I’ve been fascinated by the power of phrases known as “performatives.” In brief, performative phrases actually change reality when uttered by the right person. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples. Take the home plate umpire in baseball who says, “You’re out!” His saying the words actually makes the batter out. If, by contrast, someone in the stands were to yell, “You’re out!” or if the catcher yelled the phrase, the batter wouldn’t be out. The umpire has to make the call.
When a minister says, “I pronounce you man and wife,” at the moment he says those words, the couple actually and legally becomes husband and wife. If the minister fails to say those words, or if the organist said the words instead, all of the expensive flower arrangements and flowing gowns and pews filled with well-wishers won’t change the couples’ marital status. The minister must make the pronouncement.
Likewise, a police office saying, “You’re under arrest” actually makes the person under arrest.
A game show host who says, “You’re our winner!” makes the contestant eligible for the prize.
A judge saying, “You are guilty as charged” changes the plaintiff’s standing from innocent until proven guilty, to guilty.
There are a number of examples of performative phrases in the Bible, such as Jesus telling the paralyzed man lying on his mat, “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20). The moment Jesus uttered these words, the man’s life was changed. Likewise, during the crucifixion of Christ, Jesus turned to the repentant thief and said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” By speaking those words, this man’s eternal destiny was changed.
You might be thinking, “That’s all interesting, Jim, but what’s this got to do with me?” As I’ve been thinking about it, there are real implications for our families. For example, when you or I say the words “I love you” to our spouse or to our children we’re doing something that, in a very real sense, is transformational. When I say to Jean or to my boys “I love you”, that performative phrase is power-filled. In reality they become more loved the moment I say the words.
Keep in mind you are not primarily giving out information when you say “I love you.” You are not primarily saying something sweet, hopeful and kind. You are not even mainly encouraging them. Yes, all of those things take place. But at a deeper level, the person becomes more loved because you have spoken the words from your heart.
As Proverbs 18:21 puts it, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Why not use this awesome power God has given you by speaking life—not death—into your spouse and children today.