Associate Administrator, Church Educational System
Ever since I was very young I have enjoyed the sound and taste and texture of words. I have wonderful memories of my mother reading children’s books and poetry to us, and later of our family sitting around the kitchen table, doing the “Word Power” section in the Reader’s Digest, testing our knowledge of the 20 words provided each month.
I realize there are times––especially at the end of a semester––after reading, writing, and hearing so many words you may be tempted to add your voice to that of Eliza Doolittle in the classic motion picture My Fair Lady when she states emphatically, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.”
While there are moments when words seem to get in the way or when we lament their inadequacy, they are nevertheless a very important part of our lives. Because we hear, read, and speak words so often, we may take them for granted. However, these unique packages of sounds and written symbols are vital for our education and success both temporally and spiritually. They help us define ourselves and the world around us. They help us establish and nurture relationships.
Words have power to trigger emotions, stimulate thoughts, and stir us to action. They can elicit joy, soothe a troubled mind, bring relief to the suffering and engender gratitude. We may have blissfully chanted in elementary school, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But that is just not true. Words can have a devastating effect. Words said to or about someone can ruin a reputation, crush hopes, inflict pain or bring tears of despair. As Elder Jeffry R. Holland quoted in a recent General Conference, “The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones” (“The Tongue of Angels,” Ensign, May 2007, 16).
Words, written or spoken, can linger with us for years, bringing back thoughts or feelings to cheer or discourage, to remind or to counsel. As we sing in church, “O the kind words we give shall in memory live and sunshine forever impart.” It is not uncommon to hear people say: “My father always said…” or “My mother used to tell me…” followed by some useful wisdom that has been important in their lives.
Such memories of Jacob’s words spoken about eternal life and the joy of the Saints prompted Enos to prayerfully seek a remission of his sins, and the recollection of his father’s words concerning the mission and redemptive power of the Savior caused Alma the Younger to cry out to the Lord for mercy in the midst of his spiritual anguish.
Sometimes words are just fun to say. Tongue twisters fall into this category, my favorite being: “A tutor who tooted the flute tried to tutor two tutors to toot, Said the two to the tutor is it harder to toot? Or to tutor two tutors to toot?”
Dr. Seuss was a master of using words in ways that have delighted people for years. Who does not enjoy reading aloud or listening to infectious cadences such as these from The Cat in the Hat:
I can hold up the cup
And the milk and the cake!
I can hold up these books!
And the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship
And a little toy man!
With my tail I can hold a red fan!
You may have been taught, as I was, that there are “magic words;” not “Hocus Pocus or “Open Sesame,”but “please, thank you, and you’re welcome.” These simple words express a thoughtfulness and civility that continue to be important.
Words come in many sizes. Some of the smallest can make the biggest difference. I’ll be eternally grateful that my wife’s response to my proposal of marriage was a three-letter word and not one of the two-letter variety! “If” is a small word with often major implications. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a long word with relatively minor implications.
Job exclaimed, “How forcible are right words!” (Job 6:25) And in Proverbs we read, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Sometimes written or spoken words are not the “right words” nor are they “fitly spoken.” When words are misused, the results can be either comical or disastrous depending on the situation. Some misuses are called malapropisms, after the character Mrs. Malaprop from the play The Rivals who, during the play, uttered in all seriousness such phrases as: “…she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” And, “He can tell you the perpendiculars.”
I’m guessing we’re all guilty of having occasionally used words in the wrong way. Sometimes words have layers of meaning that result in unintended communication. Consider the following headlines:
“Police begin campaign to run down jaywalkers”
“Two convicts evade noose, jury hung”
Or the following announcements gleaned from bulletins of various churches:
“For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.”
“Potluck supper Saturday at 5:00 p.m. – prayer and medication to follow.”
“Low Self-esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 p.m. Please use the back door.”
“The youth group will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the cultural hall Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.”
And every missionary who has had to learn a foreign language has numerous stories of words misused such as the time in Brazil my companion vigorously explained that those who refused to keep the commandments would become bandidos or “bandits” from the presence of God when he meant to say banidos or “banished”from His presence. The investigator must have wondered what type of God we represented!
The wise choice of words and the order in which they are arranged has produced magnificent prose and marvelous poetry by authors who have enriched our language and our lives. These words can invite us to think more broadly, feel more deeply, to see with more clarity and to wrestle more successfully with this mortal experience. Through such words we can become acquainted with other cultures and other times. Such words can be a window opening on an ever-expanding view of life or a mirror in which we can see into the depths of our own souls. They can express noble thoughts and present vivid descriptions.
Dylan Thomas, in one of my favorite poems entitled Fern Hill, evokes the magic and wonder of childhood. Allow to read a few excerpts:
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the Sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams
A few words from the section on Solitude in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden invite us to feel and see and hear what the author felt, saw, and heard; to share his experience:
“This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore… As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy…all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.”
Not all the descriptions and shared experiences are so pleasant. The words that make up the novel All Quiet on the Western Front bring us face to face with the realities of war and help us sense the terrible price, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, that war exacts. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator, after having us see several years of the horrific experiences of war through his eyes, expresses the following:
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another” (p. 263).
Other memorable words may be less visually descriptive but equally powerful in their message: For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare has Polonius share the following advice with his son, Laertes:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address concludes with simple, yet moving words:
“ … we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain––that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of––and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Joseph Smith’s prose in the account of the First Vision found in the Pearl of Great Price carries the straightforward ring of truth: “For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it…” (JS-H 1:25)
Often words have interesting origins that deepen and add a certain heft to their meaning. For instance, “seminary” comes from the Latin seminarium, meaning a seed plot or a piece of ground in which plants are sown to be afterwards transplanted. This literally has come to pass in the Church when we think of all the Seminary students who have been transplanted to locations in hundreds of nations around the earth as missionaries preaching the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
The word “edify” comes originally from the Latin roots aedes, meaning a dwelling or temple, and facere meaning to make. Therefore, “edify” relates to building a temple and means to build or strengthen spiritually. When we consider that we are called temples of God the word “edify”resonates even more richly with us as Latter-day Saints. “Enthusiasm” comes from combining en,meaning “in,” and theos, meaning “God” and is defined as “to be inspired by a god.” What a blessing then, to be truly enthused as we go from day to day!
King Benjamin was certainly aware of the importance of words and their potential for strengthening people spiritually. As he stood trembling with old age on the tower constructed on the temple grounds in Zarahemla and began his marvelous address, he said: “…for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view” (Mosiah 2:8).
And in his sermon he counseled his people to watch their thoughts and words as well as their deeds (Mosiah 4:30). The people believed the words King Benjamin spoke and that led to changed hearts and lives, illustrating the principle taught in Alma 31:5: “And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.”
In a sobering statement about our use of words with regards to other people, the Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount and reiterated to the Nephites: “And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council and whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22 & 3 Nephi 12:22).
The Savior underscored the care we should take in choosing our words when he warned, “I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). As the Savior explained: “…those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart…” (Matthew 15:18)
I’m guessing we all have page after page of idle, and not so idle, words––perhaps spoken thoughtlessly or carelessly––that we would like erased before that day of judgment. Elder Holland taught:
“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.”
“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.’
“Our words, like our deeds, should be filled with faith and hope and charity…With such words, spoken under the influence of the Spirit, tears can be dried, hearts can be healed, lives can be elevated, hope can return, confidence can prevail.
“Like all gifts ‘which cometh from above’ words are ‘sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit’” (“The Tongue of Angels,” Ensign, May 2007).
If we compare the words we give to others and the words we receive from them to gifts we soon realize that they come in a variety of wrappings. Some words are wrapped in love or encouragement; some are wrapped in ridicule, some in impatience or anger.
Words wrapped in love can be unwrapped with hope and joy. Those wrapped in anger, impatience or ridicule, when opened, can inflict pain, humiliation, or spark a desire for retaliation. We would be wise to pause from time to time and weigh our words carefully, reflecting on the impact they may have on others. What is their effect when unwrapped in the mind and in the heart? Do they edify or build spiritually? Or do they tear down and destroy? Do they hurt? Or heal?
Besides the words we say or write there are other words we should consider for a moment; these are the words that should have been spoken or written; words we thought of saying, planned to say, perhaps were even prompted or inspired to say but that remained stillborn.
Many of you may recall the old black-and-white movie A Wonderful Life, which allows an individual to see how important his life is to those around him and how things would have been much worse if he had not continued to live. It may be instructive for each of us if we were somehow able to view how our life and the lives of others would have been different if the unexpressed words of love, gratitude, counsel and commendation we thought of saying, even intended to say or write, had actually been shared.
What happiness, encouragement, and comfort would have been added if we had made the effort? I’m afraid there are times when we think of making a phone call, sending a text, note, or letter but we get busy, we forget, we get lazy, or we convince ourselves that it won’t really matter. I can’t help but think that there are many such words we should have said, but didn’t.
President David O. McKay once taught:
“You know, I am afraid too many of us are like that Scotsman…who had lost his wife by death. His neighbor called on him to give comfort to him, saying what a good neighbor his wife had been, how thoughtful of others she had been, and what a good wife she had been to Jock, who was mourning her death. Jock answered: ‘Aye, Tammas, Janet was a guid woman, a guid neighbor as you say…She was, aye, a guid true wifey tae me, and I cam’ near tellin’ her sae aince or twice’ (Oct. 1968 General Conference).
We should be quick and sincere with words of love and comfort, commendation and appreciation. The Duke of Wellington, the general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, was asked near the end of his life if he would do anything differently if he could go back. He replied, “I should have given more praise.”
Honest praise warms and cheers the soul. Praise, however, should not be confused with flattery, which is one misuse of the wonderful gift of words. There are other ways to misuse words. Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor in the Book of Mormon employed words, often very skillfully, to deceive, lead people away from the truth and entice them to sin. There are many in today’s world who do the same.
Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright, poet and politician, pointed out, “Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame…beguile, words that are harmful—lethal, even” (Acceptance speech, German Booksellers Association Peace Prize, Oct. 1989). It is important to use words to express truth. The scriptures teach: “Wo unto the liar, for he shall be thrust down to hell” (2 Nephi 9:34).
The Prophet Joseph Smith deepened our understanding of the power of words 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”(Lectures on Faith, 72-73).
Other scriptural examples of words wrapped in faith include the brother of Jared, who “said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed” (Ether 12:30). Nephi taught his brothers, “Now ye know that Moses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work and ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither…” (1 Nephi 17:26).
The scriptures have many examples of the great power of the Savior’s words. When a storm raged on the Sea of Galilee, frightening his disciples, the Savior “arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). And, standing before the tomb of his friend who had been dead for four days, the Savior “cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth…” (John 11:43-44).
We are exhorted to “feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do” (2 Nephi 32:5). We read in Psalms: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105). To obtain this instruction and light is one reason it is so important for us to study the scriptures each day.
Speaking of the scriptures, the Savior told Joseph Smith, “These words are not of men nor of man, but of me…” And, as we read and hear these words, the Savior explained, “…you can testify that you have heard my voice, and know my words” (D&C 18:36). We are told to treasure up in our minds “continually the words of life” (D&C 84:85). “For,” as the Savior taught, “you shall live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God” (D&C 84:44).
Elder Holland has encouraged students of the gospel “to read more slowly and more carefully…to ponder, to examine every word, every scriptural gem…to hold it up to the light and turn it, look and see what’s reflected and refracted there…” (“Students Need Teachers to Guide Them,” CES Broadcast, June 1992).
Some of the most important words we receive are inspired words wrapped in authority and power. Our patriarchal blessings are examples of such words. They should be read and reread, studied and pondered. Sometimes we receive other inspired blessings; we hear the words spoken and feel the Spirit of the message but then go about our busy lives hoping the words will take effect but never thinking about them again. Perhaps it would be well to write down and review some of the words we receive in such blessings. Elder Richard G. Scott taught: “…the practice of writing down inspired ideas invites additional revelation.”
And it is important to note that the essential, saving ordinances that are part of our path to eternal life are not just actions but words as well. The physical act of an individual, even with proper authority, immersing someone in water without the words: “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen” would not constitute a baptism.
Words that bestow upon us the gift of the Holy Ghost as well as the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods are brimming with eternal possibility as are those far reaching and glorious words, spoken in the holy temples, that seal us together as husband and wife, and allow for the creation of eternal families. There are times when it is words that enable us to continue along the path to eternal life. Those who have received their temple endowments will know how essential certain words are, and will be, in allowing us to return to the presence of the Father.
It is very significant that in the gospel of John, in the Book of Revelation, and in the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, is called the Word, even the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “For in the beginning was the Word, even the Son, who is made flesh, and sent unto us by the will of the Father. And as many as believe on his name shall receive of his fullness…even immortality and eternal life, through his grace” (JST John 1:16). “Therefore in the beginning the Word was, for he was the Word, even the messenger of salvation” (D&C 93:8).
The “Word,” translated from the Greek into English, is “logos.” The way it is used in the book of John and in the book of Revelation means “the divine expression.” (See Strong’s Concordance John 1:1-3) Christ, therefore, is the divine expression, the messenger of salvation. One way the Savior is “the divine expression” is that he taught the divine doctrine of His Father. Whether as the premortal Jehovah, the mortal Jesus, or the resurrected Lord, the Savior gave expression to the doctrines and principles of the eternal gospel that can lead us to immortality and eternal life and a return to the Father’s presence. He explained, “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me” (John 7:16) and he taught the Nephites the “words which I am commanded of the Father to speak unto you…” (3 Nephi 17:2).
He is also “the divine expression” in that He is the perfect embodiment of all the attributes of godliness, thus by His actions as well as His words He was and is the expression of what is means to be a God. Jesus Christ is also called the “messenger of the covenant” (3 Nephi 24:1) and “the mediator of the new covenant” (D&C 107:19). In these roles He established and articulated both the old and the new covenants, or testaments, and through the words of these covenants helped explain our relationship with and our duty to God and the eternal possibilities they offer.
Jesus is also our Advocate with the Father. “I am,” He said, “the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father” (D&C 110:4). An advocate is one who intercedes on behalf of another, who pleads their cause. As our advocate with the Father and the mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ not only teaches and exemplifies the words the Father has commanded Him to speak, but He uses words to make intercession in our behalf with a loving and powerful eternal eloquence.
We read in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—Saying: Father behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed… Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life” (D&C 45:3-5).
Jesus Christ, the Word of God, does perfectly all those things that lesser words can do to bless us on our journey to eternal life. Among other things, He gives direction and hope, expresses love, encourages, illuminates, heals, comforts, and reproves. Shortly before his death, the prophet Lehi spoke earnestly to his sons: “I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life…” (2 Nephi 2:28).
May we be faithful unto the Savior’s words and choose eternal life. May the words we read and write and speak lead us, and those with whom we communicate, to Him who is the Word that we may one day hear Him speak the words of joyful invitation: “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matthew 25:23).