War of Words: Getting to the Heart for God’s Sake
Desiring God 2008 National Conference
The Power of Words and the Wonder of God
I DON’T KNOW VERY MANY OF YOU, but there are three things that I know about you.
Three Things I Know about You
1) You Talk
First, I know you talk. Oh, my goodness, do you talk. Some of us more than others — some of us have trouble stopping — but all of us talk every day. Yes, even though we aren’t always aware of it, every day of our lives is filled with talk. Every moment is infected with talk. Every relationship and situation is dyed with words.
We’re word-ish people. You could hardly identify a more formative aspect of our daily lives than our world of words. Yet whenever I begin to think, speak, or write about this topic, I experience a bit of frustration. What frustrates me is the vocabulary of communication. The terms are so mundane — words, talk, dialogue, conversation, communication. They just don’t seem to carry the freight of how profoundly significant and important this area of life actually is.
Think with me about the significance of this part of our lives. We have to start by acknowledging that the very first words ever spoken were not spoken by a human being. The very first words ever spoken were spoken by God. Perhaps one of the ways that. I’m most obviously God-like is that like God, I talk. You and I will never understand the profound importance of words unless we start here.
Words belong to the Lord. What this means is that whenever you take words as belonging to you, your words lose their shelter from difficulty. You have never spoken a word that belongs to you, because words belong to the Lord. We think that words are not that important because we think of words as little utilitarian tools for making our life easier and more efficient, when they are actually a powerful gift given by a communicating God for his divine purpose.
All of us are tricked into thinking that words aren’t really that important, because they fill all those little mundane moments of our lives. Maybe that’s exactly why they are profoundly important. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you only make three or four big decisions in your life. Most of us won’t be written up in history books. Several decades after you die, the people you leave behind will struggle to remember the events of your life. You live your life in the utterly mundane. And if God doesn’t rule your mundane, he doesn’t rule you, because that’s where you live.
The book of Proverbs is, in ways, a treatise on talk. I would summarize it this way: words give life; words bring death — you choose. What does this mean? It means you have never spoken a neutral word in your life. Your words have direction to them. If your words are moving in the life direction, they will be words of encouragement, hope, love, peace, unity, instruction, wisdom, and correction.
But if your words are moving in a death direction, they will be words of anger, malice, slander, jealousy, gossip, division, contempt, racism, violence, judgment, and condemnation. Your words have direction to them. When you hear the word talk you ought to hear something that is high and holy and significant and important. May God help us never to look at talk as something that doesn’t matter.
2) The Saddest and Most Celebratory Moments of Your Life Have Been Accompanied by Talk
There’s a second thing I know about you. I know that the saddest and most celebratory moments of your life have been accompanied by talk. When I stand up to speak or sit down to write, I feel like there’s a company of a hundred people behind me who have all contributed to everything I know, everything I speak, and everything I think about the ways of my Lord. These people have written and spoken into my ears glorious and celebratory truths that have penetrated my heart and changed everything in my life. I’ll celebrate God’s gift of the words of these people forever.
I also have sat with people who are thirty-five, forty-five, or fifty years old who’ll talk to me about horrible things that their mom and dad said to them decades ago. When they begin to recount the ugly words of yesteryear, they’ll weep as if it happened yesterday. In these moments, I’m confronted again with the scary, painful, long-term shelf life of ugly, hateful, abusive talk.
On the other hand, what’s more exciting than waiting for a child to speak his or her first words? Little Jimmy toddles into the room and he goes blu-blah-blah-blah. And Dad says to his wife, “I think he said ‘John Calvin.’ I’m sure. I’m sure it was ‘John Calvin.’” Well, it was probably just gas, but the parents are expectant and excited because Jimmy is on the cusp of something that is magnificently human — he is getting ready to talk!
What is sadder in all of life than when a human being goes silent? I remember it well with my dear mom. We actually had some preparation. She had been sick for a while, and we were called to her bedside. We knew that this was the end, but we were privileged to spend her final week with her. We sang to Mom every hymn in Christendom. I finally bent over her bed and whispered in her ear, “Mom, we’re out of hymns, we’re going to sing to you the Beatles.” She smiled.
“The very first words were not spoken by a human being.”
But with all that preparation I was not ready for that moment when Mom fell silent. There was something horrible and de-human about that moment. I wanted to hear her say “I love you” one more time. I wanted to finish conversations that we had never finished. I had so much that I wanted to say, so much that I wanted to hear. But she had spoken her last words. You see, talk is a very, very important dimension of your humanity, your God-likeness. So your saddest and most celebratory moments of life have all been accompanied by talk.
3) Your World of Talk Is a World of Trouble
There’s a third thing that I know about everyone reading this book: your world of talk is a world of trouble. I know this for sure, not because I know you but because I know me. It’s to my grief that I am not writing these words as an expert. No, I’m writing as a man in moment-by-moment need of the rescuing grace of my Redeemer. And you are reading these words as a person in the same kind of need. Who of you would be quite comfortable if I were to play a public recording of everything you said last month? I don’t think any of you would volunteer.
My wife, Luella, and I have been married for thirty-seven years. During those thirty-seven years, Luella and I have had a particular struggle in our marriage. Well, it’s really my struggle. It’s over the issue of time. Luella was raised in Cuba, and she has a combination of a sort of island view of time and a Latin view of time. She lives on a bit of a vibe. People go to the islands because time slows down. On the other hand, I was raised by a man who thought that the sole litmus test of the value of a human being was punctuality. If you’re on time, you can live. It’s an understatement to say that being on time is a bit of a struggle.
Let me illustrate for you. Once, when our children were young, we decided to go to a state park for a picnic, and we agreed we would leave at three o’clock. For me, a time set the law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be broken. For Luella, it’s a rough estimate. At about 3:15 I realized that we wouldn’t be leaving on time, and I began to get upset. And Luella informed me of something radical: we didn’t, in fact, have an appointment at the park. No one was going to remove our table and suck the water out of the lake and roll back the grass and remove the trees. It was okay if we arrived a little later.
Well, all of that background is to help you understand the particular situation I am about to share with you. It was Easter morning in the Tripp family. I think that those of you with children can relate to this; Sunday morning isn’t often the most relaxed time of the week. We stuff children in vans saying, “Shut up. We’re going to worship.” But this was not just another Sunday; this was Easter morning, and our church, for reasons I don’t really understand, had decided that one of the best ways to celebrate the resurrection was to have a full breakfast before the service, which meant that we had to wake and leave about an hour and a half earlier than the usual Sunday time. I woke up with feelings of utter futility.
About forty-five minutes later, I walked into the bathroom where Luella was, along with my then nine-year-old son, and I could tell by the way she was dressed that she was not near being ready. So I began to say helpful things to her, like informing her that it was not an Easter dinner; it was an Easter breakfast. She found that very helpful. I told her that a couple of our children were already in the car, as usual, waiting. I reminded her that I was an elder in the church and my arrival before the ham and eggs was very important to my ministry.
About then my nine-year-old son said, “Daddy, may I say something?” I should have said no. I said, “Sure, you can talk.” He said, “Daddy, do you really think this is the way a Christian man should be talking to his wife?” Now, I’m a counselor sort of person. I’m pretty good at these conversations, so I said, “What do you think?” trying to escape the conviction. And little Darnay, not trying to be impertinent, said out of his little heart of faith, “Daddy, it doesn’t make any difference what I think. What does God think?” I slogged out of the bathroom being duly chided, and as I got to the threshold of the door, I heard his little voice say to me, “May I say something else?” I wanted to say, “No, no, please don’t!” He said, “What I mean, Dad, is what does the Bible say about it?”
I went to my bedroom and was hit immediately with a couple of thoughts. First my pride reared up. I wanted to be a hero to my son. I was embarrassed that he had seen through my harsh communication, and he had hurt for his mommy. But that thought didn’t last very long. I was filled with the wonder of his question. How could it be that God would love me this much that he would give a twit of care about that mundane little incidental moment in the Tripp family?
This is just one moment in one morning of one day of one week of one month of one year of one family living on one street in one neighborhood in one city in one state in one nation in one hemisphere in the globe in one moment of time. And God, in the glory of his love, was in that moment. God cares for me so much that he would raise up a nine-year-old boy to rescue my heart one more time. That is love so magnificent I can’t wrap my brain around it.
You see, that love, that redeeming love is not just a big-moment love. That love reaches into the private recesses of your everyday life. It reaches into those secret, quiet moments, even into seemingly trivial moments in a bathroom on a single day. That’s how zealous that redeeming love actually is, and because of that I can have — you can have, we can have — the courage to look at this difficult area of our talk. The gospel is so robust we don’t need to be afraid of looking at the horror of the trouble of our world of talk, because Jesus is — and because he’s our Savior.
So What’s the Struggle with Our Talk Anyway?
In this chapter I want to take you on a bit of a biblical tour, and I want to ask, What is the trouble with our talk? What is the difficulty? Why is it that all of us get into talk trouble? Why do all of us look back and wish there were words we had never said? We all have had conversations we wish we could snatch out of history. We wish we could remove them from the memory of the people that heard them. I wish I could say that I’m proud of everything I’ve said to my children and to Luella, but I cannot say that. We simply have to ask, “What is that trouble with our words?”
Before we answer, I want to make a comment on the Bible that will provide the basis for our answer. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but your Bible isn’t arranged by topic. Some of you are irritated by that. You wish it was chopped up into topics, and if there were topical tabs on the side of your Bible, that would make it even easier. The Bible isn’t arranged that way, but not because of accident or oversight. It’s arranged that way because it was God’s intention to give us his book in the form that we have it.
The Bible is essentially a story. It’s the grand narrative of redemption. It is actually more accurate to say that the Bible is a theologically annotated story. It’s a story with God’s notes. There are propositions alongside the story that are truth statements that help you to understand the plot of God’s story.
Also alongside the story are principles that apply the story to your life so you can live inside of the plot of God’s story. God has given his Word in this way because his call to us is that we would live with a “God’s story mentality.” This means that in the situations and relationships where God has placed us, we are to live in a way that is consistent with the plot of God’s story. God’s Word is not just given to be informational but transformational of the way we live.
If all you do is run to the obvious communication passages in Scripture, you miss most of what the Bible has to say about your world of talk because to the degree that every passage opens up to you the nature of God, of his grace, of your sin, of life in a fallen world, and the nature of the processes of redemption — to that degree every passage gives you information that helps you to understand this world of talk.
Let’s look at the first passage that will help us understand our struggle with words. There is no better place to begin than with Luke 6:43–45:
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Christ is saying something significant and important. It challenges a very tempting perspective that all of us struggle with. Christ is teaching us that we live out of our hearts.
Let’s think about the language here. What does the Bible mean when it uses that word heart? The Bible essentially divides you into two pieces — your outer man and your inner man. The outer man is your physical self. It’s the house God has given you for your heart while you are here on earth. You could call your body your earth suit. The Bible uses many words for the inner man: mind, emotion, soul, spirit, will.
“Words give life; words bring death — you choose.”
These words are all summarized by a big-basket term — heart. This term is used in almost a thousand passages of Scripture. It’s one of the most well-developed themes in all of the Bible. When the Bible uses the term heart, it means the causal core of your personhood. The heart is your directional system. The heart is your steering wheel. Your behavior isn’t caused by the situations and relationships outside of you. This passage teaches that your experiences influence, but do not determine, your behavior. Your behavior is shaped and caused by how your heart reacts to and interacts with the situations and relationships that are outside of you.
Jesus uses a wonderful example in the Luke passage. He says it is “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (verse 45). Let this sink in for a moment. I am convinced that you and I don’t want to believe that. Have you ever said to someone, “Oh, I didn’t mean to say that”? It would be more biblical to say, “Please, forgive me for saying what I meant,” because if it hadn’t first been in your heart, it wouldn’t have come out of your mouth.
My mom was a member of a Depression-era family of ten brothers and sisters. Her family was what our culture would call a classic dysfunctional family. They didn’t like one another very much, but they were committed to family reunions! They were creepy sort of gatherings, I must admit. The family would gather in a hall, and as they arrived they would sit like warring nation states, sort of like a bad U.N. — or maybe like the real U.N.!
The centerpiece of the day would be a huge potluck. Everybody would bring their best dish. After the meal enough alcohol would come out to float the United States, and the family gathering would get very wild. My parents got into the habit of leaving just after the meal. They taught us how to work the table and say hello to our aunts and uncles and cousins, and before the thing got too crazy, we beat our retreat.
During one of these gatherings, my mom got involved in an evangelistic encounter with one of her siblings and didn’t realize that one of her brothers had gotten very drunk. My uncle was in the room where my brother Mark and I were, and he was saying sexually perverse things about the women. My mom realized that was happening, and she ran downstairs and grabbed Mark and me and yanked us to the car.
I remember it very well; I don’t think our feet touched the steps. She stuffed us in the car, and before she drove away she said, “Paul and Mark, I want to say something to you, and I want you never to forget it.” What she said was actually an eloquent summary of this passage in Luke. She said, “There’s nothing that comes out of the mouth of a drunk that wasn’t there in the first place.”
The alcohol didn’t create the sexual perversion that came out of my uncle’s mouth. He was actually thinking those thoughts in his sobriety. What did the alcohol do? It loosened the lips, and when his lips got loose, out came the heart. Here is what you and I need to understand: word problems are heart problems. Word problems are not vocabulary problems. Word problems are not technique problems. Word problems in their essential form are heart problems.
Christ uses a wonderful example to drive this reality home. It’s the example of a tree. What’s the best way to recognize an apple tree? Well, it’s obvious — apples. But when you look at those apples, you instinctively know that the tree you’re looking at is apple-istic all the way down to its roots. If there wasn’t apple-ism in its roots, it wouldn’t grow apples as fruit. You will never, ever plant peach pits and get apples. Now, don’t miss the profound point that Christ is making here. He is teaching the principle of organic consistency. There is an organic consistency between what’s in our hearts and what comes out of our mouths.
The Essential Confession
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to believe that. I actually want to believe that when it comes to communication, my biggest problem is outside of me, not inside of me. I want to think that it’s my kids, my wife, my neighbors, my boss. I want to think that my greatest, deepest communication problem doesn’t exist inside of me; it exists outside of me.
But that, brothers and sisters, is a very dangerous heresy, because when you are able to convince yourself that your deepest, greatest problems in life exist outside of you, you’ll quit being a seeker after the transforming grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. But we all ease our consciences with this heresy, telling ourselves that we said what we said only because of what someone said or did to us. We tell ourselves that our problem is not us, but them. My mom captured this response very well for me. She said, “Paul, I know that Scripture says, ‘A soft answer turns away wrath and a harsh word stirs up anger,’ but the person who wrote that didn’t have my children.”
Are you prepared to make this essential confession with me: “I am my greatest communication problem. The greatest difficulty, the greatest danger, and the everyday traps of communication that we all fall into all exist inside of me, not outside of me.”
Let’s go back to the tree. Pretend with me that I have an apple tree in my backyard in Philadelphia, and every year it grows dry, pulpy, brown, hard, and inedible apples, and it drives Luella crazy. So she says, “Paul, why would we have this apple tree if we can never eat these apples?”
I think and I ponder. I want to help this lady that I love. So after some contemplation I say to her, “I’ve come up with an idea. I think I can fix our apple tree.”
She’s a bit confused, but she’s excited. Saturday morning she looks out the window and sees me carrying some items. Pay careful attention: I’m carrying a big, tall ladder, some branch cutters, an industrial grade pneumatic nail gun, and three bushels of Red Delicious apples. She watches me climb up on that ladder and very carefully cut off all those inedible apples. I nail Red Delicious apples carefully and symmetrically all around the tree. From a hundred yards away you would think I was the horticulturalist of the century. But what are you thinking if you’re my wife? You’re thinking, “This is the big one. The doctor said he’d be this way if he lived.”
What’s going to happen to those apples? They are going to rot, because they are not attached to the life-giving resources of the tree. More importantly, what kind of apples is that tree going to grow the next year? Twisted, pulpy, dried, brown, inedible apples, because there has been no organic change in that tree. If that tree is producing that kind of apple year after year, there is something systemically wrong with the tree, even down to its roots.
Let me apply this powerful physical picture to our world of talk. I am convinced that much of what we do in an attempt to change our communication is nothing more or less than apple nailing. It has no energy to understand and confess the war for the heart that lies beneath the war of words.
People aren’t my problem. Situations are not my problem. Circumstances are not my problem. Locations are not my problem. My problem is in my heart. It’s only when you and I stand before our Redeemer and are humbly willing to say, regardless of the flawed people that you live with and the fallen world that is your address, that you are your greatest communication problem, that you are heading in a direction of fundamental biblical change in your world of talk.
Understanding the War of Words Means Understanding the War for the Heart
What is that war for the heart? I think it is most briefly and clearly summarized in a little phrase in 2 Corinthians 5:15. Here Paul is giving a bit of an explanation and a defense of his ministry, and he says one of those brief little phrases that’s like opening a door to a universe of explanation and understanding: “Jesus died so that those who live would no longer live for themselves.” Sin does something terrible to me. Sin turns me in on myself. Sin shrinks my life to the size of my life. Sin makes me obsessed with my wants, my needs, my feelings.
Think about this, brothers and sisters. Sin is fundamentally antisocial, because sin causes me to love me more than anything else and to care for me more than anything else. It causes me to be obsessed by what I want, how I want it, when I want it, why I want it, where I want it, and whom I want to deliver it. Sin makes my life little more than “I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want (are you getting the point?), I want. Sin morphs all of us into a bottomless vat of demands. I’m a vat of expectancy. I’m a vat of entitlement. I wish I could say that this is not the true me, but it is.
Why am I irritated when I’m in traffic? I am irritated because I want to drive on roads paid for by other citizens who choose not to use them. Why am I irritated when my children mess up? I am irritated because I want self-parenting children. I want children who would say to me at every moment of parental instruction, “Yes, Dad. Of course, Dad. You’re my father, O wise one that you are.” I want my wife to say, “Of course, dear, you’re right. You’re always right. I have enjoyed so much living in the glory of your rightness.” I want chocolate at ready reach. Sadly, my life is often reduced to, “I want, I want, I want.” I am so full of a self-focused, self-oriented agenda that you can’t even serve me.
I have an eye condition. I don’t see very well at night because my eyes don’t shift well between the light and the darkness, and it makes driving a little bit dangerous. I’ve told Luella that I have figured out how to handle it: there are mobile blobs and stationary blobs, and when I’m driving, the idea is to avoid them both. That doesn’t make Luella very secure, so she has offered to do the driving for us. She does that because she loves me. She doesn’t mind serving me in that way. That’s a blessing. I don’t deserve the love or service of anyone.
On one occasion we headed out toward an agreed-upon location, and we got to a place where I would have turned but she went straight. I couldn’t leave that alone. I said, “Why didn’t you turn?”
She said, “This is the way that I go.”
I couldn’t leave that alone. I said, “I think it’s the wrong way.”
She said something very logical: “Paul, I don’t think it’s a matter of right and wrong. I just think it’s a matter of preference.”
I couldn’t leave that alone. I said, “What if my preference is right? You know, Luella, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”
She said, “That’s why I didn’t turn.” She added, “You know, Paul, why don’t we do this — when you drive, you choose the direction, and when I drive, I’ll choose the direction.”
That seems logical, right? I couldn’t leave that alone. I said to her, “Luella, if we were in a helicopter right now, flying over the city of Philadelphia, and we were to swoop down on this moment, you would know that my way is the right way.”
Luella looked at me very seriously and said, “Paul Tripp, I don’t think a helicopter is what you need right now.”
I want. I want. I want. I want. I want. I want. I want. I tend to live in the claustrophobic confines of my own little self-defined world. I was not designed to live that way. I was created to live in the big-sky country of the glory of the kingdom of God with expansive borders beyond anything I could imagine or want for myself. My life was structured to be directed not so much by my desire for me but by the desires of Another for me. But I not only want to live in my little kingdom, I also want to co-opt the people around me into service of my kingdom.
“Word problems are heart problems.”
I don’t think I’m alone. Let me take you to an all-too-typical family scene. It’s 10:30 at night and the children you put to bed at 9:00 are now fighting in their beds. You start down the hallway, feet heavy on the floorboards. You’re probably not saying, “Thank you, Jesus, for this wonderful opportunity, part of the work of your kingdom. I so love redemption. I love this opportunity to be part of what you’re doing.”
Instead you’re probably saying, “They’re dead!” And you burst into your children’s room and say, “Do you know what my day’s been like? Do you have any idea what I do? I don’t ask for much — just children who are from earth. Why, I bought every shred of clothes you put on that back of yours. I bought every morsel of food you put in that big mouth of yours. I made your Christmases happy.”
As you are ranting, do you think that your children are saying, “My, this is helpful . . . here is a person of distinct wisdom . . . I am so glad he came into my room . . . I think I’m seeing my heart”? No, your children gain little from the encounter and can’t wait until you get out of their room.
Let’s examine the emotion that is propelling you at the moment. You’re not angry because your children have broken the laws of God’s kingdom; if you were, that righteous anger would go in a very different direction. It would be the anger of grace, the anger of wisdom, the anger of instruction, and the anger of correction.
No, you’re angry because your children have broken the laws of your kingdom, and in your kingdom there shall be no parenting after 10:00. I am going to ask you to be honest about your anger and the ugly words that express it. How much of the anger that you have expressed in the situations and relationships of your daily life has had anything at all to do with the kingdom of God?
The Kingdom of Self and the Kingdom of God
Galatians 5 is very helpful here because it is a kingdom passage. The war between the two kingdoms — the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God — is being laid out in this little passage that applies the apostle Paul’s discussion of the gospel to how we live:
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (verses 13–15 NIV)
The passage ends with a warning. We must never say that harsh, ugly, unloving, condemning, ungracious, selfish, prideful communication is okay. It’s not okay. God has invested words with power. Nor must we say, “Yes, I was yelling at my husband, but he knows I love him,” or, “I know I was ugly with my children this morning, but they know I care for them.” Paul doesn’t allow us to back away from the harvest of our words.
Rather, Paul says, we must watch out or we will be consumed and destroyed by one another. Notice the words Paul uses: he doesn’t say the relationship will be destroyed; he says people will be destroyed. You can crush the faith of people. You can destroy their hope. You can damage their identity. You can leave a legacy of darkness in the heart of others because of the evil of the communication that marked the relationship. What you say always produces some kind of harvest. What is the lasting legacy of your words?
But Paul does something helpful in this passage: he contrasts two overarching lifestyles, one of which is always ruling your heart and shaping your talk. The first lifestyle he characterizes with the phrase “indulge the sinful nature” (verse 13). It’s a life driven by self-indulgent desire. It’s a life that runs on the track of my wants, my needs, and my feelings; therefore, my words go wherever my desires take me. I may not know it, but I am living under the lordship of my desires. This, then, becomes the thing that structures my relationships with the people God has placed around me. What I really want from them is that they be the deliverers of my self-focused desires.
Reflect again on what 2 Corinthians 5:15 says about what sin does to us. If sin turns me in on myself so that all I live for is me, then sin in its essence is antisocial. Living for myself and the satisfaction of my selfish desires dehumanizes the people in my life. No longer are they people to me. No longer are they objects of my affection and service. No, my loved ones and friends are reduced either to vehicles to help me get what I want or to obstacles in the way of what I want.
When they deliver what I want, I speak kindly to them, not actually because I love them but because I love myself and the fact that they have satisfied my desires. When they get in the way of what I want, I speak unkindly to them because I love myself, and they have made the mistake of getting in the way of what I crave.
Paul wants us to understand that God has bestowed us with his grace for something better. It is vital for each of us to understand that God didn’t give us his grace to make our claustrophobic little kingdom function well. God gave us his grace to call us to the transforming glory of a better kingdom.
I would ask you again to be humbly honest with yourself. If I sat with you and listened to a recording of your words over the past month, whose kingdom, what kingdom, would I conclude those words were spoken to serve? Would it be the kingdom of self with its self-focused demands, expectancy, and entitlement? Would I hear someone quick to criticize, to judge, to slam, and to condemn because people are always violating the laws of your kingdom? Is the greatest moral offense in your life an offense that someone makes against the laws of your kingdom? When this happens, do you use words as a punishment or as a weapon? Do you use words to rein this person back into loyal service of the purposes of your kingdom of one?
Or would I hear you using words of love, honesty, encouragement, and service because your heart is taken up with the big-sky purposes of the kingdom of God? Paul writes, “The entire law is summed up in a single command” (verse 14a). If you had written that, what would you have written next? I probably would have written, “Love God above all else.” But that is clearly not what Paul writes. He writes, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 14b). That is an adequate summary of all that God calls us to.
It is important to get this truth, because it is only when I love God above all else that I will love my neighbor as myself. It’s only when God is in the rightful place in my life that I will treat you with the love that I have received from him. Brothers and sisters, hear this: you don’t first fix language problems, communication problems, and word problems horizontally; you first fix them vertically.
A Kingdom of Love
What kind of kingdom is the kingdom of God? It’s a kingdom of boundless, glorious, powerful, and transforming love. What is the center event of the kingdom of God? It’s a shocking sacrifice of redeeming love. You know nothing about the kingdom of God unless you understand that it is a kingdom of love.
When you are filled with the glory of that love, when your heart is taken up by the mystery of that love, when what daily fills your heart is deep and worshipful gratitude for the miracle of divine love, then your words begin to be words of love, words of service, words of grace, words of encouragement, words of peace, and words that heal. When you wake up in the morning, no matter what’s going on in your family, no matter what difficulty you are facing, and you can say, “How could it be that God would love me so much?” you will be free from the bondage to self-love.
This is going to bother some of you, but I think it’s exactly what John says in 1 John. True love is not best propelled by duty. John says, “We love because he first loved us” (4:19 NIV). True love is propelled by gratitude. Think about me sliding next to my wife, Luella, on the couch, pulling her close and saying, “You know, Luella, I’m persuaded it is my responsibility to love you, and so I’m going to love you because I think it’s what I’m supposed to do. I want you to know that I will do my duty.” Luella probably wouldn’t walk away saying, “I’m loved! I’m loved!” True biblical, big-kingdom love is motivated, initiated, and propelled by gratitude.
That leads us to a potentially uncomfortable question, but I am persuaded that it is a question that we need to ask: What is this thing called love that is meant to drive my world of talk? I am persuaded that much of what we call love just isn’t love. Let me use marriage as an example. Maybe what a wife- and husband-to-be think is real love may not actually be love. It might be a woman who, not realizing the selfishness of her sinful nature, is actually shopping for a man whom she hopes will be the final piece of the puzzle of the dream that she has for her life.
She shops through seemingly endless dating relationships until she finally finds him. She’s amazed and excited that she has found the “perfect” man. She doesn’t have to bend the tabs to make him fit into the puzzle of her life. He already fits right into the space. Could it be that she doesn’t actually love this man? Could it be that she’s attracted to him not because she loves him but because she loves herself? Could it be that she’s excited that this man seems as if he will be the deliverer of all her claustrophobic, little kingdom-of-one dreams?
The problem, however, is that her future husband has been doing the same thing. Yes, they are powerfully attracted to each other, and that attraction is powerfully emotional, but it isn’t true biblical love. That attraction is self-love masquerading as love for the other person. It doesn’t take a PhD to predict what is going to happen in that marriage.
Maybe it will take a day. Maybe it will take six months. Maybe it will take six years. But at some point there is going to be a horrible, discouraging, and disorienting collision of dreams because, contrary to what they thought, that man and woman didn’t actually love one another; they loved themselves, and they were excited that the other was going to deliver their dream. When that didn’t happen, the attraction gave way to irritation and to wondering why they ever wanted to marry each other in the first place.
Sometimes it doesn’t take very long. I had a couple call me the day after I married them. The call actually came at 6:30 the next morning. Although they were very discouraged, I thought it was wonderful. I thought they were humble, perceptive, and intelligent. They had come to the end of their kingdom purposes quickly. They were ahead of the game. Their despair was a good thing. We were able that morning to begin to get their marriage running on the tracks of real God- centered, other-focused love.
What Is Love Anyway?
I want to turn your attention to 1 John 4:7–12, a biblical treatise on love. What is this love that is to propel our words?
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
You don’t define love by a set of abstract concepts. Love is defined by an event, and that event is the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. God calls us to cruciform love, that is, love that shapes itself to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. What is that love? I will give you a definition: love is willing self-sacrifice for the redemptive good of another that doesn’t demand reciprocation or that the person being loved is deserving. That is the love that took Christ to the cross of his death for our redemption.
Love is defined by the cross of Jesus Christ.
When I am filled with worshipful gratitude for the operation of the transforming love of the Lord Jesus Christ in my life — when this love becomes the glory of my life, when it becomes my deepest joy and my most powerful motivation, when it is the thing that gets me up in the morning and makes me rest at night, when it is my overarching paradigm — then I want to look for opportunities to somehow, someway be an agent of that transforming love. Oh, if just once in my life I could be a tool of that love, then every breath I take would be worth it.
In order to live this life of love, you and I need rescue. We don’t need to be rescued from each other. We need to be rescued from ourselves, because as long as sin still lives inside of us, we sadly get re-attracted to our claustrophobic little kingdom of one. As long as sin still lives in us, we look at our wants, our needs, and our feelings as being more glorious than the expansive plans and purposes of the eternal kingdom of God.
We still look to be satisfied with physical, created glories that do not have the capacity to fulfill us. They were created to be a finger pointing to the one glory that will only, ever satisfy: the glory of God. We still try to feed on glory that cannot fill the hunger of our hearts. So we need the moment-by-moment daily rescue of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Without his rescuing grace, we would have no ability whatsoever to love another person in the way John describes.
What does all this have to do with your world of talk? Wholesome words of love and grace flow out of a heart that is ruled by this kind of love. Remember, you always speak out of the heart.
Does God’s high calling of love and the purity of words that flow from it discourage you? Do you look at the people in your life in the situations and location in which you live and think there is no way you will be able to love people in that way or live up to God’s standard and according to his design? Well, this final passage is for you. I want to encourage you with the words of 2 Peter 1. This passage is my friend. I don’t know what I would do without these words:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us [by] his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises [the Word of God], so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (verses 3–4)
“His divine power has granted . . .” If you’re a grammarian, what’s the tense of the verb? It’s past perfect, a definitive action in the past with continuing results in the future. Therefore, if you are God’s child, then what’s promised is already in your storehouse. This is not a promise of what could be. This is a redemptive is; a statement of what is already yours. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” Or as the NIV says, “everything we need for life and godliness.”
Why does Peter use two words — life and godliness? I think Peter uses two words because he knows his audience. If he had said that God has given us everything that pertains solely to life, it would be very tempting to stick in the word eternal, so that we would say, “Isn’t it wonderful that God is giving us everything we need so that some day we can live eternally with him?” That is a true and glorious fact, but it just doesn’t happen to be Peter’s topic here. So he uses a second word, godliness.
Godliness is a God-honoring life in thought, desire, word, and action. Between the time I come to Christ and the time I go home to be with him, God has already given me everything I need for that difficult conversation I’m having with my husband or my wife. He’s given me everything I need to deal with that rebellious teenager in a way that reflects God’s transforming grace. He’s given me everything I need to talk to that irascible boss who never seems to respect me no matter how hard I work. He’s given me everything I need to deal in graciousness and love with that neighbor who seems more concerned about boundaries than relationships. He’s given me everything I need to have a difficult conversation with that person who has betrayed me. He’s given me everything I need. Oh, that we would live out of this identity! Oh, that we would not be identity amnesiacs, living in the poverty of inability, when we have been made able by Christ.
What is the provision we have been given? First, it’s the gift of God’s forgiveness. Because of the substitutionary work of Christ, I can stand before my God one more time and say, “I’m such a mess. God, I get it wrong so often. I claim allegiance to your kingdom but I slip back into that claustrophobic little kingdom of one. I again and again prize my agenda more than your glorious plan. Father, I cast myself before you once again. I say, ‘Oh forgive me. Oh help me.’” Isn’t it glorious that I can stand in all my weakness, in all my failure before a holy God, and be utterly unafraid because of what Jesus has done? I can run into his presence for his help one more time.
Second is the gift of empowerment. God knew that your need was so pervasive and expansive that he didn’t just forgive you; he literally unzipped you and got inside you by his Spirit so that you have the power to do those things that he calls you to do. Consider this: Jesus is Immanuel not just because he came to earth; Jesus is Immanuel because he has made you the place where he dwells. God has dealt with your powerlessness, not just by giving you insightful commands and principles but by literally giving you himself. If you are God’s child, he lives inside of you in power and glory, gracing you with what you need to obey his call.
But there is a third thing. God didn’t just grant us forgiveness and enablement but ultimately deliverance as well. I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but you serve a dissatisfied Redeemer. He will not rest. He will not relent until every microbe of sin is eradicated from every cell of every heart of every one of his children. Someday we’ll be invited to the one funeral that we all will want to attend: the funeral of sin.
The promise of the gospel is that sin will die and we will be with Christ and will be like him in holiness forever and ever and ever. By his grace, brothers and sisters, that glorious kingdom of transforming love is yours for the taking. Dear ones, the Father has chosen to grant you the kingdom. Why would you enter once again the claustrophobic confines of your little self-defined world?
Maybe you’re thinking, “Paul, I get the principle, but how does it work?” Well, let me give you one final illustration. Imagine with me that you’re a married man, and your wife is home with your three children. You head home, thinking that one of the things you love at the end of your day is that beautiful home-cooked meal. You can almost smell the smells as you’re driving home. You recall that, as you left for work in the morning, you saw the beef roast shrink-wrapped in plastic on the counter, and you immediately had beefological visions.
As you’re driving home, you’re thinking about that wonderful roast, but you arrive at home and come into the house, and the smells aren’t so sweet. Your wife seems a little nervous and a little distant. As you sit down to eat, she puts a roast on the table in an act of embarrassment while mumbling an apology. The roast looks more like charcoal briquettes than beef. You look at her and say, “Do you know what I do for you? You know, I don’t ask you for much. I’m a pretty tolerant guy. But the one thing that would be nice is if I could come home and have an edible meal.” You point to the roast and say, “What do you expect me to do with that? You couldn’t focus enough today to produce one decent meal for me? I don’t get it. What did you do all day?”
That is the practical communication of the kingdom of self. What do you think is in the heart of that woman? Does she want to move toward you? Does she want to entrust herself to your care? Does she feel loved and encouraged? No, she doesn’t. Remember Galatians 5:15: “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
Let’s wind the tape back to earlier in the day. You’re smelling the beef in your mind as you drive home. But you come into the house, and the smells aren’t very nice. Your wife, in an act of embarrassment, mumbles an apology as she puts the seared roast on the table. You grab her hand and say, “Dear, don’t apologize. You have been such a sweet gift to me. You work so hard for this family. You love us dearly day after day. It is amazing to me that I live, with all my weakness and failure, with someone who faithfully loves me like you do. Hear me, dear: if all I have to deal with is a burnt roast, I’m an expansively blessed man. Don’t apologize. I love you. It’s okay.” You have just read the loving words of a man whose heart is ruled by the kingdom of God.
What kingdom rules your words? Whose kingdom do you speak in service of — the claustrophobic kingdom of self or the big-sky country of the glorious, love-infused kingdom of God? The answer for most of us is probably both. Sometimes I get it right — sometimes I do find joy in the kingdom of God — and sometimes I get it very wrong. For the war between these two kingdoms that rages on the turf of my heart, I need the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“What kingdom rules your words?”
I have committed to pray three prayers each morning. The first one is a confession: “God, I’m a man in desperate need of help this morning.” The second prayer is, “I pray in your grace that you would send your helpers my way.” The third prayer is, “And I pray that you would give me the humility to receive the help that comes.”
There is no escaping the message of Scripture: word problems are heart problems. There’s an organic consistency between what is in my heart and what comes out of my mouth. The struggle of words is a struggle of kingdoms; a war between the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God. The kingdom that rules your heart will dictate your words. But there is grace — glorious, powerful, enabling, forgiving, and delivering grace — for this struggle.
Remember, there is no more present or powerful argument for our daily moment-by-moment need of God’s grace than the words that come out of our mouths. Each of us needs to be rescued by his grace. Each of us needs to be enflamed with love for his kingdom, with hearts filled with gratitude, so that we will speak as agents of his boundless transforming love. Pray for the rescue of his grace so that you may speak as he intended. That is a prayer you can be assured he will hear and answer.