At the end of Numbers 22, we see the importance that even the pagan prophet Balaam finally attaches to speaking the words that God gives him. After the angel explains that he was intending to kill him (presumably because God knew Balaam’s heart and that he was going to say whatever the pagan king told him to) Balaam through donkey-intervention, comes to his senses. The angel repeats:

“Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” (v35)

A few verses later, when Balaam meets up with the pagan king Balak, he tells him this restriction: “But can I say just anything? I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”

All of this has got me thinking about the power of words, and how they affect us. I’m sure most of us can remember something hurtful that someone once said to us, and in extreme circumstances, such words can alter the course of our whole life, sinking deep into our souls a well of doubt, uncertainty or even self-loathing which has had a crippling effect.

As a person whose role frequently involves speaking on behalf of God, explaining the Bible and its application to others, I’m very aware of the power of words for both good and evil.

I wonder if we thought about words the same way we thought about water, if there would be any difference in how we spoke. In terms of the volume, would we be a gushing river, careless drowning those around us, or would we be a careful, valuable, consistent, nourishing, life-giving supply? In terms of purity, is our speech pure, or is it contaminated with the bacteria of cussing, criticism, wounding sarcasm and gossip? We might argue that very little of our speech contains these items, but if I served you a glass of water and said that very little of it was contaminated with dog feces, would you drink it? In some situations, “very little” is way too much.

The New Testament has a wonderful command for those who claim to follow Christ. It’s found in 1 Peter 4:11:

11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. 

There’s a high standard if ever I heard one. We know from the beginning of Genesis how powerful the spoken word can be in terms of creation. It can be equally powerful in terms of destruction. Our words are like nuclear power – they can be used to warm a city (through a power station) or destroy one like Hiroshima, through a nuclear bomb.

In a way, it’s ironic that these words are written by Peter, the apostle who above all others, had a habit of being careless with speech, telling Jesus that he would not go to the cross (“Get thee behind me Satan,” was Jesus’ response) and denying in the courtyard that he even knew Jesus. He is now an older and a wiser man, who knows the importance of how we speak.

Will you speak words of life or death today? The choice is yours.

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