Leadership Wisdom – Verbal Fidelity

By Uli Chi

June 23, 2023

Scripture — Matthew 5:33-37 (NIV)

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Focus

When we speak, whom do others hear?

Devotion

His Master's Voice by Francis Barraud (1898)

His Master’s Voice by Francis Barraud (1898)

Words should be truthful and dependable. In the popular idiom, we should say what we mean and mean what we say. But is that always possible?

As we saw in our recent reflection on lust, Jesus uses hyperbolic language to get our attention and to communicate something important. Hyperbolic language dramatically exaggerates to make a point. Further, Jesus often taught in parables and with metaphors. Hyperbole, parables, and metaphor all share something in common: none are literally true.

But Jesus understands that truth isn’t just about factual information. Truth isn’t only about facts and ideas but is more centrally about persons and relationships. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6, NIV). And Jesus understands the power of the imagination when it comes to people and relationships, which is why he so often communicated using figurative language. As leaders, we should learn to do likewise.

Still, imaginative language needs to be used wisely. (For further helpful insights on this, see Mark Roberts’ recent reflection “How Can Imagination be Redemptive?”)

In today’s text, Jesus focuses on using our words as simply and directly as we can. Rather than using special oaths to convey that we are serious, all our ordinary speech should reflect a consistency between what we say and what we mean. For those of us in the marketplace, that can be especially challenging. In a world filled with deceptive and manipulative communications, we need to watch our words carefully. In a social media culture that rewards gaining attention, verbal and written restraint can be difficult. Why not “say anything” so that we can build a following?

Jesus implicitly reminds us that our words reflect a larger dynamic. What we say reflects who we are. And if our speech is distorted, we become distortions of whom we are meant to be—images of the Living God. That’s why lying is such a big deal with God. Since God cannot lie, we should not either. Otherwise, we reflect the image of that which is not God, “the evil one.”

Another aspect of Jesus’ teaching is that we should mean what we say. Our promises should be dependable. Whether we say “yes” or “no,” we should follow through. Trust is essential in any relationship, especially for leaders. Trust grows when leaders follow through. By the way, that’s true in both the positive and negative sense. When we establish expectations—whether for ourselves or others—we need to ensure, to the limit of our ability, that we see the consequences through.

But Jesus also teaches that there are limits to our ability. As he says so vividly: “You cannot make even one hair white or black.” As leaders, we need to be aware of and appropriately acknowledge, if only to ourselves, our dependence on God (for example, see James 4:13-17). As we communicate with others, being honest about what we can and cannot do is a good thing. Great leaders communicate a certain healthy humility about what they promise. And that too builds trust.

A final implication of Jesus’ teaching is that the intentions behind our words matter. What is our purpose in saying what we say? Words are meant to develop rather than to destroy. As leaders, we can be tempted to say things that show how smart we are and how much we know. But as the Apostle Paul would say later, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV). Our purpose should be to use words to enable the organizations and communities we lead to flourish.

And the tone of our words matters as much as their content. Of course, that doesn’t mean we only say positive things. Jesus said some remarkably difficult things for his audiences to hear. (If you doubt that, just read his words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23.) But there is no doubt that Jesus’ words were always motivated out of love, even when it was mixed with anger. Jesus always spoke redemptively into people’s lives.

Our words should reflect—both in content and in tone—“the Master’s voice.” Our words should not reflect the voice of “the evil one.” When we speak, whom do others hear?

Reflect

How simply and directly do you communicate? How dependable is your follow-through? Does the content and tone of your communication reflect what you know of God?

Act

Review what you promised this last week and follow through on those promises this coming week.

Prayer

We thank you, God, that you always speak the truth in love. Even when that truth is hard to hear, we are grateful that your love makes the truth bearable.

Help us to watch our words, to speak in a way that enables others to hear your voice in what we say.

We ask for your glory and for the good of those we serve, Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: What Is Righteousness? (Matthew 5:17-48).


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Uli Chi

Vice Chair, Senior Fellow

Dr. Uli Chi’s career is a testament to his unique approach to leadership. He has navigated the realms of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, the theological academy, and the local church, gleaning a wealth of wisdom from each. As an award-winning technological entrepreneur, h...

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