Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Power of Words

[A sacrament meeting talk I gave 10 June 2012 in the Langley Ward of the McLean, VA Stake.]

As I stand here about to sermonize to you all, I’m acutely aware of the potential gap between talking about my topic, “I Choose the Right by Living Gospel Principles,” and actually living gospel principles. Especially in a religious context, people are rightly skeptical of idle words. As the great folk song by Joe Hill says,

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
That’s not what I want to do, fill you with pie in the sky. But I do want to double down on that perceived dichotomy between words and actions by talking about how the right words and the right conversations can actually be a direct and integral part of living the gospel. Of course, words do need context, they can’t be empty. If you say you’ll help someone, or that you love someone, or that you’re their friend, but you don’t act on it, whatever power those words had is gone. So actions and words need to be wedded together. This is a common theme in the gospel: Bringing things in tension together, or making them at one. The entire atonement of Christ is about this, and I believe that as we think about bringing our words and our actions into harmony we can better understand the atonement. But today I want to focus on the words themselves, their power, and how they can constitute acts.

I’ve experienced the power of words, in both a gospel and secular context. For example, this last Memorial Day, a friend recited the Gettysburg Address, which she memorized in school. It’s a very moving piece of oratory, but it also includes these words that with the benefit of history are so wonderfully ironic: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Abraham Lincoln was wrong about that, fortunately, and it’s because he underestimated the power of his words, which over time have helped knit the hearts of all Americans together in unity and love, to paraphrase Alma.

Another personal experience: I’ve struggled at times with depression, and if you’ve ever been to a psychiatrist you might know something about how just talking with someone, just speaking words and answering questions, can be extremely therapeutic. Talking to a bishop is similar in a gospel context. Speaking a burden relieves you of it in very real ways. As a great, old Christian hymn says, “Speak and let the worst be known / Speaking may relieve thee.”

Similarly, a community art project I follow is built around the concept of people anonymously sharing secrets they’ve never told anyone. The results are by turns heart-wrenching, hilarious, sobering, edifying, sad, and beautiful, but without fail powerful. The project is a testament to the power of words and being vulnerable with others: an entire community has sprung up around words that tell all of us that we’re not alone, we’re not the only weird ones, there are others out there like us, there is a common thread of humanity that binds us together.

Recently I had some great conversations with friends that brought us closer. Long story short, over a few days we discussed body image, eating disorders, doubt, sexuality, miscarriage, and a few other quasi-taboo and/or painful subjects. (Don’t worry, we also had fun, light, “normal” conversations over these days as well, and that balance is probably crucial.) We were able to be honest and open with each other. Just speaking to these friends and hearing their words was a very powerful experience. Do we try to have those conversations often enough? I don’t. True, these sorts of things demand wisdom in choosing when and with whom to discuss them, but they are important topics and worthy of being thought about and chewed on with friends and family at appropriate times. In real and concrete ways, these conversations, the words that are spoken, are an act of living the gospel just as much as serving the poor or participating in ordinances or any way we traditionally think of as “action” as opposed to talk. Words like “I love you” or “I’ve felt that too” or “I’m so sorry” or “I’ve wondered the same thing!” or “I accept you” or “I still love you” can sometimes soothe the soul just as effectively as a priesthood blessing. (But again with the words/acts combo: a hug is always a nice complement to such words.)

The gospel has a lot to teach us about the power of words. Testimony is one example that jumps to mind: just hearing the words describing other people’s spiritual experiences can precipitate our own. Other ways the gospel teaches us the same thing include the idea that Christ is called the Word. We see that words are powerful because in Genesis, God spoke, and the universe was organized. Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 says about missionaries: “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.”

But I believe that one of the best ways to learn the power of words in a gospel context is through prayer, which is the sub-topic I was given to speak on. A prayer is just words, but I think most of us have experienced the power that those words can bring about. I know that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was his prophet, and that this church is true because of prayer. I’ve been forgiven of my sins, taught things to do and to say, and been comforted via prayer. How can simple words do such marvelous things?

Part of it is certainly that backdrop of action that I mentioned earlier, which makes prayers more than empty words: the commitment to act on answers you receive makes it much more likely that you will get them in the first place. But also a lot of prayer’s power is in the communication itself. Prayer is like telling someone you love them for the first time: it’s a powerful, relationship-forging act just because you said it out loud, even if both people already knew it. Prayer is an act of divulging your innermost desires, fears, and feelings to a loving God, and asking for a response. It is trust. The very act of praying means that you recognize that you cannot counsel him but that you seek counsel from his hand. You enter into dialogue with God.

Dialogue is scary because by definition you have to be ready to admit that you are wrong. Or at the very least, that your position can be refined or clarified. Prayer is just one manifestation of this--how quickly do we throw that principle aside when we talk with others? We need that attitude always. We can learn a lot from prayer about how to communicate well with our fellow sisters and brothers. We should seek to learn more from them, not dictate to them how to live. We shouldn’t share every intimate detail and goal and success and sin and worry with everyone we meet, but I think we (and certainly I) err much too far on the side of not being vulnerable in conversations with our friends and family. We should strive to have similar kinds of conversations we have with God in prayer with those close to us. We can pray to God for strength, but we may also need to plead with our close loved ones for strength too, because after all it’s often through them that God answers those prayers.

Just as we stress how we shouldn’t just ring up God and ask him for a laundry list of things we’d like (the grocer model of God), we shouldn’t treat those around us as means to get what we want, either. We should remember to profusely thank not just God but also the people in our lives for the good things that happen to us. We should express ourselves but also remember to take plenty of time to stop and listen. In short, we can apply the basic principles of prayer to our conversations with everyday people. Things we learn from either context can inform and improve the way we talk to others; both should converge towards one ideal.

Another way the gospel teaches us the power of words comes from Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk from last conference titled The Why of Priesthood Service. He talks in-depth about how being taught the why of the gospel helped him know which of many “good” options to pursue in his leadership positions. To me, this shows that the words we use to understand a question, the framework we have in place when we deliberate how to act, is a strong predictor of how we will end up acting. We need to convey the principles of the gospel clearly, to ourselves and to others, if we want to achieve positive results in the form of Christlike actions. This is missionary work: to give people the practical knowledge of how God’s big plan works so that they can maximize the joy and growth they experience here on earth. The medium is the spoken and written word.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that words are a beautiful and integral part of the gospel. Don’t think they’re less than “actions,” but rather think of words as an opportunity to achieve even more than what traditional “actions” can. Bring the two together as two sides of the same coin. When words are done right, in the right context, they are acts themselves (for example, meaningful prayer and missionary work, which are predominantly about words). Both words and deeds are necessary, but today my message and invitation to you is to work on the words you speak, the conversations you have. Are they prayerful and humble? Are you coming closer to God by becoming more vulnerable and open with others? I know that just as when we’re in the service of our fellow human beings we are in the service of our God, so too when we are speaking Christlike words with others, we are speaking them with God.

[And I closed with an unscripted testimony about prayer and Christ.]


  1. STELLAR talk. Thank you for sharing it. I learned a LOT. You have given me MUCH to think about. I especially loved your insight about prayer and how it can teach us great communication skills. I would never have thought of that. Thanks!

  2. Glad to hear it prompted some good ideas for ya! I enjoyed writing it, and the cliche still holds true: I'm sure I learned more than anyone in the audience :) [And it's always cool to hear from new people, too: thanks for dropping by!]