In the beginning was the Word . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
—John 1:1, 14 (ESV)
It feels like we’re at war over words these days.
From gender, to race, to so-called “special military operations,”1 words have become our new front line. For some, this is a positive development: words matter—they can wean us off harmful ideas and help healthier ones to take root and grow. For others, these lexical battles are at best a distraction, if not an Orwellian form of thought control. Despite their differences, both camps recognize that language plays a critical role in shaping our reality. Language, they remind us, has the power to define our world.
What does this mean for Christians who find themselves at the intersection of faith and mental health? At the very least, it means that language matters. Language can humanize or dehumanize; clarify or confuse; hurt or heal. This is especially true when talking about mental health. To say that a person lives with schizophrenia, for example, is altogether different from saying that they are schizophrenic. The former frames their condition as one aspect of their human experience; the latter implies—subtly yet powerfully—that that is all they are.
To learn a new language is notoriously difficult. Likewise, changing the way we speak about sensitive subjects may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Yet the impact of our words extends far beyond the borders of our immediate relationships. Like water carving through a channel, our words exert a powerful, cumulative force on the cultural landscape of our communities. It matters, then, when we speak of human beings in terms that—even if unintentionally—reduce them to a diagnosis. Such language only reinforces the stigma and misconceptions that have built up over the years, adding unnecessary weight to an already heavy yoke.
Last year, my counsellor helped me to reflect on an aspect of my character that I had long felt ambivalent about. “You have a highly sensitive nervous system,” she gently noted. I chuckled at her choice of words—she could have just said that I was sensitive. While many people have mentioned this to me as a compliment, it has often left me wishing that I had thicker skin. Hearing my counsellor frame this in neurobiological terms, however, helped me to see myself in a more compassionate light. Her words named an aspect of my experience while carefully dispensing with some of its baggage, allowing me to feel more at home in—and even appreciative of—my own skin.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” writes John—a word “full of grace and truth.” No wonder we’re at war over words: they have the power to steer us toward grace or stigma, misconception or truth. How we use them matters—both for our mental wellbeing, and for the world that we, along with the Word, now shape and inhabit.
 Editor’s Note: While it is widely acknowledged that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes an act of war, Russia has framed this war as a “special military operation.”
Richard Wu is a writer and editor in Vancouver, BC. Born in New York and raised in Hong Kong, he worked as a youth and worship minister before arriving at Regent College for further studies. His writing has been featured in the Regent World, the Christian Century, and Regent’s compendium on theology and everyday life. As a Hong Kong Pentecostal who worships in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Richard cares deeply about how Christian communities can stand with those in personal and political crises. You can find him on Twitter, Mastodon, or his blog.