I won’t soon forget visiting “Angola,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and nation’s largest maximum-security prison. In November 2009, I accompanied John Piper as he preached in chapel to hundreds of inmates, broadcast to thousands. Beforehand, he spoke and prayed for half an hour with a man just seven weeks prior to his execution by lethal injection.
Much could be said about Angola, once considered the nation’s most dangerous prison, and its stunning transformation (not just morally but spiritually) under warden Burl Cain, beginning in 1995. Cain, a lifelong Southern Baptist, wasn’t shy about sharing his Christian faith and welcoming influences like Piper. He took fire for it over the years.
Doubtless, Cain instituted a breadth of important reforms and gospel-friendly initiatives, but he’s often remembered for prohibiting profanity from both inmates and guards. It was a striking decision. Seeing with unusual clarity the complex and catalytic relationship between words and behavior, Cain did the almost unthinkable: he outlawed cussing at the state pen.
How many of us would think a maximum-security prison of 6,000 murderers, rapists, armed robbers, and habitual felons had far bigger fish to fry than profanity? Why even bother?
Words Give Rise to Action
Cain believed that violent words not only express but also entrench, and cultivate, violent instincts in the soul that eventually give rise to violent acts. Giving voice to unrighteous anger puts us one step closer to acting on it.
Soon enough, even Cain’s many detractors found the results difficult to dispute. In 2004, The Washington Post reported on the rise in morale and the plummet in violence at Angola:
The year before Cain arrived, there were nearly 300 attacks on the staff and 766 inmate-on-inmate assaults, half of which were with weapons. . . . Since Cain took over as warden, inmate attacks on the staff have plunged nearly 70 percent, and inmate-on-inmate violence has dropped 44 percent.
“Giving voice to unrighteous anger puts us one step closer to acting on it.”
Surely, the ban against profanity didn’t do all the work. Hundreds of inmates, if not thousands, not only cleaned up their mouths, but testified to Christ’s cleansing their hearts — and that will transform any prison. Still, the correlation between words and eventual behaviors is not one to ignore. And it may be far more important to life outside of prison than many of us are prone to think.
Holy Fight and Flight
Healthy Christians do not make peace with sin. As we grow in love for Christ, we grow to delight in holiness. Yet we live in a world of sin, and still have indwelling sin within us. So, we often discuss various holy fight-and-flight tactics against temptation.
For one, we want to be ready to resist sin when we encounter temptation. Not only do we “resist the devil” (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9), but we also resist “in [our] struggle against sin” (Hebrews 12:4) — against temptations from without and from within. In a moment of temptation, we want to fight, resist, make holy war.
Another important strategy is flight. When Potiphar’s wife tempted Joseph, he fled. So too, the apostle Paul writes, “Flee youthful passions” (2 Timothy 2:22), “Flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), and “Flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). If you find yourself in the presence of some temptation, and it’s in your power to leave, then by all means flee.
Avoidance is a third time-tested plan. Before the moment of fight-or-flight confronts us, we seek to avoid some temptations altogether. For instance, avoid divisive people (Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 3:5). Avoid quarreling (Titus 3:2). Avoid “irreverent babble” (2 Timothy 2:16). Avoid “foolish controversies” (Titus 3:9).
However, one particular tactic we might be prone to overlook in the multi-front war against sin involves the power of words. Warden Cain was onto something — not just (negatively) to curb violence at a prison, but also (positively) for the Christian life.
Our Own Words Shape Us
Not only is it true, as Jesus says, that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matthew 15:18), but our heart-expressing words also echo back to move and shape us.
On the one hand, to speak evil is an additional step, subtle as it may be, to thinking and feeling evil. As we give vent and verbal expression to otherwise inaudible evil in us, we reinforce it. It takes root. One little word at a time, we habituate ourselves to sin. Now, we’re one small (but not insignificant) degree closer to acting on it. And on the other hand, when we speak against sin rising in us — and speak for the joy of righteousness — we marshal the power of words to mold our hearts for holiness.
To be clear, the point here is not “stop talking about sin” but rather, declare to your own soul sin’s deception, and miserable outcomes. In other words, do talk to yourself about your own sin. And in the moment of temptation, tell yourself “no” and why.
Evil Curbed and Smothered
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) knew of the power of our own words in leading to, or away, from sin. He writes in Life Together,
Often we combat evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words. . . [I]solated thoughts of judgment [against our neighbor] can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin. (90–91)
Before saying more about his insight, first note confession as an exception. To confess sin as sin is not to incline ourselves to relapse, but instead to make war against it. Which means that real confession is not mere admission, but a form of renouncing our sin.
“Real confession is not mere admission, but a form of renouncing our sin.”
But then notice the role our own words have to play in the pursuit of holiness, and the war against sin. Our souls can be cauldrons of good and ill. Dwelling in us, for now, is both remaining sin and the very Spirit of God. Evil thoughts grow as we voice them with approval, and they diminish — are “curbed and smothered” — as we deny them the dignity of utterance (or utter them only in spirit of confession).
At the height of his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul writes about the appearing of God, in Christ, and the disappearing of our sin, in time, as we pursue holiness. And he uses the word renounce to acknowledge the place our words can have in combatting sin:
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age . . . (Titus 2:11–12)
The grace of God — manifest and incarnate in Christ — not only saves sinners by covering our failings but also trains us. God’s grace is too great to simply forgive our sins and leave us in them. He loves his sons and daughters enough to train us for new and better life, for genuine holiness, for the freedom and joy of an existence less and less encumbered by sin. And here, remarkably, the link between God’s training grace and our godly living involves our own words as we renounce ungodliness.
‘Be Gone, Satan!’
The pattern is one we find even in Jesus, who leveraged the power of his words against sin and the devil. In the wilderness, he renounced temptation audibly as he quoted Scripture to combat Satan’s enticements, culminating with “Be gone, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10). So too he later responded to Peter’s foolish statement (that Jesus would never go to the cross) with “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33).
There is power, for good and godliness, in a clear, settled “no” — whether in our own heads, or out loud to ourselves, and all the better in confession to God or neighbor. Liberated and energized by God’s grace, and looking to the reward of superior joy, we are given the dignity of participating in God’s decisive action in making us holy. And even before it involves our behavior, it can begin with our words.
The words we speak, especially when pointed, shape our souls for good or evil. Renouncing sin, as an expression of holy desires in a divided heart, is no empty act. When our renouncing of sin and Satan proceed from a heart growing in its disdain for sin, and delight in holiness, our words reinforce and buttress and fortify our hearts. Words of renunciation against specific sins and temptations are not time-outs from the actual fight but a valuable weapon in the campaign.
Declare Your No
Because of this power in the act of renouncing, some baptismal traditions, going deep into an annals of church history, ask the baptismal candidate, right there in the waters, as we do at our church, “Do you renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his ways?” Baptism itself is a kind of public forsaking of sin and Satan and a confession of Christ, but there is added power for shaping the soul, banishing demons, and strengthening the church, to not just depict it but declare it — and not just at baptism, but in the everyday waters of temptation.
When pride feeds us thoughts of being better than others, we respond with, “No, no good will come from boosting self, compared to others. I’m an unworthy servant, and any good in me is only by God’s grace. Pride, be humbled.”
Or, when feeling envious over another’s abilities or applause, “No, envy, my Father knows exactly what I need and when. Rejoice in his gifts to others.”
When tempted by lust, “No, God’s design and command is best: one woman, my wife, for life. Lust, you are foolish, and not welcome here.”
Tempted to gossip, “No, there is more joy in the self-control of holding my tongue than sinning against someone with my words.”
Or, when tempted by greed, “No, my Father owns it all, and I will share in it fully in due time. Greed, be gone.”
And all the better when we can renounce sin in the very words of Scripture: When angry with others, “No, the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Anger, however righteous or not, be put away (Colossians 3:8).
Temptation thrives, and grows, when unacknowledged and unaddressed. But with the help of the Spirit, and through the power of words, we can say “No!” and drive it away with God’s better promises.