Bless and Curse Not: a Path to Loving Words Well

Sarah Chestnut shows how the biblical exhortation to bless with our words offers a rich understanding of the purpose of language.
Reading Time: 13 minutes

The Bible is rich with teachings about the work of our words, from lines of poetry to pastoral exhortation, from wisdom proverbs to prophetic utterances. The psalmists remind us that the tongue and lips are for the praise of God and not deceit (Ps. 34:13; 119:171-2), Solomon observes that rash words kill while wise words bring healing (Prov. 12:18), and Jesus unequivocally links the words of the mouth with the state of a person’s heart (Matt. 12:36-37). James depicts the tongue as a rudder, moving a person like a ship and soberly appraises the hypocritical capacity to at once “bless our Lord and Father…and curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (See James 3:2- 10). The Apostle Paul, too, uses the language of blessing and cursing in his instructions to the Christians in Rome: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom.12:14). The Biblical language of ‘blessing’ and ‘cursing’ offers a very deep well to draw from when asking what it might mean to love and care for and with words.

Except in reference to taboo “four letter words,” or as a synonym for an evil spell, ‘curse’ is rarely heard today. In contrast, ‘bless’ is used frequently and variously, from ‘blessing’ someone who sneezes to bumper sticker prayers (“God bless the U.S.A.”) to mildly amused appraisals of awkward people or well-meaning actions (“Bless her heart”). Whether because of disuse, overuse or misuse, the meanings of these deeply Biblical words, and especially their connotations to the Hebrew imagination, need to be recovered if we are to heed Paul’s directive in more than a cursory or shallow manner. Throughout the New Testament the Greek word eulogeō (to speak well of, to praise, to flatter) is used to convey the idea of ‘blessing.’ Eulogeō is also the word used in the Greek translation
of the Old Testament to render the Hebrew word barak,
a term that “is bound to a very rich theological set of semantic construals.”1 Suffice it to say eulogeō, and most certainly our contemporary uses of ‘bless’, fall short of a more comprehensive Biblical vision for the term. A fuller appreciation of the Hebrew barak can fill out an otherwise anemic understanding of what it might mean for us to “bless and…not curse.”

Barak is used almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament for the verb bless, and etymologically, its meaning is “shrouded in mystery.”2 Theories of the root meanings include break down (into pieces); kneel; hence, “adore.” What is not mysterious is that God is first to bless and blessing is his to give. If it is within the range of semantic possibilities to imagine God’s act of blessing as God kneeling to his creation, we see from the beginning intimations of
the Incarnation: God in Jesus is God unequivocally with his creation from the beginning.

Genesis 1 shows that God speaking, creating, seeing goodness, and blessing happen together. Before there is speech there is a speaker, and the words of the speaker
have the power to create. The speaker sees what is created and blesses it—a speech-act that sees the inner coherence between what is spoken and what is made, and is pleased. Additionally, God’s blessing involves commands to be fruitful, to multiply, and to humans, to have dominion over all of creation (Gen. 1:22, 28). God speaks, creates, sees goodness, blesses, and the result of blessing is fruitfulness. Ephraim Radner summarizes, “Blessing is life created by and from God, a life that gives life and extends life.”3 Put differently, life is a gift contingent on God’s blessing. The converse is also true: God’s blessing is contingent on living life as God created it. That existence is first and foremost a gift given by God is critical for our concern for words today, for as Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has observed, “…the marketing language that dominates descriptions of human interaction in a capitalist economy obscures a much deeper understanding of the gift character of all that is, and our familial relationship to all life and especially to each other.”4

It is also noteworthy that God speaks blessing: “And God blessed them, saying…” (1:22); “And God blessed them. And God said…” (1:28); and in the retelling of the human creation story in Genesis 5: “Male and female
he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man…” (v.2). Again in God’s covenant with Noah after
the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them…” And again—and perhaps most profoundly—in God’s covenant with Abram: “the LORD said…and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be
a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). This promise of beautifully entangled blessing is the first time we explicitly see a human being become a blessing, a mediator of God’s blessing. Yet I would argue that even back in the garden, humans are given the vocation of blessing, and this too
is linked with speaking. In the Genesis 2 account of the creation of humans, man is put in the garden of Eden
“to work it and keep it,” and God brings the animals before man to see what he would name them. Why is this work—this naming—part of the working and keeping of the garden? Is it not the right of the creator to name his creation? Naming strikes me as an exceedingly parental right, and yet perhaps it is not too great a stretch to see this work of naming as God’s invitation to man to (I use the theologically weighty term advisedly) adopt the rest of creation as his. It seems, strangely enough, that God is to some extent sharing the divine right to bless with humans.

If blessing is God creating life and thickening it with blessing—adding life to life to life in interconnected layers of sustaining care—the Hebrew notion of “cursing” (qalal), Ephriam Radner notes, “seems to imply ‘thinning out’ reality, making it light and superfluous, and finally lifeless.”5 This picture of thinning—of wasting away in
a famine—brings to mind disconnection, fragmentation, shallowness and façade. A shell-like existence and shell-like words. And this is exactly how speech is used in Genesis 3, in the serpent’s deception of Eve.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The two words “actually say” leap out as full of incredulity that God could mean what he says, and of course, as the woman rightly points out, God did not actually say what the serpent suggested. But reality is thinned out as the power of suggestion hangs heavy: God doesn’t mean what he says, God doesn’t stand by his words. Though the word ‘curse’ does not appear here, I would argue that what is happening is curse-like: reality is being thinned out; God’s trustworthiness and his faithfulness to his words is radically questioned. And of course a curse
is precisely what ensues: they ate and their eyes were opened, but rather than a heightened vision of depth and complexity and connectedness, there is nakedness. Craig Gay writes, “Tragically, the serpent managed to deceive our first parents, thereby introducing death, corruption, and the distortion of language into our world […] Refusing to take words seriously or deceitfully playing with them is still the surest way to confuse and to unmake our world.”6 So it stands: death and life are indeed in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21).

What does blessing and cursing with our words— giving life or dealing death—look like today? Here I will consider two sets of contrasting possibilities for words: first, deceit versus speaking truth, and second, terrorizing with words versus healing with words.

All the way back in the garden of Eden, words were used to deceive. Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Lying” depicts the work and nature of deception exceedingly well. He considers the “airy fabrication” produced for the sake of small talk at a party, then the “toxic” nature of pretentious chatter. He identifies boredom at the root of this: “a dull/ impatience or a fierce velleity,/A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude,/To make or do” and sees that behind boredom is a failure to see the world as it really is and respond with due thankfulness. This, he shows, is precisely what was behind the first deception. He writes, “In the strict sense, of course,/We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each morning brings again to light…” and it is this fact of our contingency that so nettled the Devil, and drove the spite underlying his deceit:

There is what galled the arch-negator, sprung From Hell to probe with intellectual sight The cells and heavens of a given world Which he could take but as another prison: Small wonder that, pretending not to be, He drifted through the bar-like boles of Eden
In a black mist low creeping, dragging down
And darkening with moody self-absorption
What, when he left it, lifted and, if seen
From the sun’s vantage, seethed with vaulting hues.

(Underlining mine)

Behind deceit is the gall of not being able to make in the way God makes, to create. And so, the “given world” is taken as a prison; everything that is is seen through the black mist of “moody self-absorption,” and the work is spite, negation, and fraud. Reality is thinned out, made out to be superfluous, prison-like, lifeless. The curse of deceit is first a failure to see things as they really are, and to, in Wilbur’s words, “bear witness.”

A recent example of this failure is the Volkswagon emissions scandal, which was a blatant act of “thinning
out reality.” “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had devices in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results” all the while advancing “a huge marketing campaign trumpeting its cars’ low emissions”7 (Ibid.). This deceit depicts a familiar problem today: when persons are seen as merely consumers, the “moody self-absorption”— hear here, the profiteering agenda—becomes the “black mist” over a much brighter reality.

But deceit is often more subtle than this, taking the form of half-truth, spin and euphemism, which all rely on deliberate imprecision. MacIntyre notes, “…precision is difficult to achieve. Imprecision is easier. Imprecision is available in a wide variety of attractive and user-friendly forms: clichés, abstractions and generalizations, jargon, passive constructions, hyperbole, sentimentality, and reassuring absolutes.”8 Deliberate imprecision is a way in which lying can masquerade as confidence, tentativeness, sensitivity, even humility. All of these are critical traits to nurture when they are put in the service of truth telling, but where they merely serve to blur and blunt precision, they are agents of deceit. Wendell Berry describes such language as “unable to admit what it is talking about” (38). Political discourse is perhaps most infamous for this, especially language used around war. Phrases like “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation program” obscure the realities to which they refer: accidentally killing civilians and torture. As George Orwell said, when “certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract.”9

Two ways we might instead bless by speaking truth include bearing witness, and refusing to tolerate lies. Remember the words from Richard Wilbur’s poem: “In the strict sense, of course,/We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each morning brings again to light…” This is at once a maddeningly basic and dauntingly lofty goal: to bend our full faculties toward what is, to perceive well—and then to articulate it! This involves close and patient observation, attentive listening and the humility to be transparent with our own limitations. This posture of bearing witness is prerequisite to the work of precision and to the task of resisting lies. This is a posture to take before God, each other, and creation, and this work of witnessing—of perceiving—must come before the work of speaking. So to tell the truth we must first “bear witness/To what each morning brings again to light,” and when words are spoken, we love them by attending to them. To riff on Wilbur’s line: We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each speaker speaks, to get it right…” To love words, and to love with words means we attend “to the ways the word is used, not merely to some notion of how it should be used. It means humbly inquiring what the user means, and then listening” (45). In this way loving words through bearing witness means learning to love silence, and its vital relationship to truth hearing, and truth telling.

When it comes to resisting deliberate imprecision and other cursing deceptions, refusing to tolerate lies begins with resisting our own preference to be deceived. McEntyre writes, “Indeed, we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to.” She quotes Pascal’s observation, offered “long before the age of media spin, ‘We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered and people flatter us; we like being deceived, and we are deceived.” Piercingly, she lists what seem to
be the deceptions we especially want today: “those that comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.”10 Calling those who lie to account begins first by calling ourselves to account for our tolerance of— or passivity toward—lies. For words to give life, to bless, there must be a speaker behind what is spoken and a hearer whose involved listening holds the speaker accountable. Herein lies the heart of the problem: we expect to be lied
to and so we are cynical. We want to be lied to, and so we are passive. But loving and caring for words, and choosing to bless rather than to curse with them requires that we seek truth, and hold those in leadership to account for their words. This means “clarifying where there is confusion; naming where there is evasion; correcting where there is error; fine tuning where there is imprecision; satirizing where there is folly; changing the terms when the terms falsify.”11 These are numerous and complex responsibilities and not one of us can fulfill them alone. These are tasks for whole communities, churches, and schools.

Deception distances us from reality—thins it out—and it does so on a path toward blotting out reality all together. The cursing potential for words to deal death—to terrorize—stands in stark contrast to the God- given intention for language: to give life. Recently the BBC carried an article about a Syrian Catholic priest who had been kidnapped by the Islamic State, held for three months and regularly threatened with execution. Father Jack Murad said of his captivity: “We were well-fed, given medical treatment, and never tortured…what stood out
was the verbal abuse…For them, my fate for refusing to convert to Islam was death. To frighten us, they would even tell us in detail how we would die. They are truly gifted at using words and imagery to terrorise.”12 Of course,
the Islamic State is not the first or only military body to
use words—among many other means—to terrorize. The myriad abuses of language by the Third Reich are well- documented. Words that strike fear, manipulate, taunt and threaten are perhaps most noticeable and most appalling to us when they are spoken by those acting on a global stage with widespread impact, but playground and school hall power struggles begin with bullying—even terrorizing— words. The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words—or names—can never hurt me” has it exactly wrong. Craig Gay notes, “Indeed, words can crush our spirits more efficiently and effectively than perhaps any other single agency,” (12). And Solomon observed “A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Prov. 18:14).

One way of responding to the power of language to terrorize in small and large ways is described in The Atlantic article, “Better Watch What You Say!: The Coddling of the American Mind.” Writers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, take a critical look at the priority placed in colleges and universities on protecting students from words and ideas they don’t like—words and ideas that ‘trigger’ or offend them. The trend basically amounts to policing language in the name of protecting students’ emotional well-being. “Microaggressions”— “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless” are condemned, an example of this being the question, “Where were you born?” posed to an Asian or Latino American—the subtext of the question assumed to be, you’re not a real American. Professors are also expected to provide “trigger warnings” before assigning course content (books like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby are noted) that carries the potential to retraumatize students who have experienced, for example, racism or domestic violence in the past. This movement takes very seriously the potential for words to terrorize, but I cite it here as a negative example of a cultural response to this reality that words do hurt more than sticks and stones. As Lukianoff and Haidt convincingly show, this policing of speech and censoring of content is doing no one a great service, and is in fact perpetuating and deepening pathological patterns of thinking in students. To counter the curse of terrorizing speech, we must learn to bless with language that makes safe and ministers healing, not attempt to create a language bubble around emerging adults, or go on verbal witch-hunts.

In contrast to the cursing power of terrorizing words and this policing reaction, two ways of blessing by ministering safety and healing with words include staying in conversation even when it is hard, and speaking peace.

In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt ask the questions, “What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?” One key way to do this is through modelling and teaching the art of conversation and building up in students the emotional and mental reserves to stay in conversation— especially with people they do not agree with.

The first lesson of conversation is that it is persons— not disembodied ideas, opinions or principles—engaging one another. This requires respect and a measure of grace from the outset. Conversation has been called the “process of coming to an understanding” and Gay notes, “At the end of the day, the words that really make ‘coming to an understanding’ possible for us are those that are spoken genuinely and truthfully…Our words only become solid and dependable…in so far as we have committed ourselves to standing behind them.”13 But conversation pursued deliberately, honestly, with genuine curiosity and with great effort to hear what, exactly, the other person is saying, is truly a way to bless—to give life—with our words.

Not only does genuine, sustained conversation create a safe space to “come to an understanding,” it is
also an essential component in healing and reconciliation. In Proverbs we read, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb sweet to the soul and healing to the bones,” (16:24) as well as, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (27:6). Perhaps we have not terrorized or bullied with our words, but we have all hurt with our words or will hurt with our words, and so the work of confessing wrong, asking forgiveness and seeking to heal wounds we have inflicted with our words with new, healing words, is a way of blessing we must all cultivate. This is deeply humbling work, but it is the way of blessing.

Remember Jesus’ words: “out of the abundance of the
heart the mouth speaks”: words are our primary means of showing a change of heart, and it is a gift that we are able to do so.

Akin to this work of reconciling and healing conversations is the possibility of blessing with words by speaking peace to one another. In Psalm 85 the psalmist longs to hear the Lord’s voice: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints…” To speak peace is to impart life-giving speech that powerfully contradicts and undoes the cursing of words that terrorize. The simple absence of the word “of” unites the action of speaking with what is spoken—we do not read ‘speak of peace’. This kind of speech is not a cerebral reasoning about peace, this is peace itself spoken and imparted. This kind of speech is an extension of prayer, and for those of us who worship in a liturgical setting, the location of the ‘passing of the peace’ reflects this order: we confess, we are reminded of God’s forgiveness and declared free from our sin and extended God’s peace, and then we are invited to extend that peace to one another. It takes hearing God the Lord speak peace into our anxiety, into our heartache, and into our fears for us to be able to speak a peace that is true peace to others. And then speaking peace might take the shape of words that provide a new angle
on a difficult circumstance, or words that open a hidden door where there seemed to be a dead-end in our thinking, or words that simply allow pause, and quiet, and space
to believe there may be alternatives to our way of seeing things.

Bless. Bless and do not curse.