• Justin Myers

Words Change People

“Books don’t change people, paragraphs do—sometimes sentences.”

John Piper


I was in Madrid, Spain. With only three years of high school Spanish on my resume, I was stumbling through a conversation with a man from Portugal who invited me into his home for coffee. At one point in the conversation, I tried to tell my friend the coffee he served to me was "better" than the coffee I had earlier that morning. Rather than saying mejor, the Spanish word for "better", I said mujer, which happens to be the Spanish word for "woman". It came out sounding like I was trying to say, "this coffee is a woman."


*Sadly, this is the only at-least-okay picture I could find from my trip to Spain.


Kasey and I talked recently about the importance of language. She had the thought that we humans could not function without being able to communicate to each other. I think she is right. God made us to know each other, and the foundational way we relate to each other is through language. Not much relationship can be built if we can't differentiate between something like "woman" and "better".


Language not only helps us interact with other people, but it also has the power to change our lives. John Piper's quote at the top says this well. Sometimes, a string of words can pack a punch in such a clear way as to set a new course for us. The clearest example of this is the message of the Gospel, which comes to us through words. As Paul said, "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" (Rom. 10:14). Salvation from sin's wages and entrance into the Father's family is a message that comes to us in language, and it changes lives.


Other words have the ability to influence on our lives too. We repeat phrases we heard from a parent or coach growing up that motivate us to think a certain way or act a certain way, or fill us with purpose by reminding us of some profound truth. "Kill them with kindness," my mom used to say, when someone was rude to me or my sisters growing up. "Represent," my dad would say as I went out with friends, reminding me that I was a representative of both Christ and the Myers' family wherever I went. And these are just the first two phrases I can think of from my childhood.


At this point in my life, I have collected more mottos like that serve as motivation or guidance. "Many small chops fell a big tree" encourages me to be patient with big tasks. "Run the mile you're in" reminds me to make the most of the season of life I have in front of me. "Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger" reminds me of my need for Christ and to strive for Christlike patience. I could list several more. Each of these regularly comes to mind and they guides me in decisions like a parking lot attendant telling me where to park.


This is the purpose of the "Words to Live By" category on my site. I want to collect a list of quotes that are worth living by. I am not looking for things that sound nice or something that "has a good ring to it." What matters is that life change happens. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" sounds nice but has never moved me to eat an apple.


I am looking for words to live by.


So Piper's idea resonates with me. The purpose for beginning this blog, though some of the focus has shifted, was both to retain what I read and to be changed by what I read. I am still after a kind of reading that transforms me and does not end merely with dusty trophies on the shelf. And Piper argues here that it is really individual paragraphs and sentences that do the long-term transforming work on readers like me. He is not saying books are a waste of time and can't change the way we live, but that it is the mining of books for "nuggets of wisdom" (as my dad used to say) that ends up changing people. Books provide the context for paragraphs and sentences that end up doing the transforming directly. So I aim to read to that end. To learn and be transformed, sometimes by just a few words in a sentence.


To that end, I keep a running list of quotes or phrases I think would be good guidance for life. Not all of them stick with me, but the best and most relevant ones tend to come to mind. I challenge you to start your own list of words to live by!


My Portuguese friend and I both became aware of the need for clear communication when I called his coffee a woman. Since that day, the reality of language itself has been so interesting to me. We couldn't survive without it. It blows my mind to think that I am communicating in English today with everyone I encounter, and at the same time, billions of people across the world are having similar conversations with completely different sounds, inflections, grammar and systems of syntax. Language is a complex tool given to us by God. At times, in its most clear and compact form, it helps us not only to survive, but also can lead to a growing and transforming life.


“Books don’t change people, paragraphs do—sometimes sentences.”


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