This article is part of our series on The Power of Words. Words have always had the power to create life or to create death. Just like sticks and stones can break our bones, words can also break our spirit and our communion with God and others. Our hope is that this series will encourage and enable you to speak life-giving words to others by being rooted deeply in God’s Word. Read previous articles in this series here:
- “Sticks and Stones and Words that Hurt” by Gretchen Saffles
- “Speaking from the Overflow” by Jessica Mathisen
- “Winning the War” by Maggie Combs
- “Building Others Up” by Fernie Cosgrove
A few weeks ago, someone directed me to a series of Instagram stories published by @cottonstem. In them, Erin (which is this influencer’s actual name) sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her phone. She nervously informed her roughly 600k followers that she would be taking an extended break from Instagram. Waving her hands, she pleaded with them not to offer suggestions. She said, “I am not looking for a diagnosis from anyone on the internet that doesn’t know me in real life…I can’t receive that.” Then she showed pictures of her head missing chunks of hair, which her doctors attributed to stress.
She explained that she needed time away to decide if she wanted to continue making her life available for public consumption. Through laughter laced with cynicism and exhaustion, she remarked, “I probably don’t need to explain why Instagram would make someone’s hair fall out from stress. It has been insane for the last year.”
My account has nowhere near Erin’s following, but I found myself nodding along with her explanation of her own departure. Maybe you’ve felt it too? Even if you have less than 100 followers, you've likely experienced the weight of someone's careless or painful words on the internet. Are they talking about me? Around October 2020, I also excused myself from the internet. I couldn’t take it anymore. What led to my leaving? Words.
The weight of the words of the internet was just too much. There were general words:
Words about what who you voted for meant about you.
Words telling me what to believe and words telling me how to feel.
There were words calling people names and marring reputations.
Words telling me what to do and what not to do.
Words telling me who to follow and who to unfollow.
Some words demanding immediate action: links, replies, advocacy, and input.
Then there were more personal words.
Words accusing me of being a controlling parent.
Words about how I needed psychological help.
Some words complimenting or critiquing what I was wearing in any given photo.
Words about the placement of my Christmas tree and furniture in the background of videos.
Words criticizing the language I use with my children.
More words condemning my decision to visit Sea World.
Words telling me how to use my platform.
Words assaulting my character.
And words giving me law when I was trying to share gospel.
The Effect of Words
You see, words have power. I wanted that to not be true. I wanted to be unaffected. But I wasn’t. See, I was affected by the direct and indirect words of others. I thought about them when my head hit the pillow, when I got dressed, when I took my kids to the beach, when I sat down to create… They were the source of my anxiety, and I had to stop the noise to live my life and love my family well. I also became incredibly conscious of how my own words and comments might be affecting other people. It all became too much. So, I—like Erin, a woman with a real life and a real family whose name is not @cottonstem—excused myself.
I can anticipate the critical words I may receive here because experience has trained my brain. Isn’t my reaction to those words my responsibility? Shouldn’t I have thicker skin with a public account? But I don’t have to be ashamed when I observe or experience the powerful effect of words because the Bible attributes this power to them. The Bible says words have power, and great power at that.
Besides the fact that the Author of the universe spoke the world into being with words, Proverbs proclaims that death and life are in the power of the tongue (18:21). It shares that the response we employ has the power to diffuse or escalate a situation (15:1). That keeping our mouth and tongue can keep us out of trouble (21:23). It shares that gracious words can be sweet to the soul and bring literal health to the body (like, you know, keeping someone’s hair from falling out) (16:24). And that guarding our mouth can help us live longer and that opening it at the wrong time can bring a person to ruin (13:3).
But the Bible doesn’t just tell us what our words can do; it also tells us how we are to use them. We are to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Paul teaches to not let corrupting talk come out of our mouths. Rather, only what fits the occasion and builds up, to give grace to everyone who hears (Eph. 4:29). We are to have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies that breed quarrels (whoa, hey 2020) (2 Tim. 2:23). We are to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:1–2).
And here’s what James says about obedience to these commands:
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless” (1:26). Yikes.
The trouble is that many of us who seek to honor God with our words in our real lives disregard those same biblical commands when we log onto Instagram or Facebook. We act as if they don’t apply to the words we type.
A Holy Disconnect
How have I observed this? Believers sharing memes slandering and mocking individuals and people groups (your elected official is your neighbor). Believers going to war in the comments sections with strangers to whom they offer no dignity or respect. Or believers who condemn Christian musicians for their vanity through name-calling and accusations.
We see believers clapping back quickly in defensive comments. Believers publically maligning one another (and they’re supposed to know we’re Christians by our love?). Believers casually publishing unbiblical and unresearched posts leading others astray (maybe this is a reason James warns that not many should be teachers). I’ve seen things posted by dear Christian friends that I could never imagine coming out of their mouths.
Identifying and Seeing our Neighbor
But perhaps when we are crafting online comments and responses in private, it feels anonymous. Perhaps because we can’t see the faces of those whom our words affect, it appears as if there is no consequence. But we don’t obey God’s Word to avoid consequences. We obey God’s Word because he is good and because it is for our good.
When we casually pick up our phones in isolation on our sofas or in our beds, we forget that the people on the other end of our content, comments, critiques, concerns, and criticisms are precious image-bearers and neighbors whom we are commanded to love as ourselves (Gen. 1:27; Mark 12:31). We craft our responses and publish them into an abyss where we cannot see their effect on their readers. We don't see the people, the souls in need of God’s mercy and grace offered them in Christ Jesus. Just because we cannot see the effect of our words doesn’t mean they have none; the words of the Bible almost guarantee that they do.
Starting with the Heart
Seeing the power of words in the book of Proverbs makes me long for direction, but seeing this list of commands from the Bible concerning my words feels overwhelming. And so we must do two things:
First, we must take to heart the words of Christ concerning our own words: “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). So that what flows from our minds to our fingertips and thumbs and appears typed out on a screen will be oozing with love, wisdom, grace, and charity. It should reveal good treasure from the good stored up in our hearts.
Part of the problem is that we are disciples of the internet instead of students of the Word. We have false intimacy with the people we follow online and little intimacy with our Savior. Our vicarious living in an online world has become a vicarious spiritual life.
We need—we desperately need—to be logged off and to be with Jesus. We need to see him seeing us. And we need to see him seeing the people with whom we interact online—and to give us eyes to see them as he does. We need him to renew our hearts and minds offline so that the words we produce online would honor him. The same tongue that blesses our Father in our bio should not curse people who are made in the likeness of God (James 3:9–10).
Secondly, before we send words out into the interweb, we need to pray:
Set a guard, O LORD, over my [fingers and thumbs]; keep watch over the door of my [keyboard] (Ps. 141:3)! Let the words of my [social media account] and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Ps. 19:14).
Wielding Words for the Glory of God
The words you use online have power. They have power to do harm, but they also have power for immense good. Which is why I am back on social media. I am seeking to walk in obedience with the words I use online for the glory of God and the good of my neighbor. So let’s first be in the Word offline. And then use our words intentionally and obediently, not to tear down. But to encourage, build up, speak the truth, seek unity, and to proclaim the excellencies and display the love of Christ.
Then, maybe, rather than the internet being a place where we are wounded, shamed, and fractured, we can grow as the body, building one another up into Christ, our head (Eph. 4:15). Then, maybe instead of being a reason our anxiety spikes causing damage to our physical bodies, the internet can be a place where, through the display of love and good works, we can grow the body of Christ (John 13:35).
The words you use online have power. I entreat you, my sister, to wield them for the glory of God and the good of your neighbor.
For more encouragement on walking in obedience with your words online for the glory of God, read Why I Won’t Quit Social Media by Well-Watered Women’s founder, Gretchen Saffles. If you’re interested in learning more about what it looks like to practically wield your online words for good, sign up for the Instagram for Jesus challenge. This is our free 10-day email challenge that will help you learn to use social media in a way that redeems it from a trap to a tool for highlighting the glory of God to the world around us.
Meet the Author:
Abbey Wedgeworth a wife, mother, writer, and speaker located on the South Carolina coastline. She is passionate about Bible literacy and discipleship and loves to see how the gospel transforms how people think and live. Abbey is the author of Held: 31 Biblical Reflections on God’s Comfort and Care in the Sorrow of Miscarriage, the host of the Held podcast, and the curator of the Gentle Leading Advent Devotional for Moms. You can find more from Abbey at abbeywedgeworth.com.