My wife and I love Budapest. It’s a beautiful, romantic city and famous for its music, food and drink.
Though Hungarian is a notoriously difficult language, the Hungarians have a way with words. Words for these creative, artistic people have meant the difference between life and death, freedom or imprisonment.
In an echo of Luke 11:23, Mátyás Rákosi — the hard-line Communist leader referred to as ‘Stalin’s best Hungarian disciple’ — once said, ‘Whoever is not for us is against us!’ He meant that, unless you were a committed Communist, you were an enemy of the people and should therefore be arrested, tortured, imprisoned and (more likely than not) executed.
Replaced as prime minister in 1953 by the more moderate Imre Nagy, the ruthless Rákosi was eventually forced from power in July 1956. Then, following Hungary’s unsuccessful attempt at freedom that same year, Nagy was himself removed from power and succeeded by the politically astute pragmatist János Kádár, who was known as ‘the great survivor’.
Eventually, after the painful period of repression that followed 1956’s failed Hungarian Uprising, Kádár finally reduced his iron grip on the country, explaining (in a reference to Mark 9:40) that, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’.
Kádár’s cautious 1960s reversal of Rákosi’s repressive policies meant that, assuming you weren’t actively working against the Communist regime, you would no longer be regarded as a threat to the country and could therefore be left in relative peace.
Today, though not without its problems, Hungary is a lively democracy. Not far from the capital lies a huge statue park, where the monolithic statues of former Communist tyrants have been laid to rest. When I went there with a Hungarian friend in the late 1990s, he even climbed one. If he’d been around at the time of Rákosi, my friend would probably have been shot.
In the centre of Budapest there’s even a museum housed in the very building originally controlled by the AVO (the Hungarian equivalent of the KGB), where you can visit the cells where people were tortured for their politics or faith. In the bad old days, people would cross to the other side of the road to avoid going past the door and possibly disappearing for ever!
One year, when staying with my family in a hotel overlooking a classically proportioned church, a friendly waiter took my children on a behind-the-scenes tour of the hotel. But when he showed us the cellars which were used for storage, we noticed that some of the thick metal doors had peep holes.
‘What are they for?’ I asked. ‘Oh,’ our new friend exclaimed, ‘In the old days, this used to be a police station. The police lived in the bedrooms above, the prisoners in the cells below!’
Suddenly, the realisation that believers going in and out of the church nearby could be seen from the windows of the former police station cast a sinister shadow. Were members of the nearby church questioned or imprisoned in the cells we’d visited? And, if so, what confessions might have been wrung from them?
From Rákosi to Nagy to Kádár to freedom, words for the Hungarians have often proved to be an extremely powerful weapon or defence.
For Christians, the same is supremely true. On the one hand, ‘The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit’ (Proverbs 18:21). On the other, ‘We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Whichever way we look at it, words have power.
There is a world of difference between a doctor saying, ‘Good news: the operation was a complete success’, or, ‘I’m afraid we’ve got bad news for you’. Consider also the difference between the cheering words directed at an innocent defendant, ‘We, the jury, find the defendant to be “not guilty”,’ and the bygone verdict, ‘You are sentenced to be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution, where you will be hanged by the neck until dead’.
In romance too, there’s a tremendous difference in the ways in which the vital question ‘Will you marry me?’ can be answered. In fact, I was so nervous when I proposed to the woman who is now my wife that I had only prepared myself for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. So, when I got down on one knee — in Hungary, as it happened — and asked if Julie would marry me, the response, ‘Of course!’, completely threw me!
So the things that we say really matter. We can use our tongue to bless or curse (Romans 12:14), build up or tear down (2 Corinthians 13:10), encourage (Acts 11:23) or exasperate (Ephesians 6:4).
The tongue of the wise, Proverbs 12:18 says, brings healing. The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life (Proverbs 10:11). Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (Proverbs 16:24).
But how can we ensure that we use the tongue to heal and give life, when tiredness, anger, jealousy, ambition, pride, resentment or fear so often yield a completely different result?
One way, of course, is by reading God’s Word, treasuring it and hiding it safely in our hearts (Psalm 119:11); by using it as a lamp to guide our path (Psalm 119:105), letting it dwell among us richly (Colossians 3:16), holding firmly to the Word of life (Philippians 2:16) and living by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3).
By doing so, we’re not only more likely to end up doers of the Word (James 1:22), but will be better able to use our own words more appropriately; correctly handling the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15) and avoiding the quarrelling, slandering, criticising, judging and boasting warned against in James 4:1-16.
Rather than causing anyone to stumble by our words or actions (Matthew 18:6-7), the Bible tells us we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19); letting our words be few rather than hasty (Ecclesiastes 5:2), and ensuring they are thoughtful, considered, ‘full of grace’ and ‘seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4:6).
Unfortunately, one of the things I liked to do before I was a Christian was to make fun of the believers living in my university hall of residence. I’d try to work out who they were, discover their faults and frailties, and then provoke them as best I could.
All this went on for about two years. Then, when I became a Christian and I turned up for my very first Bible study, I found myself tongue-tied and forced, metaphorically, to eat my words.
In the providence of God, the study ‘just happened’ to be on James 3:6-10: ‘The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body … With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing’.
For the first time in my life, I said little and listened a lot. I still stumble in many ways, but it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. So let’s learn from my cautionary tale and use our words to ‘encourage one another and build each other up’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11), by sharing encouraging words (1 Thessalonians 4:1-18) and news (Ephesians 6:21-22), refreshing the Lord’s people (Philemon 1:7), strengthening one another’s faith (Romans 1:11-12), promoting sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), encouraging Christ-like behaviour (Titus 2:6), and preaching the Word in and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2).
Let’s follow the example of Barnabas, the ‘son of encouragement’ (Acts 4:36), who encouraged the apostle Paul by protecting and assisting the new convert and former church persecutor when others were suspicious of him and reluctant to give Paul a chance (Acts 9:26-29; 11:25-26).
‘Sticks and stones’, we’re told, ‘may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’. But, as Scripture makes clear, this simply isn’t true. Words really do bring life or death, and we have the choice when using them to heal or hurt, help or hinder, commend or condemn. The correct use of words can transform lives and change eternal destinies.
Rákosi, Nagy, Kádár and their followers may lie dead and buried, along with their words and deeds, ‘but the Word of the Lord endures forever’ (1 Peter 1:25) and is ‘alive and active’ (Hebrews 4:12). May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in God’s sight (Psalm 19:14)!
Gary Clayton is married to Julie and father of Christopher (14) and Emma (11). He is copywriter and editor at Mission Aviation Fellowship. To learn more about how MAF aircraft help some of the world’s poorest and most isolated people, visit www.maf-uk.org