Have you ever said something that you immediately wished that you had not said? Maybe you had one of the classic slips of the tongue in the middle of a sermon, or it could be that you said something inaccurate that you wish you could correct. Perhaps you have even said something that, after some time has passed, you do not even believe to be true anymore.
Words are finicky things like that.
For the pastor, the goal of preaching and teaching is to communicate the Word of God in such a way that the hearer would open their heart and mind to the Lord in order that they would be transformed by the power of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit. Most pastors understand the weight of this responsibility as well as the prodigious honor that comes with the gifting and the call of their office. It is an honor because there are so many people that lean heavily on the words that their pastor speaks. Lives are regenerated and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but day-to-day actions are heavily influenced by words that are spoken on Sunday. That lays a heavy burden on the backs of pastors in order to communicate effectively, truthfully and responsibly. Pair the Sunday message with the daily influx of media messages that all but demand a ministerial response, and the pastor becomes someone with a profusion of words floating around in public space. The prayer of every pastor is that these words are heard and read in a manner that is true to the author’s intent, and helpful within the context of which they were expressed.
Even the right words, when said the wrong way, are the wrong words.
Hear the words of James when he says “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5) Many times this message is taught in regards to foul language, gossip and coarse joking, but the real intent of this passage is meant as a warning those who preach and teach. Communicators of God’s Word must be careful and intentional in the language, the tone and the expressions with with they communicate either verbally or in writing. In today’s culture, the words of religious authorities are being subjugated to dissection, inspection and deconstruction. Couple this deconstruction with a culture of outrage, and there is a tendency to receive words as harmful, even when there was no harm intended in the original context.
For those ordained to preach God’s Word, there has been great power given to your words. When a pastor uses words in a flippant or irresponsible manner, real people get hurt. It seems that the world is filling up with the stories of de-churched people who are telling their stories of spiritual abuse. There are differing levels of these types of stories, but one prominent theme is that a pastor has said something that was powerfully wounding to a hearer, and as a result this person was driven from the church.
I refuse to believe that (most) pastors and teachers of God’s Word do so with the intention of harming others. In fact many pastors, even those who have done harm, say the things that they say for a couple of reasons. First, they believe that what they are saying comes from the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and the accurate interpretation of the Scriptures. Also, they believe that what they are saying is loving to those who hear it. This love can be seen as “tough love” during times when the message is uncomfortable for hearers. Every rule has an exception, but I believe that the great majority of pastors have these two things in mind as they preach and teach. Sometimes, harm just happens.
Something similar happened with the prophet Elisha as he came into Bethel to sort out the Canaanite worship that was prevalent there. A familiar passage, 2 Kings 2:23-25 paints a picture of the power behind the words of someone ordained by God to speak the Word of God. You probably know the story, but after encountering a significant amount of jeering in Bethel, Elisha curses the ones who are disparaging him and two bears come out of the woods and maul (the actual word means tear apart) 42 of the youths there. FORTY-TWO! Most of the time that I read or hear this passage, it is in jest. If we take a moment and really process this short passage, the devastation that occurred that day finally sinks in, and I have always wondered if the prophet Elisha truly meant to have this happen when he cursed those young men. Besides the larger interpretation of the passage, and ultimately the typological reading that foreshadows Israel’s mocking of the Lord, this was a real event that had a magnitude of death that is not seen often.
I am not saying that Elisha’s words were accidental in any way, but I do wonder if the outcome was what he expected when he uttered the words that brought down the curse. We get no more context to the story. The next sentence simply tells us that he went on to Mount Carmel and Samaria. I have to think that he had a very heavy heart as he went along.
Reading 2 Kings 2:23-25 with James 3 in mind should at least make us more aware of the words that we use from a position of pastoral authority. Pray for discernment and wisdom. May your words be used to build the Church, and not to harm anyone.