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Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Power and Limit of Words

A friend asked me to examine the claim - based on Proverbs 18:21 - that our words can cause physical sickness or healing.

"The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit."  

I let the rest of Scripture interpret this verse, studying other passages to see if any confirmed this Proverbs 18:21 doctrine.

I couldn't find a single passage (not even Proverbs 18:21) that clearly or directly attributed sickness to spoken words. 

James three devotes 18 verses to the power of the tongue, but never addresses physical sickness, healing, or death.

When I studied commentaries, I found that most Bible scholars agree that the reference to life and death is related to false testimony that might convict someone of a crime or endanger them.

I concluded that words are powerful. They express love, hate, encouragement, hypocritical judgment, truth, or lies. But Scripture doesn't support the belief that human words alone cause life or death.

In fact, Deuteronomy 32:39 says God alone has that power.

Bible Study 

1. It's dangerous to base theology on a Proverb alone. Solomon prefaces the book of Proverbs saying it is a book of "wise sayings." Nowhere is it presented or described as promises. 

If every Proverb were a promise, all wicked people would die young and all righteous people would live long lives (Proverbs 10:27).  All godly people would have earthly lives of ease and safety (Proverbs 1:33).  Adultery would be an unpardonable sin (Proverbs 6:33).  I could continue, but I think you get the idea that we can't claim all Proverbs as promises. 

The proverbs that are promises are confirmed in other Scriptures.

For more on this subject, check out this Bite Size Study help: Proverbs Aren't Promises.

2. It is dangerous to create theology on a single verse even if it isn't a proverb. 

For example, if we drew all of our beliefs about healing from James 5:14-16, we would assume all sickness can be healed by the prayers of the elders and/or confession of sin although it doesn't specify "all." But James 5:14-16 is only part of the story on healing. we must add it to every other passage on healing before drawing conclusions. If you want to see this illustrated with the subject of prayer, check out Pieces Parts

3. Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture. How do the following passages help us interpret the meaning of Proverbs 18:21?
  • We cannot Limit God simply by something we say or don't say. God can do things we haven't even imagined, let alone spoken.
Ephesians 3:20: Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us..
  • We have limited physical power of life and death over another human being (i.e. we can murder someone or falsely accuse them of a crime), but God determines the final outcome. The extrapolated meaning of Proverbs 18:21 cannot negate the clear statement of Deuteronomy 32:39.
Deuteronomy 32:39: "See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand." [says the Lord]

  • However, our words are still very important. They reflect our faith in God, our thoughts, our character. The following verses contain important details about our words, but none of these passages (or any others) say that we can cause sickness or healing by our words alone.

Matthew 12:36: But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 

Ephesians 4:29: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 

For the sake of space I have not included this entire passage, but it is linked if you would like to read the missing verses
James 3: 5-6, 9-10, 17-18: Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell...9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be...17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. 

  • Paul makes the following statement about Timothy's health. According to The Word of Faith beliefs, Paul would have been speaking illness into Timothy's life by these words. Paul speaks of Timothy's "frequent illness" without mentioning sin, unbelief, or spoken words. Since we know Paul was a bold teacher and we know God's Word is divinely inspired, we can assume that Timothy's frequent illnesses were not related to sin, spoken words, or lack of faith. If they were, Paul would have addressed these things because he loved Timothy and wanted what was best for him. For more on healing, see the Bite Size Study: Does Faith Heal?
1 Timothy 5:23: Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. 

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