May the Words

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An interesting topic for a church history dissertation would be the origin and rise of choosing a “life verse”—a portion of Scripture chosen by a Christian as especially meaningful, words that serve as a banner over his or her life. I believe the practice is recent, appearing only in the past hundred years or so, yet it is widespread among evangelicals who accentuate the personal power of hearing God’s Word.

During my first trip to Romania as a 15-year-old, I claimed Psalm 19:14 as my life verse.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.

Whatever church we visited, when given an opportunity to speak, I spoke about this prayer. In the years following, other passages of Scripture have marked my life in immeasurable ways: the majesty of Romans 8, the parables of Luke 15, and especially the incomparable and indispensable Lord’s Prayer, which I recite every morning, noon, and night.

But as someone whose work involves words—reading them, thinking them, writing them, speaking them—I keep going back to Psalm 19:14.

During the two and a half years I served my church as teaching pastor, I prayed these words out loud every week after reading the Scripture at the start of the sermon. One of the most meaningful notes I received was from a third-grader in our congregation who wrote the verse out word-for-word on a piece of paper and gave it to me along with a word of thanks for how I prayed that verse before I preached. Fernando Ortega’s musical treatment of this verse (artistically combined with the Philippians 4 “whatever is true” passage) has been a regular on my playlist for more than a decade now.

The longer I live and speak and write, the more I feel the weight of my dependence upon God to answer this request. I’ve discovered that this is a prayer I’ve grown into, not something I could ever grow out of. As long as I have breath, I will continue to ask for God’s blessing on my words.

May . . . The verse is a prayer. I am asking Jesus to do something for me that I cannot pull off by myself. Apart from him, my words and thoughts will deviate from righteousness. The prayer expresses the passion of my heart to please the heart of God.

. . . the words of my mouth . . . The average person speaks more than 7,000 words a day. In my line of work, which involves leading a team, speaking, and writing, my average likely exceeds 10,000. That’s a lot of talking. Jesus told us “the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart,” and on the day of judgment, “people will have to account for every careless word they speak” (Matt 12:34, 36). It’s not hard for careless words to tumble out of the heart and crush someone else’s spirit. I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of careless words. I know my heart’s tendency toward self-justification, self-defense, and self-promotion. Self, self, self. For this reason, I need Psalm 19:14—a prayer that stands as a guard around my lips (Ps. 141:3).

. . . and the meditation of my heart . . . The psalmist anticipates the Savior, who pointed beyond mere words to the heart where sin is incubated. Meditation is a settled state of thought, like the alignment for the tires that keep a vehicle from drifting. It’s the default setting of the heart. Unless I pray for my heart’s deepest, default state to be pleasing to God, my heart drifts toward self-centered ways that give rise to selfish words and actions.

. . . be acceptable to you . . . Pleasing. Acceptable. I love the modesty of this prayer. It’s not a request for words that sparkle and shine. It doesn’t ask for deep thoughts that are brilliant or awe-inspiring. The focus isn’t on the power of the words and thoughts or how they might land on the ears of others; it’s on the pleasing and acceptable nature of the expression, and how they find favor with God. I’m not asking for a bestselling book. I’m not asking to be a world-renowned speaker. I’m not asking to be the best, to stand out or shine. The prayer is merely that my inner life and outer expression would be acceptable to the King who made me. That it would pass the test of acceptability and bring him joy.

. . . LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. Here we have the reason why this prayer is uttered in the first place. The Lord is the sheltering rock, the one who protects us from ourselves. He is the Redeemer who delivers us from our sin, forgiving our careless words in the past and empowering us to speak life in the present. So many times, I’ve prayed this verse and then run away from its significance, falling prey to self-centered thoughts and words. But the prayer ends by acknowledging the character of God, upon whose mercy we fall, whose hands lift our heads and renew our eyes—our strength and our Savior.

And so, we pray for words of courage and conviction; words that express truth and grace; words that bring comfort and healing; words that never flatter or deceive, but always edify and exhort; words that reflect well the the character of our Rock and Redeemer.

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