Words are very interesting. They hold the power to influence, persuade, scare, sadden, bore, encourage, excite, and much, much more. Words are truly powerful.
This came to light for me the other day when my six-year-old daughter, Kara, was having a conversation with our one-year-old daughter, Ella, about our wedding photo hanging on the wall. Ella was most certainly oblivious to the picture and the conversation, but Kara didn’t know this. She lovingly said to her little sister in her sweet big sister voice: “Look, there’s Mommy and Daddy on their wedding day! We were in Mommy’s tummy! But don’t worry, she didn’t eat us, we just weren’t born yet!” Whew, good thing Kara clarified that! In the midst of talking to her sister, Kara realized the power of her words. She knew that what she first said might have scared her sister, so she used more words to clear things up so Ella wouldn’t be scared. She understood the power of words.
In our culture, where smooth talk can get someone money, power, fame, position, and more, it is easy to see how powerful words truly are. It is also easy to understand how someone might be swayed by smooth and persuasive speech, only to find out later that they were “duped” because they were caught up in the emotion of it all. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I remember times when I listened to a speaker and felt so compelled by their eloquent speaking that I thought if they asked me to parachute off of a tall building, I might have considered it! I was so swept up and away by their speech that my emotions were theirs for the taking. Have you ever been there? If you have, you’ll know that the aura doesn’t usually last too long. Once the emotional dust settles and the words fade in our memory, we forget why we were so mesmerized in the first place. Passion stirred up by words alone often wanes like a dying flame, and eventually the fire fizzles out.
In a culture where brilliant rhetoric and persuasive speech was taught, practiced, and applauded, Paul the apostle was well-acquainted with the power of words. He, himself, was most likely trained in the rhetoric of the Greco-Roman world and thus, may have had a rich ability in persuasive speaking. We also certainly know from his writing that he knew how to use words well. He surely understood the power of convincing speech. But he also knew its limitations. That is why he did not want people’s faith in Jesus Christ to rest on persuasive and mesmerizing words. He knew that for people to be genuinely transformed by the gospel and for its power to endure, that it had to rest on something more than smooth rhetoric. He knew, for the fire to never die out, the gospel had to rest on something even stronger than words. He knew it had to rest on a deeper, more enduring, and much stronger power. It had to rest on God’s power.
This is why in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul speaks about bringing the message of the gospel with “weakness and fear” instead of “eloquence or superior wisdom.” He didn’t strive to use the fancy rhetoric of his day to communicate the truth of the gospel message. And he kept his message simple: “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This doesn’t mean he didn’t use reason and logic when he spoke. We know from Acts that Paul often gave cogent and convincing arguments for his faith (Acts 17:2-3). But that wasn’t his focus and he didn’t speak, as many did, with an attitude of pride and self confidence in his speaking abilities. Instead, he spoke with an attitude of humility and deep dependence on the Spirit’s power to flow through his words and awaken the hearts of those he spoke to. He knew that it was not his words but God’s power that would penetrate people’s minds and hearts and change lives. He also knew that a deep, authentic, lasting faith does not arise from human persuasion but from God’s power. His power serves as the foundation for true faith.
We too have lessons to learn from this conviction of Paul. For those of us who have faith that was kindled by God’s power moving in our hearts, we can have confidence that we are not coasting on the emotional aura of human persuasion. Instead, our faith stands firm on the truth of Jesus Christ and God’s work in our lives. And we can know as we tell others the message of the gospel, that it will also be God’s power that brings them to him. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use reason and logic and be equipped to share the gospel effectively, for this is part of our responsibility as believers (1 Peter 3:15). But our every word can be laid on the table with a deep dependence on God, acknowledging that it is His power that will work in the lives of those who listen. It is not our message, it is God’s message. And as for smooth rhetoric and persuasive oratory? Well, the excuse of not being a good enough speaker to share the gospel certainly wouldn’t hold water with Paul, would it?! Every one of us has a mission to share about Jesus with those around us, no matter how well we can deliver a speech. Speak clearly one simple thing: “Jesus Christ crucified” and depend on God’s power to do the real work of salvation. He is the one who accomplishes it.
Yes, words are powerful—but they are never more powerful than our God, the author of them all.