The old saying that “words can never hurt me” is far from reality. How can we make sure our words aren’t destructive but are a force for good?
It happened in the cereal aisle. I was so stunned that I stood there, frozen in place, shocked by the cruelty of a mother’s words.
The store was crowded, and we were taking turns working our way down the aisle. A mother and a couple of children took their turn. The mom told a girl about 12 years old to reach an item on a lower shelf. The girl reached down to get the item.
As her hand touched the item she thought her mother wanted, the mother screamed at her using a string of profanity and asked if she was stupid. She then proclaimed she had to do everything herself, pushed past the girl and got the item she wanted.
The girl did not react except to back out of the way. She wrapped her arms around her body and, with an emotionless mask on her face, walked down the aisle behind her grumbling mother. She was apparently used to the cruelty of the woman’s words.
We’re probably very familiar with the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” In reality, words can hurt worse and leave more debilitating wounds than a stick or stone.
Whether the words target a child or a spouse or a friend, the effects of cruel words can be devastating.
God’s view on words
How important is it to God that we use our words positively? Matthew 12:36 and 37 tell us that we will be justified or condemned by every idle word we speak.
The context of these verses is being known by our fruits. What are the fruits of our words? Do our words soothe and heal? Are they gentle, even when offering correction? Or do our words, in tone or in meaning, sometimes act like a weapon—a stick or a stone?
“The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4, New International Version). How can we make sure the fruits of our words are good ones—a “tree of life” to our children, our spouse and others?
Principles to use
Following are a number of great principles we can draw from the Bible that can help us guide our words:
- Emotions are bad drivers! Some of the most hurtful words uttered are those driven by anger or frustration, and everyone is occasionally tested when it comes to controlling emotions. When anger or frustration flares, it may be hard to do, but excusing ourselves, walking away and cooling down helps us gain control.
Proverbs 15:18 says that an angry man stirs up strife. Colossians 3:8 gives us a list of things to remove from our mouth. Anger is first on the list. Wrath is second. Malice, blasphemy and filthy language round out the list.
How many of these five things do we commonly hear when someone has an emotional outburst? Our society seems to think they are acceptable, but God says they are not because of how they damage people.
- The wise pay attention to what is going on. Have you ever been around someone who would give you an answer before you finished asking your question? Have you ever been the person who was in a hurry and threw out an answer before you heard the whole question? Have you ever let an emotional response cloud your hearing of the whole matter? Proverbs 18:13 says that if a person answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him. It is a wise person who takes time to understand the whole situation, and not jump in with a response before fully observing what is going on.
- The value of truth, spoken in love. God values truth so much that He dedicated one of His 10 Commandments to being truthful (Exodus 20:16). In the list of things that God hates, two of those have to do with lying (Proverbs 6:16-19). Even when it is uncomfortable, God expects us to tell the truth.
Telling the truth can be a tall task, especially when we feel it will hurt someone’s feelings. This is where we add in the principle found in Ephesians 4:15 that we must tell the truth, but we must do so in love. (See our article “Speak the Truth in Love.”) Often it helps to consider, “How would my words affect me, if they were pointed back at me?”
Even if you have to tell people something that hurts their feelings, with forethought you can probably find a loving way where you can end the conversation with their knowing you did so for their own good, that you care for them and that you are looking out for them.
- The law of kindness. Proverbs 31:26 refers to speech guided by the “law of kindness.” While this chapter specifically refers to a godly woman, everyone can apply the principle.
The Benson Commentary describes “law of kindness” like this: “Her speeches are guided by wisdom and grace, and not by inordinate passions. And this practice is called a law in her tongue, because it is constant and customary, and proceeds from an inward and powerful principle of true wisdom.”
Constant and customary—she is unwavering and always kind. Her speech is not guided by “inordinate passions”—she does not let emotion color what she says.
Tied in intricately with kindness is wisdom—godly wisdom. When we base our actions on God’s laws, which are framed by love toward Him and love toward fellow man (Matthew 22:37-39), kindness naturally follows.
- Building up versus tearing down. Ephesians 4:29 instructs us not to let corrupt words come out of our mouths, but instead, what is good for edification or building up, and Proverbs 12:18 tells us that the tongue of the wise promotes health.
The Bible says a lot about encouragement. We even find one of the apostles of the New Testament Church was nicknamed Barnabas, meaning Son of Encouragement.
Author Gary Smalley said, “Affirming [encouraging] words from moms and dads are like light switches. Speak a word of affirmation at the right moment in a child’s life and it’s like lighting up a whole roomful of possibilities.”Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines encourage as “to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope.” Encouragement is positive and uplifting. Encouragement finds the good in a situation and helps someone move forward.
Author Gary Smalley said, “Affirming [encouraging] words from moms and dads are like light switches. Speak a word of affirmation at the right moment in a child’s life and it’s like lighting up a whole roomful of possibilities.”
This same principle applies in the lives of our spouses, friends and coworkers. How different this approach is from the mother described at the beginning of this article. She instead chose to tear down and destroy.
- Knowing when it’s “quiet time.” There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak, wise Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3:7. Several circumstances come to mind where silence is the best approach.
One is when simply our presence provides more comfort than our words possibly could. This is often the case after a tragedy. There may also be times when our silence would cause less harm than our words.
At times other people are more qualified to answer, which is one reason the Bible tells the younger people to keep silent when the elderly are speaking. The younger are not prohibited from speaking at all, but in waiting their turn, they may gain wisdom. We are also told that “you who are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). Discerning when one is wise enough to speak up in a way that will really help is a great filter that often stops inappropriate words.
And finally, sometimes one may have to simply walk away from a situation to create the quiet space needed to let emotions cool down.
A final word
Words are an integral part of our lives. They connect humans in wonderful ways—it’s with words that we share ideas, emotions, knowledge, humor and many other things. So many positive benefits come from using our words properly. But when we use them improperly, they tear down, damage and destroy.
I will forever have a picture in my mind of that young girl taking a step back and wrapping her arms around herself as her mother ranted on.
Solomon said that a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Let’s make sure our words are apples of gold.
Read more about the power of words in the other articles in this section on “The Joys and Challenges of Communication.”