How Do We Know the Words to Speak?

How Do We Know the Words to Speak?

A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city,
and quarreling is like the bars of a castle (Proverbs 18:19).

The language around disability is constantly changing. Even using the word ‘disability’ can be controversial.

Recently, I was talking to one of the volunteer disability coordinators at our church about the wording we should use on an announcement for a new initiative. We could use one of two words. One has been commonly used for a while, and the other is emerging. We both knew that either choice meant somebody could be annoyed, and possibly offended.

Concerned About One Little Word

It was just one little word and we were very concerned. You may wonder why — why were we so caught up on one little word?

When I lived with a hard, cold heart I looked for offense and lashed out at those who offended me by their wrong selection of terms. I used it to fuel my bitterness. Thankfully, God has been working to soften that heart. But I live with the understanding that words can be received in a variety of ways. It is loving to be thoughtful and to pray for God’s help even in the words we use.

So, how can we move forward? Must we resign ourselves to walking on eggshells – or even do nothing at all?

No, acting tentatively does not make Christ look beautiful, and inaction is the most unloving thing of all. Rather, let us ask God to make the love of Christ the primary thing people see when they experience our stumbling, inadequate, well-intentioned efforts to welcome those who are different because of disability.

The Way Forward

Pastors, leaders, and other lovers of God: trust God above all things and pray that he would help you learn words and use words that are helpful and life-giving. Then, go do something, knowing it is God who changes hearts. It is God who has the greatest interest in his love and glory being delighted in by those affected by disability.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ who live with disability in themselves or a loved one: trust God above all things and ask God to help you be gracious to those who don’t live this life. They don’t know what to do or say — the people of our church family are scared to death of offending us.

Let our advocacy be done with love and respect as well as conviction. We can destroy others with our words, or we can teach them a better way to converse with us and talk about disability.

Words matter, language changes, and we will all fail at this eventually. And God will help us live together in love, constrained by his mercy.

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John Knight is Director of Donor Partnerships at Desiring God. He is married to Dianne and together they parent their four children: Paul, Hannah, Daniel, and Johnny. Paul lives with multiple disabilities including blindness, autism, cognitive impairments and a seizure disorder. John blogs on issues of disability, the Bible, and the church at The Works of God.