Words That Wound
One of the frequent sayings from my childhood was the phrase, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” I can’t think of a more incorrect statement. As I look back over my life, I can’t remember much of the times that I was physically hurt by sticks, stones or anything else. But I can remember the harsh words that were said to me. The memories are so vivid that I can picture the actual places where those conversations took place.
Was I just an overly sensitive child? I don’t think so. Our society in general has recognized that words have power. We are trying to educate people in how they use words. Bullying in school, while still having a physical aspect, is often more about the words that people use. There are countless examples of young people who have died by suicide because of the relentless barrage of mean-spirited words. Words have power.
Christians shouldn’t be surprised. How did God create the world? He spoke. It was through words. Words have both creative and destructive power. The Bible has much to say about our words, including James’ letter. James observes that tongue is such a small part of our body and yet it is able to affect things far beyond its size. James couldn’t have imagined it, but think about how much influence our finger tips have in this age of social media.
that is not to say our tongues and our words are bad. They can be and are used for good purposes. We use our tongues to praise God. “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” The problem is that we can immediately go from speaking blessings to God to speaking curses to people created in the image of God. How often has someone seamlessly shifted from singing the doxology to gossiping about the person in the next pew? The way James puts it makes so much sense. What is used for one thing shouldn’t be used for the opposite reason. Imagine I invited you over for dessert and then informed you that the spoon you are about to use is what I use for cleaning the kitty litter. We would never do that. So why do we do that with the our mouths?
What I would like to do is look at four ways that we shouldn’t use our words.
Not all harmful words come from a wicked heart or evil motives. In fact some of the most painful comments come from people who are trying to be helpful. The first category are thoughtless words. Sometimes we see a situation and we feel the need to bring meaning to it through our words. Feeling that it is better to say something than nothing, we say the first thing that comes to mind. That may not be the most appropriate thing to do. Some of the most painful words spoken to us have been by well meaning people. We experienced this when we lost our first child in miscarriage. People tried to explain why God had allowed this, as if they had the inside information, but it only made things worse. The same thing happened when our children were diagnosed with autism. People felt the need to explain why God let that happen. The truth is that they didn’t know but they felt the need to fill the silence. Those words hurt.
There are few things that need that have to be said. First is that silence is okay we do not have to fill the void. Simple presence is more than enough. Secondly, we need to be aware of our own ignorance. Don’t try to explain something that you really don’t know about. Thirdly, ask yourself if the person really needs to hear what you want to say. If it is not going to help them, don’t say it. Finally, think before you speak. It is simple but difficult to do. Still we must try.
I was originally going to call this criticism but that is not quite accurate. There is a place for healthy criticism in the right relationship and in the right context. Discouragement is something else. These are the kind of people who hear someone say something and immediately jump to why it won’t work or why it is a bad idea. They feel it is their duty to prevent everyone from making mistakes. There is a time to discourage when someone is doing something obviously dangerous or foolhardy. But what I’m talking about are those who either are so against change or who are too insecure to see other people achieve something that they need to bury every new idea in a heavy does of discouragement. There is no listening with an open mind, no contemplation that maybe this person maybe successful. Everything it is negative and the conversation needs to be focused on the problems. What if we listened to the ideas and brainstormed how we could overcome the challenges? What if we encouraged people to take risks and think outside the box? We may feel some misgivings when someone shares something with us. But we don’t have to share all our concerns right away. We can listen and learn.
The previous examples of bad words often come from a person’s personality rather than bad motives. They are impulsive or negative by nature. But gossip takes us into a new area. Gossip is sharing information about a person that shouldn’t be shared. More than that, the information is shared to make us feel better about ourselves. “So and so is getting a divorce. At least our relationship is not that messed up.” “So and so has really gotten in debt. I’m so glad I’m not that foolish with money.”
The church has been susceptible to this because it can easily be done under the guise of “prayer requests.” How do we know where a prayer request ends and gossip starts? Do you talk about the person for thirty minutes and pray for one? Do you have permission to share? Do the details really add anything to the ability to pray? Remember that God does not require us to supply all of the information for him to answer the prayer. He already has that information. The real test is, do you feel the sense of thrill when you tell the story? If you do, it may be time to shut the conversation down. When it comes to gossip, there are two important responses. One is not to do it, which should be obvious. The second is not to listen to it. Passive participation is still participation. There is a place to say, “I don’t need to know this” and walk away. Gossip has destroyed many churches and it should be avoided as a terrible danger.
Our final category may seem straightforward but we need to talk about it. We should not speak lies about other people. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is one of the Ten Commandments. Why is that? God’s nature is truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus accused those who lied to him as being children of the devil. The word devil literally means slanderer. People, both ancient and modern, have had their lives destroyed by lies.
But the opposite of lies is not just the truth, it is the truth with love. If someone is a bad singer, you don’t have to go and tell them they are a bad singer. Just because something is true doesn’t mean that we have to say it. There are many times when just the plain truth is not loving. That doesn’t mean that we should lie to make people feel better either. There is a way that we can speak the truth in love. The simple test is the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Speak as much truth and in such a way as you would want others to speak to you.
James has some strong warnings about how we use our words. He says, “It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” You can’t be any plainer than that. James understood the power of words. James was the half-brother of Jesus. In the Gospels, we see that not only did James and the brothers not affirm Jesus, they openly mocked him. It wasn’t until the risen Jesus made a special appearance to James that he believed and became one of the most important leaders in the early church. Was James thinking of his foolish words when he wrote his letter? Whether or not he was, we should be thinking of our words. We pray prayers, sing hymns and read Bible passages. Will we use that same instrument to tear apart those around us? May it not be so!