated argument with a loved only to discover later that you were both saying the same thing, but you defined the words you were using differently? How easy it is to find clarity and common ground when we’ve agreed on what the key words mean for us. This simple example demonstrates how being intentional about our words can make a huge difference to our lives and relationships. As we explore living intentionally in the year to come, being more conscious and deliberate with our words can be a small but powerful area of our lives to consider.
The key challenge here is to avoid becoming unnatural and anxious about our words and communication. We also want to ensure that we don’t get so focussed on choosing the ‘right’ words, or trying to shape our lives by what we say, that we can fall into false optimism or denial of uncomfortable realities.
USING WORDS INTENTIONALLY
So how can we live more intentionally by being more intentional with our words? Here are a few ideas:
- Do a ‘word audit’. Try to listen to yourself when you speak and see what words you use most often. You can even ask trusted friends and family members what words they most associate with you. You can also make a list of your favourite words—the words you enjoy and would want to use a lot. Then compare your favourite words with your most used words and see how much they line up. If you’re not using the words you love and you are using words you’d prefer not to, then you have a starting point for changing your vocabulary.
- Try to find new words for familiar ideas. When you read, listen to a podcast, or watch a television show, if you come across an unfamiliar word take time to look it up and learn it’s meaning and usage. Then say it out loud and see how it feels in your body and heart. If it enlivens or enriches you, practice using it in the next few weeks. Try to create times when you can replace your familiar ways of saying things with your new word until it becomes a normal part of your speech.
- Keep a journal or a list of favourite words. Add to it whenever you find a new word that pleases you and remove any words that stop being meaningful for you. Revisit your list from time to time and allow the words to speak into your soul as you read them. Notice how different words affect your mood and your body. Also take note of the images that arise in you with each word and how they impact how you see things.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DO YOUR WORDS MAKE?
How much have you taken note of your words? What words empower you and what words disempower you? What words do you love and what words do you avoid? What difference would it make in your life to be intentional about your words and thoughts through the year to come? It would be great if you would leave some of your favourite, and least favourite, words in the comments and let’s spur each on to more intentional speaking and thinking.
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