Lately, I have been feeling the conviction of practicing an economy of words.
We live in a world of such great noise, both audible and visual. If we’re not careful, we get totally swept under by the sheer amount of information and “sound” coming at us. It’s a wonder to sit and watch your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feeds: a flood of nonstop updates and moments. There is great joy in seeing the world unfold around us, but there is also an inherent danger of the important things getting lost in the noise. This includes the noise in our own conversations.
A few months ago, I was talking with my wife about having kids, as we had been praying and thinking through this decision. It’s a complex subject, with many different associated feelings, and one that can be riddled with fears and anxieties. Expressing those can be difficult! As we were talking, I realized suddenly I had been talking for five minutes and had barely begun to adequately state what I meant to get across. My explanation was filled with filler words: “um”, “like”, “in that sense of”, “you know what I mean?”. It was like speaking in code: take every tenth word and compile a coherent thought. Throw away the others.
I walked away from our conversation frustrated at myself, feeling as if I was unable to communicate with my best friend. And what a tragedy that is! I wanted nothing more than to relate to my closest confidant on a deeply personal level about an incredibly intimate subject, and instead I fumbled to accurately express what I meant to say. I felt conviction that my inability to express myself simply could potentially mean a misunderstanding of some really important things between us!
Many of us do not feel truly known by other people, and often the culprit is frivolity with words. Saying too much at one time dilutes the power of the most important thing you have to say. A boxer who lands one powerful blow is far more impressive than one who swings wildly. Inability to express a thought, instead using an exorbitant amount of this filler material (such as “like”, “um”, or “you know”) is like using the bumper lanes at the bowling alley: at some point, you have to learn to bowl without the assistance! There is great power in stating your thought economically, sending that bowling ball straight down the lane.
While it’s true to say that words are an unlimited resource – and thank goodness they are, it is also true to say that the basis of “stewardship” is carefully managing what you have. Even a wealthy man who spends money carelessly is considered foolish. The beauty of efficiency is that it accomplishes more with less. And the simpler something is, the more likely it is to be understood and grasped.
One of the main reasons I felt convicted to practice this economy was because of the example of Jesus. Jesus was a master at the economy of words. He also reveals another powerful reason to ration them carefully. Not only does He not waste words, but the ones He purposefully chooses to use cause the listener to ponder the deeper implications of what He says. The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is approximately 500 words (about the length of this post already!), and yet we are still discussing its deep meanings two thousand years later. What power! Jesus shows us that simplicity of expression certainly does not mean simplicity of concept. He perfectly states what He means to say, then allows the listener to think critically on its full meaning.
The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 5:7-13 is another shining example of Jesus’ mastery of well-chosen, un-wasted words. He first tells us that using many words does not mean anything, even to God. We are not truly heard by our many words, but by our content. Then He shows us how to talk to God simply, and in those few short verses He deeply expresses recognition, praise, victory, power, longing, needs, and forgiveness. Those are not easy concepts to tackle, but we need not be frivolous to portray them well.
Now, it is important to note that often we best process what we are wanting to say by talking to a friend. That freedom needn’t be overlooked! Processing verbally is a gracious gift to help us understand what we are thinking and feeling. I hope everyone has a friend or two that allows us to run on endlessly, thinking out loud and approaching a subject from every angle as we explore what we think about it. But I desire to be the type of person who uses that opportunity as a means to an end, and not as an undisciplined practice just to hear myself speak.
Nor do I mean to say that this should give us free reign to be withholding. “No communication” is a worse choice than “over-communication”. Instead, I want to aim towards “right communication”: using my words efficiently so that what I want to get across is what gets across.
For me, this practically means reading more. Reading has a way of focusing my vocabulary to one precise word, instead of relying on ten. Taking the time to look up words I don’t know ensures that I’ll always be striving to learn new ways to say what I mean.
Additionally, and perhaps to the disdain of my poor wife, I need to slow down when speaking. If I’m unsure of what I want to say, I should say nothing until the words are formed. If a primary cause of marital strife is miscommunication, then let me aim to communicate well! I am beginning to find that often my desire to speak frivolously is an indication that I want people to hear what I have to say at all costs. For me, learning to use words economically is a way to force my heart towards humility.
The book of Proverbs offers wise counsel on when I should speak. I’ll let it give a final, economical word:
- “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)
- “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” (Proverbs 17:27)
- “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 29:20)