Don't only practice your Art,
But force your way into its Secrets,
For it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Our words express what is deep in our souls. If our words don’t convey appropriate ideas and emotions, then we need to take a step back and evaluate our language.
I have a nasty habit. When my daughters push my buttons, and they do so frequently, a slew of swear words flies from my mouth. This ugly habit began a long time ago when I first struggled with postpartum depression and had uncontrollable rage. The rage has been subdued but the tongue is still unbridled.
As a writer, my words are my craft. They express who I am. I would never dream of writing vile, filthy words. So why would I speak them?
We know of the power of words. Words have raised nations. Words have freed the tormented and oppressed. Words can destroy souls. One tiny word spoken in malice can crumble a person and leave a mark forever.
Does what you write define who you are? When you are practicing your art and forcing your way into its secrets, does it raise you to the divine, or does it clamp shackles on your wrists and ankles and cut into your soul as much as your flesh?
When I started out as an author I promised my work would be clean. I should do the same for my spoken words as well.
As it happens, a great lesson at church spoke directly to me.
All my quotes are taken from a General Conference talk by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Jeffery R. Holland of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke these words in The Tongue of Angels:
The Prophet Joseph Smith deepened our understanding of the power of speech when he taught, “It is by words … [that] every being works when he works by faith. God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light.’ Joshua spake, and the great lights which God had created stood still. Elijah commanded, and the heavens were stayed for the space of three years and six months, so that it did not rain. … All this was done by faith. … Faith, then, works by words; and with [words] its mightiest works have been, and will be, performed.” Like all gifts “which cometh from above,” words are “sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit.”
It is with this realization of the power and sanctity of words that I wish to caution us, if caution is needed, regarding how we speak to each other and how we speak of ourselves.
Words are sacred and must be spoken with care! Great men and women know this. How we must realize this too! Elder Holland continues:
There is a line from the Apocrypha which puts the seriousness of this issue better than I can. It reads, “The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.” With that stinging image in mind, I was particularly impressed to read in the book of James that there was a way I could be “a perfect man.”
Said James: “For in many things we offend all. [But] if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.”
Continuing the imagery of the bridle, he writes: “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
“Behold also … ships, which though they be … great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm.”
Then James makes his point: “The tongue is [also] a little member. … [But] behold, how great a [forest (Greek)] a little fire [can burn].
If we bridle our tongues, we can control our whole body. And though that might be a small thing, it can have everlasting results.
A Book of Mormon prophet learned about the actual power of words. Helaman 10:3–10
And it came to pass as he was thus pondering—being much cast down because of the wickedness of the people of the Nephites, their secret works of darkness, and their murderings, and their plunderings, and all manner of iniquities—and it came to pass as he was thus pondering in his heart, behold, a voice came unto him saying:
Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments.
And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.
Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God. Behold, I declare it unto thee in the presence of mine angels, that ye shall have power over this people, and shall smite the earth with famine, and with pestilence, and destruction, according to the wickedness of this people.
Behold, I give unto you power, that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and thus shall ye have power among this people.
And thus, if ye shall say unto this temple it shall be rent in twain, it shall be done.
You could consider the same true for Moses in the Old Testament. Did he not call down the ten plagues? With his words did he not part the red sea?
Oh, how sacred are the things which fall from our mouths!
Elder Holland continues:
What of the unbridled tongue in your mouth, of the power for good or ill in your words? How is it that such a lovely voice which by divine nature is so angelic, so close to the veil, so instinctively gentle and inherently kind could ever in a turn be so shrill, so biting, so acrid and untamed? . . . Words can be more piercing than any dagger ever forged, and they can drive the people they love to retreat beyond a barrier more distant than anyone in the beginning of that exchange could ever have imagined . . . There is no place in that magnificent spirit of yours for acerbic or abrasive expression of any kind, including gossip or backbiting or catty remarks. Let it never be said of . . . [us] that “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity . . . [burning] . . .”
We must be so careful in speaking to a child. What we say or don’t say, how we say it and when is so very, very important in shaping a child’s view of himself or herself. But it is even more important in shaping that child’s faith in us and their faith in God. Be constructive in your comments to a child—always. Never tell them, even in whimsy, that they are fat or dumb or lazy or homely. You would never do that maliciously, but they remember and may struggle for years trying to forget—and to forgive.
Paul put it candidly, but very hopefully. He said to all of us: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but [only] that which is good … [and] edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.
“And grieve not the holy Spirit of God. …
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you. …
“And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”
How do you value your words as a writer? I’ve committed from this point on to be honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and virtuous in my words. I’ve decided, because I feel my inspiration has come from God, that if I want to start my writing off on a positive and intuitive note for the day, I should start my mornings with a daily devotional to realign myself with my purpose and goals—start with spiritual and physical preparation so the words I write have power.
And hopefully, if I can excel in this habit, it will translate into my verbal language also.
How about you? What do you do to give your words power?