My husband and I have been blessed with three grandchildren, with Number Four on the way. The eldest just turned four. He is spectacular! But at four, he is not always able to manage negative emotions in a constructive way. On those occasions upon which he needs help in that regard, we often encourage him to “use your words.” It is a common strategy in dealing with young children, and often helpful. But it is my observation and unfortunately my experience that adults often have difficulty using their words as well.
Recent research in neurobiology has confirmed what most of us know even if we won’t admit to it: our emotions drive our reactions and strongly influence our perceptions and perspective. Scientists tell us that our amygdala, the emotional center of our brain, is our “first responder,” the gateway through which information and stimuli enter for processing. And if our amygdala remains in control, we inflict unregulated and unfiltered emotions upon ourselves and others. Fortunately, the Lord also created our brains with a prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that integrates and processes information. The Apostle Paul knew this centuries before the discipline of neurobiology was even imagined: “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on hour anger.” (Ephesians 4:26). Paul understood that it is not our emotions that handicap our ability to love but rather our management of our emotions.
The challenge for us as well-informed 21st Century Christians is to exercise patience and restraint in order to give our prefrontal cortex time to process the information given to it by our amygdala and other regions. And although adults have more words at their disposal than their preschool counterparts, we often do not choose our words with appropriate care, and we often do not express ourselves with a loving and gracious tone and demeanor. This is not a new problem. James describes the tongue as a fire, a restless evil, and the source of deadly poison (James 3).
God is the God of relationship, and it is His desire to fit us together into a dwelling of His presence, for His glory (Ephesians 2:21-22). We can promote and prosper that work by using our words—carefully—when interacting with one another. Carefully chosen words, reflecting the grace and truth of our Lord Jesus Christ, are essential resources in this endeavor. Indeed, King Solomon reminds us in Proverbs that a gentle answer turns away wrath. As we use our words to bless and encourage one another, to be slow to speak and quick to listen, we will experience both the comfort and delight of fellowship and manifest the love that our world so desperately needs to see.