Mind Your Words — They Have Meaning

The following post is by Trista L. Carr, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist for a State Prison in the Central Valley of CA, a consultant for individuals and organizations, and a conference speaker. She completed her doctorate in clinical psychology at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, where she was a research assistant for the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. She obtained an M.A. degree in Community Counseling from The University of Akron in Ohio. Her research and clinical interests are in the integration of Christian faith, psychology, and sexual identity concerns. She can be found at http://www.tristacarr.com.

Recently, the wonderfully thoughtful Brent Bailey wrote a great piece for The Marin Foundation about the differences between transparency and vulnerability; two words with subtle yet meaningful differences. He is not alone in using these words synonymously. I, like Brent, conflate these and many other important and extremely similar words. This is a challenge for me, and others who are trying to bridge cultures and paradigms.

As individuals trying to be peacemakers or bridge builders, we need to be mindful of our words and their impact. We need to be aware of the weight of our words and the unintended meaning some words carry. It is not uncommon for people in positions of authority to make well-intentioned speeches only to find their hearers completely offended, or worse harmed, by the choice of words used to communicate the message.

For instance, I was recently turned off to a journal article in a scholarly publication in which the authors spoke of “homosexuals.” It made it difficult for me to hear the research findings without judgment because the authors utilized a term that has so much negative baggage when used as a noun instead of an adjective (which, by the way, is why scholars are advised in the APA Style Manual against using the word homosexual as a noun when writing psychology literature).

Yes, I’ll admit this particular incident reveals a pet peeve of mine, but I hope it also illustrates my point:

Words carry baggage and various meanings given their usage.

It is because of that baggage and meaning that words can harm people far more than sticks and stones ever can.

Two words, in addition to transparency and vulnerability, that get thrown around a lot in difficult dialogues are acceptance and tolerance. Acceptance and tolerance are very similar to transparency and vulnerability in that they too are often used synonymously. However, these two words are also very different from the other two in that acceptance and tolerance are often touted as having extremely different meanings.

To put it more simply, some people use acceptance and tolerance interchangeably whereas other people are quick to explain to you the vast differences between them.

I am someone who likes to not only know how words are used in everyday language and scholarly writing, but also how they have been used in Scripture. So please bear with me for a second while I do a quick Biblical word study:

The word accept is used in the Bible (NIV) 77 times. Of those, only three times is its intent anything other than to receive something. The one instance in the Old Testament where accept is used in conjunction with a person, its meaning is to take delight in, to be favored or esteemed. The other two occurrences—in Romans—refer to welcoming a person into your fellowship. Otherwise, to accept simply means to receive a thing.  Acceptance is found twice, meaning approval of trustworthy sayings; it never once refers to a person.

The word “tolerate” is used very rarely in the NIV Bible—only 6 times. Some of its meanings are to allow or keep, to look at, to carry or bear up, and to permit. Half of those instances refer to different or wicked people; the other three times tolerate is used, it is in reference to allowing or putting up with wrongdoing. Tolerance is only found once in all the Scriptures, and it means forbearance; it’s used as a character quality like patience.

You might see here some vast differences between these two words as used in Scripture. At the same time, there are some similarities. For one, neither word is used all that frequently. Additionally, more often than not, neither word is necessarily used in the same context in Scripture as we tend to use them in the gay-Christian debate. We are typically using these two words strictly in relation to accepting or tolerating people who are different from us but not necessarily evil people.

Let’s look now to typical dictionary definitions. To accept means to consent to receiving something or come to recognize an opinion or explanation as valid. Tolerate means to allow the existence or practice of something that one does not necessarily like or agree with, without interference. Interestingly, within the clarifications of the main definitions for each of the words, the other is used as a synonym.

I think these two words and their uses make it challenging for people to hear each other at times. Because there is this dialectic between the words—sometimes we use them synonymously and other times feel they are diametrically opposed to one another—we often run into problems when we use them in bridge building.

In my work within the gay community and Christian circles I find two common phenomena:

1. Some conservatively religious individuals will say things like, “I accept you as you are.” What they typically mean is: “I will tolerate you as long as you act and believe the way I want you to act and believe.”

2. Some sexual minorities will say things like, “I want you to accept me for who I am.” They really mean: “I want you to love me without conditions or restrictions. I want you to validate my experience. I am not something evil to be tolerated.”

Keep in mind these are common themes; as always, there are exceptions to the rule. But I think you can see how people in both camps can use the same word and mean something very different.

This desire for “acceptance” that we have as humans is much deeper and grander than mere tolerance. It is a deep desire to be fully known and fully loved…

What if we committed to being more descriptive in our speech? What would happen if we become more specific in what we say?

For instance, what if we move away from saying, “I accept you for who you are”?
And, we replace it with things like: “I love you unconditionally,” or “I want you to know the unwavering love of God deep in your heart,” or “You don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love, or my love for that matter,” or even “Your experience is valid.”

We can also move away from, “I want you to just accept me for who I am.”
Instead, we can be more specific and say: “I want you to take the time to get to know me without judgment,” or “I want you love me without exceptions,” or “I would like for you to fight against the things that hurt me and celebrate the things that bring me great joy,” or even “I want to be validated.”

When these types of descriptive statements and requests are made, the conversation is no longer about acceptance or tolerance, but becomes instead about being fully known, loved, respected, honored, and valued regardless of belief systems. If all sides of the gay-Christian debate would be descriptive and use less value-laden or judgment-prone vocabulary, we might find ourselves being able to speak the same language.

And, when we speak the same language we are in a much better place to hear the hearts of those with whom we are trying to relate. And isn’t that what we all want…for our hearts to be heard and not judged?

It is amazing what the right words—most effective, nonjudgmental, descriptive, life-giving words—can mean to another’s heart.

We all need to do a better job of minding our words. Words have meaning and they create the basis for relationship. What kind of relationships do you want to create with your words? Healthy, productive, life-giving relationships? Then, please, let us all mind our words.

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  • Preston

    Thanks for your very thoughtful post, Trista! Well said and very well thought out!

    I remember being in Israel and being told not to call myself a “Christian” but a “believer.” At first I was like, “no way! I’m a bold evangelist and I’m gonna tell it like it is!” But then my Jewish Christian brothers and sisters told me that when other Jews hear the term “Christian” they think of a 12th century Crusader with a sword in his hand. And that’s NOT what we want to communicate about who we are. “Believer” communicates the same thing without all the baggage.

    Anyway, great post! I said something similar in my own blog on the topic: