Lately, I have been thinking about words a great deal. For most of us, words are our primary form of communication and expression. As a people, we have been wooing hearts, inspiring minds, stirring up courage, setting up governments, and bringing peace to war with our words for thousands of years. Of course, we have also been breaking hearts, dulling minds, striking fear in the hearts around us, tearing down civilizations, and sparking conflict where peace once reigned with our words. And that is the power of a word.
Sometimes I think we fail to realize the power that lies in our words. We all agree that words can hurt, and the childhood sing-song “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is one of the most untrue statements ever spoken, but I’m afraid we still throw out words carelessly without giving thought to the effect our words might have. I believe this has become an exponentially bigger issue with the dawn of the Social Media age, as the cyber-bullying epidemic makes painfully clear. Suddenly, anyone who wants a platform has one, usually two or three or more. We now have ample opportunity to air our opinions, and we act as though that makes our opinions worth airing. We type our statuses, write our blogs, comment on the words of others, and throw out judgments and assessments and critiques right and left. It’s so quick and easy, and we aren’t looking our listeners in the face, so we forget that the impact of the written word is often even greater than that of the spoken word. So sometimes we get careless. You might expect that with the ability to type slowly, rethink, edit, and rewrite, luxuries that we rarely have in actual spoken conversation there would be much less carelessness in the written word. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case all the time. We have a thought, type it out, and hit “Post” or “Send” or “Tweet” before we’ve really taken the time to think through the implications of what we’ve typed.
I realize the irony of using words and a blog and social media to communicate the dangers of words and blog posts and social media, but therein lies the difficulty. We cannot escape words. And because we cannot escape them, we must learn how to use them wisely and carefully. We must recognize their power and wield them with responsibility. This isn’t easy, and none of us will arrive at the place where we never sin with our words, as James 3 makes painfully clear. Thankfully, Scripture is full of admonitions and principles that can and should help us use words in a way that brings life, not harm, to the hearer.
- Proverbs 4:24 “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.”
- Proverbs 8:6-7 “Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right, for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips.”
- Proverbs 12:18 “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
- Ephesians 4:25 “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
- Ephesians 4:29 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
- Ephesians 5:4 “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
These are just a tiny fraction of verses that guide our speech, taken from only 3 chapters in 2 books of Scripture! There are many, many more verses of Scripture that help us see what kind of words are pleasing to the Lord and beneficial to the listener.
Sometimes, though, I think we still don’t get it. Maybe we know we don’t use filthy speech, we’re pretty honest, we try not to gossip, and so we think we have the words thing down. But we may still be causing harm by our words without realizing it. Think through some of these examples that I’ve noticed recently:
“She hit me!” I hear it daily. Most parents of more than one child hear this sentence on a regular basis. (Right?? Please tell me I’m not the only one!) I have learned, though, to give a closer inspection of the facts before just taking that at face value. Case in point: My son came in the house this week with tears in his eyes, and angrily told me his older sister had hit him. I asked for the rest of the story. He insisted that was it, the whole story. I kept pressing, knowing that his sister had not just randomly come up to him, unprovoked, and whacked him. Either he had done something to her first, or she hadn’t really intentionally hit him but had merely bumped into him. Finally, he admitted that she had just accidentally bumped him. This ends up being the case in at least 70% of the hitting incidents at the Hall house. But if I just took the tattler at their word, I would believe that my kids are just bullies who go around smacking each other frequently and without cause. And I wonder how often we grown ups do the same thing. How many of us are carrying around a grudge against someone who maybe unintentionally bumped into us but we have claimed they hit us on purpose. Words matter. Has someone hurt your feelings? Don’t use your words to twist what actually happened into something worse than what it was. I have a friend, a pastor’s wife, who was crushed when she found out why a lady had stopped coming to their church. The lady was telling people that my friend had seen her one day and purposely turned away without speaking, and she wasn’t going to go to church where the pastor’s wife treated her like that. But my friend never even saw her. Her mind had been a million miles away, and she didn’t even know the lady was there. To have intentionality assigned to an action (or lack of action) that was completely unintentional is unfair, inaccurate, and hurtful. And when we do this with the hurts we have received from others, it is not only an injustice toward the one who accidentally hurt us (my son would have loved to see his sister get a spanking but that would have been completely unjust) but it causes much more harm in our own hearts. When I know someone didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, it is much easier to forgive them. But when I convince myself that they must have done it on purpose, the hurt festers and infects my entire soul until I am bitter and ugly inside every time that person’s name is even mentioned. All because I was careless with the words I used to describe what happened. Twisting words around to color a situation a little differently than the actual facts is very dangerous indeed.
Very similar are times when people take someone’s original words or actions a step or two further in the retelling. Sometimes, when people are trying to express sympathy to a grieving friend, they don’t know exactly what to say and can end up sounding insensitive. It would be wrong, then, for the grieving friend to say they were cruel. There is a big difference between insensitivity and cruelty. I know from experience that finding out that your efforts to show love to someone have been labeled “cruel” makes it really difficult to reach out the next time. There are many ways we do this. Someone says they believe in an old earth, and we report they said they don’t believe God created the world. Someone says employers shouldn’t be forced to pay for birth control, and we report they said women are inferior. Someone says they agree with strict border controls, and we say they have no compassion and think we should never rescue refugees. Someone points out our sin or doesn’t voice support of our actions, and we say they are not a true friend. Someone says they disagree with us, and we say they hate us. We laugh and joke about the fisherman who embellishes his tale of the one that got away, but it’s not funny at all when we embellish the words or actions of others in a way that presents them in a bad light. It’s dishonest, and makes us more in the wrong than they were with their original statement. An election year is prime breeding ground for these kinds of unfair and untrue embellishments, and those of us who are leaders or influencers have a particular responsibility to weigh every word we speak or type.We must be more careful.
Another way we can be careless with our words, hurting people without realizing it, is to toss out sweeping statements that divide people into camps. For example, one I have discussed in the past: “True writers write every day.” Well, any aspiring writer reading or hearing that statement, but who doesn’t write every day, immediately gets the message that she is not a true writer. That can sting. Or any number of parenting statements: “I would never do that with my child.” “My kids never act like that.” “Any mom who does that is . . .” “Can you believe that someone would. . .” I shudder to think about the many times statements like that came out of my mouth before I had kids and in my early years of parenting, and frankly, about the times they still come out of my mouth when I am not being careful. Hearing those types of statements made, and knowing I do or have done the very thing being scorned, has helped me see how crushing those words can be.
Maybe I’m becoming too sensitive, but I am becoming more and more aware of the times I feel the sting of careless words. But I do think it’s a growing problem, and I’m convinced that one reason is the easy avenues we have to share our thoughts and opinions. Take advantage of social media for its good points, but please please be careful with your choice of words. I know I am guilty of carelessness myself, and I am praying for the Spirit to help me be more sensitive and thoughtful of my words. Out of all the Scriptures about words, the most sobering one is this: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” (Matthew 12:36) Before you speak, before you hit “post”, picture yourself explaining those words to Christ at the judgment. Let this be our guide, and let’s remember the power of every careless word.