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I make a lot of typographical errors. So, I am not hard on others, particularly bloggers and Facebook writers, who don’t have the advantage – or disadvantage – of an editor.

A friend was writing about watching a July 4 fireworks show. When he typed a “d” rather than a “k,” he produced the non-word “firewords.” I decided that he had inadvertently coined a word that we should add to our vocabulary.

As a preacher, I am keenly aware of the power of words. My friend’s new word set me to thinking about some of the “firewords” that we use, by which I mean words that are incendiary, kindling fires in the people who hear them.

I have in mind not specific words but rather categories of words, some of which are harmful.

First are destructive words – words that have the effect of tearing people down. The use of such words unfortunately characterizes many relationships. Now, sometimes a corrective statement must be made but when such a thing needs to be said, it should be said in love and humility and with a view toward helping and not hurting.

Too often, though, people use words against other people – even people with whom they have the closest relationships – in order to tear them down. In my work as a pastor, I have heard far too many accounts of spouses belittling spouses.

I imagine that such a use of words says more about the person who sends them out than it does about the person who has to receive them.

Such words are firewords because of the power they have to singe or even to scorch the lives of those against whom they are targeted.

Second are demagogic words – words that are used in a manipulative way by people in positions of influence to play on a particular group’s fears or prejudices in order to incite greater fear or to arouse anger. Some politicians are guilty of such words. Some radio and television talking heads are notorious in their use of them. Perhaps most unfortunate, some preachers are prone to such verbal shenanigans.

We live in a society in which freedom of speech is not only a cherished value but a constitutionally guaranteed one. Moreover, I do not doubt that many people who use what I would regard as inflammatory language in fact hold strong convictions and their passion comes out in their language.

Nonetheless, too often a politician panders to her or his base through the use of such statements. Too often, the talking heads rile people up for the sake of ego and ratings, rather than for the sake of making a meaningful contribution to the discussion. Too often preachers confuse their cultural assumptions and their own fears with the biblical message and crave the affirmation that comes from having the congregation respond enthusiastically to having their biases confirmed from the pulpit.

Not all firewords are harmful though because not all fires are harmful. A fire properly used offers heat and light rather than destruction.

What are some categories of helpful firewords?

First are constructive words – words that are used to build another person up. Positive words spoken consistently make a positive difference.

In a recent sermon on the family, I said, “None of you probably has the world’s greatest spouse (because I do!) but, based on the things that you say to your spouses, they should think that they are.”

It is hard to overstate how important it is that parents build up their children in the ways they talk to them just as it is hard to overstate how vital it is that we encourage each other in the church, neighborhood or workplace.

Second are prophetic words – words that challenge the status quo in ways that properly align with the Word of God as it is revealed in the Bible and as it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate.

Prophetic words in the Bible might be negative or positive but they are always intended accurately to bring the Word of God to bear in a particular historical circumstance for the sake of affecting that circumstance.

Not all challenging words, though, not even those spoken from Christian pulpits, are prophetic because they can be based in the preacher’s biases or fears or assumptions rather than in the Word of God.

Prophetic preaching is hard work – work that requires careful reading of the Bible and the situation as well as careful listening to the Spirit in prayer. Sometimes, after such hard work, the preacher’s conclusion is that the hard and challenging word must be spoken. Such a word – when it is presented with the motivation of helping God’s people and out of a heart brimming with the love and grace of Jesus Christ – is a positive thing.

Third are gospel words – words that proclaim the good news of the life, teachings, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Such words may be prophetic or they may be pastoral, but the main things about them are that they accurately reflect who Jesus is and what he did. They come out of a life that is doing its best to walk humbly with Jesus.

Our imaginations can hardly contain the possibilities of what kinds of fires might be kindled if we preachers – if all Christians – could and would live and speak the firewords of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Michael Ruffin is pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Ga. He blogs at On the Jericho Road, where this column first appeared.

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