Five Words Better Than 10,000

I have been musing over 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul settles a score: five clear words that are meaningful are better than 10,000 babbling words (glossolalia).

Theologians wrestle over Paul’s reference to “glossolalia/tongues.” Some say he is referring to spiritual language, only known by God. Others say he is talking about any ” foreign language” that is new to a group but used in other parts of the world.

Both issues make the point. The main concern of Paul is  better communication: “Make sense, be brief and above all improve understanding.”

Paul’s suggestion is to instead focus on good prophecy.

To our modern ears, that is hardly better than glossolalia. Who would ever see that as an improvement. That is because prophecies streamed on YouTube, tediously detailed in self-published books, and even touted from some Adventist pulpits often breed more confusion than clarity. Prophecy has become as distorting as glossolalia to fostering understanding.

Our modern mind misses Paul’s understanding of prophecy.  “One who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.” (NASB v. 3)

Prophecy, like babbling words, are not evaluated solely on their SENDING quality, but on their RECEIVING quality.

The point is profound. Revelation is about understanding not obscuring and confusion. It is all about clarification and knowledge for action and for responsibility.

Paul’s definition of prophecy might be described best as “A word fitly spoken in due season” that becomes to those who hear it “like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Or to translate even that into five words: “Prophecy is important timely communication!!!”

Yes it is. It nourishes the soul. Well-positioned words or phrases of direction and guidance help us make better decisions because they help us grasp purpose and meaning out of events, create more optimal solutions, and get us prepared for future situations.  Good teaching, preaching, and mentoring are the true children of the prophetic spirit Paul is wanting for the church at Corinth.

Good human and divine communication is judged by its impact to encourage us to act, dislodge us from the funk and darkness caused by fear or pain, and get us to gather the scraps of meaning out of an untamed world.

Paul was looking for a good, deep conversation with the Corinthians. He was tired of the the 10,000 superficial and chit-chatty words cluttering his earway.

Wow. What would Paul have concluded of this modern world with airways cluttered with stupid talk shows, babbling all-night prophets, and crazy claims of cures and insights. Jude’s diagnosis would apply: “They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.”

Bottom Line: They don’t know what they are talking about and when they talk, they can’t speak clearly.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of a prophetic movement aimed at bringing a lot of meaning into this world with fewer words. The results would validated the message if the receiver had better:

1. understanding and growth

2. was more challenged and encouraged to action

3. comfort and consolation in times of difficulty.

Straight and clear speech.

Good communication is a commitment to know what you are talking about and get it down to a well-crafted explanation.  Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and no be no,” and if it wanders from that it is probably evil (evil from the sender and/or evil to the receiver).

Clear communication requires commitment to truth and to the other person.

I believe this  “five words instead of 10,000 words” principle can apply to three areas:  1. emails and feedback, 2. teaching, and 3. understanding our Calling.

I was going to put them all in these in one post, but I received five words of advice:   “Your posts are too long.” Another said, “They are sometimes redundant.”

So, I am aiming at 1000-1500 words and have a clear purpose.

So far, my general point is that if prophecy is primarily about communication and clarity, then we need more of it, and it should lead to less talk and more learning.

The first specific application I want to now make is to email and feedback:

Be Careful Little Emails What you Say?

Paul’s generation was into public conversations and letter writing. We now have the added opportunity to use words in radio, TV, internet videos, emails, and texting. That is why we have even more babble.

Personally, email has become my main daily work. I teach online, and typing is the main way I get to babble or make sense.

Here are five lessons from Paul I have learned about making clear meaning with emails:

First, send your message to the right person. I have two Jeffreys I regularly email. My auto addressing in Outlook doesn’t know which one I want to send to. I have to decide. Sometimes I get in a hurry and don’t send the message to the right person. That is a technical aspect of a more global issue: figure out who needs the information before you are hit sent. Often this can be a political mistake, not just a technological glitch.

Second, shorten words but stop chopping when you start losing meaning. I used to write long emails trying to detail issues. I figured I couldn’t have a conversation so I covered all the points I could imagine. That didn’t work well. Then I went the other extreme and sent truncated message. Now, I have a better balance. I try to make shorter points (not always) and ask questions or request questions to initiate more sharing of information. Smaller emails have less chance of losing meaning in lots of reading, but asking or seeking questions allows clarification when the message is too brief.

Third, I have learned to try to remember that a personal visit or phone call can sometime be better than a chain of emails. This is especially true with sensitive issues where feedback requires face-to-face manner and delivery.

Fourth, I have discovered the painful truth that emails can be printed. If you don’t want your words printed and left on a campus printer or forwarded to many others, you might want to make a phone call or talk in person. Emails can come back to haunt us.

Fifth, when giving feedback, start with the positives, include the areas of growth, add more positives, and then check if all that was understood.

To make my point about emails in my course on public relations, I read a humorous story that has most of the poignant reminders about email power:

A Minnesota couple decided to vacation to Florida during the winter. They planned to stay at the very same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday. His wife would fly down the following day.

The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an e-mail to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her e-mail address, and without realizing his error, he sent the e-mail.

Meanwhile…..somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister of many years who was called home to glory following a sudden heart attack. The widow decided to check her e-mail, expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she fainted.

The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I’ve Arrived
Date: 16 May 2003
I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send e-mails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is not as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. Sure is hot down here!

Source: Circulated several places on the web with several variations.


Communication must take into consideration the recipients meaning-learning.

In summary, one of the greatest ethical commitments we can make is to communicate to help others understand.

Next time, we will talk about how five carefully chosen words are better than 10,000 in teaching.


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