Words and names are incredibly important. They define objects for us; they help us to distinguish one thing from another. As someone who has spent many years learning other languages, I have a deep respect for and love of words. I simply cannot imagine a world without words. I adore learning new words; I love discovering the etymology of words; I relish using my knowledge of language and languages to infer meaning, to work out from context and gist what is being meant. One of my greatest joys involves games and puzzles that use words: Scrabble, Boggle, Upwords are all games I love. It thrills me to the core that God actually spoke creation into being and that Jesus is described as ‘the Word’ (John 1:1).
One of the ways that we are lured into sin by the enemy is by a redefinition of words, however. This happens gradually, so slowly that we do not notice what is happening. C. S. Lewis wrote about how a negative term replaces a positive one in people’s views (‘unselfishness’ being named as the highest of virtues rather than ‘love’, for example, which seems initially innocuous); he also wrote about how jargon can be very effective in deceiving us from the true meaning of what we are told (see ‘The Screwtape Letters’).
When it comes to sexual immorality, by and large the English language no longer uses words which for centuries have described sexual sin: fornication, adultery, homosexual practice, for example. Think of how these things are described nowadays: ‘sex outside of marriage’, ‘extramarital sex,’ ‘gay sex’. For many, this shift in language is simply a sign that language evolves; words change meaning regularly and that’s all there is to it. The new words still describe the same thing, so what’s the problem?
I think sometimes we change the words we use because we don’t like other words and want to distance ourselves from the stigma those words carry. Eugene Peterson says “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” (Eugene Peterson, ‘Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places’) Certainly, there is a sense in which we always have to be careful with our definition of words: what you understand by ‘love’ may well not be what I understand by it, let alone what God means by the word! But I think that when we change the words we use to sound less severe, sometimes that is the first step on a slippery slope to acceptance not only of the word but of the practice. If something sounds less offensive, maybe we find it easier to justify behaviour that we would otherwise repudiate? If we want to shock and offend people, we choose more pejorative language to describe the same thing. Words have an emotive power we often do not acknowledge.
One thing is clear. Actions are the end product, not the start. Jesus said ‘out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander’ (Matt 18:15) – the thoughts coming before the actions. We need to be careful what we watch, listen to, think and say, for all these things will have a powerful effect on what we do. Paul urges us to ‘flee from sexual immorality.’ (1 Cor 6:18) That means being ruthless with ourselves and never underestimating our capacity to deceive ourselves (Jer 17:9-10), recognising that if we think we’re standing firm, we need to be careful that we don’t fall! (1 Cor 10:12) That ‘harmless attraction’, that ‘casual flirting’, may not be as harmless or casual as we like to pretend. As Casting Crowns sing in their haunting song ‘Slow Fade,’ ‘The journey from your mind to your hands is shorter than you’re thinking.’ Because of this we need to be careful, for thoughts invade, choices are made, but a price will always have to be paid when we give ourselves away…