“Be careful what you say – it may just happen.”
This is not far from what you are likely to hear from well-meaning Christians. This is taught from some of the largest and most televised pulpits, but it is much closer to mysticism than it is to Christianity.
The Bible does have something to say about watching what we say (unkind words can hurt people; we should be slow to speak), but it is a very different message than the one we’re talking about here. In fact, it turns out the verse that people often cite on this topic is not a verse at all. You may have heard it worded something like this: “Don’t speak it!” Or, in the affirmative, it could be stated that faith involves “Calling things that are not as though they were”. Here’s the problem – it’s not in the Bible.
These phrases have taken on a life of their own. They are something like Christian urban legends. They have been heard and repeated so many times that they often enter our vocabulary without us even being aware of it, even though there is no biblical basis for this belief.
So where does this come from? Well, the Bible does actually contain something very close to the phrase in question, but not in this context. I think this belief arose because of a misunderstanding of the “power of the tongue”.
First, the lone Biblical instance of the saying occurs in Romans 4:17, but it does not refer to faith, and it does not refer to us. In fact, it’s not a promise or even an instruction – it’s an identification. Paul is writing to a church he had not met. He wanted to be crystal clear who he was talking about. In addition, the church he’s writing to is situated in the heart of an empire that made gods out of everything. They had gods for rain, war, fertility, and everything else imaginable. Paul was making sure they didn’t miss his point. He was saying this God is not only the God of the Jews, but the God of all. He is not only the father of the people of Israel, he is the father of all. He is the one true God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” This was not a false god who sometimes brings rain and sometimes does not. This is the God who makes rain from nothing, and causes it to fall on the earth which he also made from nothing. He is the one who simply said “Let there be”, and there was. There’s only one God who does that. He’s the one I’m talking about.
In this passage, Paul is identifying God. There is no application to us. There is no comparison to faith. God is God – we are not. The only biblical references to speaking things into existence make it clear that this is God’s domain – not ours.
Another verse that is occasionally put into service to support this notion of positive confession is this:
Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.1
Here’s the trouble. This is not God instructing us how to get what we want. This is God instructing us how to want what we get. If we truly delight in the Lord, will we really desire anything selfish? No – if truly find our delight in the Lord, that means we are becoming more like him. And if we become like him, what grieves him grieves us. What brings him joy brings us joy. His desires become our desires. Then we will see the desires of our heart because we have a new heart. Jesus expanded on this same principle in Luke 12. In short – don’t worry about food, clothes, or even your very life, because God knows what you need. Seek God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you. For wherever your treasure is, your heart will follow. Doesn’t that sound kind of like “delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”? This does not refer to speaking, claiming, or confessing. It sounds a lot like good old Micah 6:8: “…act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
We can’t speak things into existence, but that is not to say that the tongue doesn’t have power. The Bible uses this sort of language a lot, but it is a different kind of power. Solomon was a wise man, so he wrote with a lot of metaphors. He described things with flowery language to make an impact. So rather than saying “what you say can make people feel good or bad”, he said “your tongue has the power of life and death!”2. It’s a more interesting read his way, and it gets the message across quite plainly. Too many people trying to build a doctrine around Romans 4:17 bring in various Proverbs and other unrelated scriptures, but end up with an unfortunate and inaccurate theology because they are assuming a connection that isn’t there.
Another example from Solomon does a good job of expressing the meaning he had in mind:
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly… The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.3
This makes sense, doesn’t it? How good do we feel after someone encourages us? Doesn’t that bring us life, in a sense? It is invigorating! It affirms us and motivates us to press on! Similarly, how deeply is our heart cut when we are criticized or shamed? Don’t we just feel like dying, to use another expression? It can kill our hopes and dreams, and demoralize us completely.
The power of the tongue lies in its ability to affirm and love in order to initiate and build relationships. The negative potential does not bring physical death to a person, but the end of relationship and the wounding of a heart. This reinforces the entire New Testament message of the importance of community.
A Closing Suggestion
We humans have a tendency to invent and redefine language. We do this primarily inside the confines of our groups. Words often mean something different in one generation than they do in another. They also can have wildly different connotations from one ethnic group to another. Regional differences are interesting as well. (Have you ever asked for a “Coke” in the South and received an orange Crush?)
We do this in church too. It’s not intended to be exclusive or isolationist, but that’s the natural result. We talk about being sanctified… washed in the blood… having ‘quiet time’ in our ‘prayer closet’… If you grew up in the church, you probably know what you mean – but do the people you are speaking to know?
Along this line, rather than confusing phrases like “speak life [death] over…” or “positive confession” or “calling things that are not…”, why not use phrases that are accurate and accessible to most people we talk to today? Some suggestions would be to replace those sayings with understandable language . Some examples…
- Instead of, “we should speak life over this situation”, why not say “let’s pray about this”?
- Instead of correcting someone for “speaking death”, why not suggest that building someone up is more effective than tearing them down – or promoting encouragement rather than discouragement?
- Rather than phrases such as “positive confession”, what about using Thumper’s advice “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all”, which is really an echo of Paul’s advice: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable.”4. They both express true sentiments that are also Biblical.
- Instead of “calling things that are not as though they were”, why not say “ I know that God is aware of my desires and my circumstances and I place my full trust in him – whatever happens”?
What we say is important. God is interested in our thoughts and words. But if we aren’t careful, we can say confusing and inaccurate things. God cares about us and he hears us. That should be the message that comes through.