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The Awesome/Awful Power of Words

Monday 06 February 2017 at 02:16 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 2, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            From the time I used to read the dictionary (my favorite book as a teenager) from cover to cover, to the time I majored in journalism, speech, and English in college, and later taught those subjects, to the time I became a preacher, I have had a great awareness of the power of words. Words have the power to lift up and to tear down, to heal and to hurt.

            Thousands of words have been written about this power of words. One of my favorite statements about words was written by Jodi Picoult, who said, “Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.” I’m sure that most of us can remember those word-eggs dropped on us years ago that left a scar inside us. “Get over it!” somebody might say, but that’s not an easy thing to do unless you’re willing to forgive.

            It seems that journalists and poets, politicians, and preachers understand the power of words better than anyone else. You think about all the talented prose writers and poets of the world and how they have influenced lives over the years, -- many in a good way, but some, bad.

            Probably most of us who write in the English language have been influenced in some way by the Englishman, William Shakespeare, and by the American, Mark Twain; I know I have. The author, L. M. Montgomery, once wrote, “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” She seems to be referring to Shakespeare’s famous lines: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Of course, those are Juliet’s words, not Shakespeare’s, but he gave them to her to say. I agree with Montgomery.

            The powerful words of Leo Tolstoy exposed the oppressive rule of the Czars, the powerful words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exposed the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union, and the gentle but powerful words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning exposed the evils of child labor in England. The powerful words of Anton Chekhov helped to bring about prison reform in Siberia. Some writers endured prison sentences for what they wrote, others helped to bring about needed reforms without reprisals.

            The power of words of beautiful poems has brought beauty into our lives, the power of humorous words has brought us laughter, and how many touching novels haven’t brought us tears?

            Some writers are also politicians, and the power of political words can be life-changing for a whole nation. Perhaps Thomas Paine is the best example of this, as his pamphlet, “Common Sense,” published in 1776, had an incredible influence on the American Revolution. So did his series of pamphlets, “The American Crisis,” which were read to George Washington’s troops to inspire them. Paine’s pamphlets underscore the truth of Edward Buliver-Lytton’s famous words, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

            The powerful words of politicians can also be used in harmful, even sinister ways. Adolph Hitler’s propaganda machine generated powerful words of lies and half truths that turned a country of good people into a country that tried to conquer the world and exterminate the Jews. Politicians in all countries are notorious for promising things they know they cannot deliver, which to me seems to be a form of lying. Whether coming from politicians or from our friends and neighbors, lying has a great but sinister power, especially if we trust the person who lies to us. Our level of trust of the person determines whether we can be taken in by his lies or not. It’s heart-breaking to be taken in by the lies of a friend. We can see the most sinister form of the power of words unleashed in lying. Al David said, “One lie has the power to tarnish a thousand truths.”

            Which leads me to my last point about the power of words, -- the power of the Words of God, the most powerful words of all. Since most of us are not fluent in Hebrew and Greek, those words come to us in English translations. The two tablets of the Ten Commandments were the guidebook for our behavior in the past, and still, for some of us, today.

            The Word of God compares the Words of God to a lamp (Psalm 119 and 105), to fire (Jeremiah 5:14), to a hammer (Jeremiah 23:29), to a seed (Matthew 13:18-23), to a sword (Ephesians 6:17). According to Psalm 107:20, God’s Word heals; according to John 8:32, God’s Word makes us free; according to 2 Timothy 3:15-17, it makes us wise; Romans 10:17 says it produces faith; and Jeremiah 15:16 says it rejoices the heart. And according to Hebrews 11:3 and Genesis, it created the world, as God spoke creation into existence. There’s no better power source.


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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