Little Words, Big Impact

There’s an ancient proverb that goes like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The meaning of this proverb is evident: little things do matter. Things like saying “thank you” and giving a word of encouragement, a compliment, a hug, or a smile do make a difference. On the other hand, a broken promise, a cross word, a sharp response, a missed appointment, or an uncompleted task can have a huge long-term impact.

In my experience, the “little” things can make or break a relationship. They can set the future course of events. As I reflect on my own life, I see how often little things, both positive and negative, have had a profound effect.

Recently I noticed the impact of a group of little words called pronouns—in particular, the word we. I had just finished a week of synod meetings followed by 10 days at the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. After reflecting on all the speeches and conversations, I was struck by how often I heard the word we.

As people made speeches and explained their thoughts, they often began by saying we. Usually they were referring to the assembly of which they were a part, but sometimes they were referring to some other group. Most of the time it was easy to determine what they meant, but at other times one couldn’t be sure. It was at those times that little words mattered.

The little word we is intended to draw people together. It represents wholeness, oneness, unity. For instance, I might say “We are the church,” meaning that together you, I, and others are part of the body of Christ. At other times, unfortunately, the word we is used to divide, to set one group apart from another. Used in that way, we refers to the group of which I am a part, and the word they refers to everyone else.

In the church, such distinctions can be very hurtful. If, in speaking to a congregation, I talk about people in the community as they or them and talk about the members of the church as we or us, that creates a separation. Doing so sets up a dynamic of contrast rather than of unity.

Sadly, the we/they distinction is so much a part of our human nature. People use the word we to distinguish their particular ethnic group or culture from other groups or cultures, or their denomination from other denominations.

Sometimes these distinctions are important. There are things that you and I hold in common that separate us from others. You and I may be part of the same culture, ethnicity, denomination, or organization. It is necessary and good that we understand what makes us “we.” At the same time, we need to be very careful how we use this little word. When differences overshadow our unity, the word we becomes like the missing nail in the horseshoe. It may seem like a small thing, but it can have a significant long-term impact.

Jesus prayed for unity. His desire was that his followers would be one in the same way that he is one with the Father. May “we” continue to strive to make Jesus’ prayer a reality in his church and kingdom.

About the Author

Jerry Dykstra served as the executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America from 2006-2011.
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