THE POWER OF WORDS

It would be difficult to overstate the power of words. Sometimes we forgot that; and it is good to be reminded just how powerful they can be. The Bible’s book of wisdom, Proverbs, gives us a lot of practical help. The book contains over 100 references to the tongue, mouth, lips, and words.

The power of words can be seen in their potential for destruction. Proverbs 18:21a declares “The tongue has the power of life and death” and Proverbs 15:4b reminds us “a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Most of us probably know and have recited the saying “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but it simply is not true. Every one of us has been hurt by words.

Words can do damage at either close range or at a distance. We’ve all been hurt by words spoken directly to us. Sometimes what is said to us is worse than a physical blow–things like “I never should have married you” or “I wish you’d never been born.” We’ve also been hurt by words at a distance.

Author Roger Thomas notes eight specifics in the book of Proverbs of how words can be destructive:

Lying – Proverbs 25:18, “Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is the man who gives false testimony against his neighbor.”

Deceit – Proverbs 4:24, “Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth” (The Message).

Slander – Proverbs 11:2, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” (Slander goes beyond the truth, but has a grain of truth.)

Gossip – Proverbs 16:28, “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” Proverbs 20:19, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.” (Gossip rejoices in the flaws and failures — or rumors of such — of others.)

Thoughtless Words – Proverbs 29:20, “There is more hope for a fool than for someone who speaks without thinking” (NLT).

Flattery – Proverbs 28:3, “He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue.” Proverbs 29:5, “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.”  (Flattery is insincere compliments to gain favor.)

Boasting – Proverbs 27:1 and 2, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.”

Too Much Talk – Proverbs 18:2, “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” Proverbs 10:19, “Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow” (NLT).

The power of words can also be seen in their potential for good. Again, Proverbs 18:21a declares “The tongue has the power of life” and Proverbs 15:4a that “The tongue that brings healing is the tree of life.” Proverbs 12:25 reminds us “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up” and Proverbs 16:2 “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Through words we express our love and concern for each other — our deepest feelings. Words can cheer us up and provide encouragement. Who does not remember a time when the right word was spoken and everything changed?

With the reminder of the power of words in mind, let’s consider some advice for the use of words from Proverbs (and other selected Bible passages).

Learn to listen. James 1:19 challenges us, “Everyone should be swift to listen and slow to speak.” It’s not wise to assume we know what someone is saying before we hear them out. I like the directness of Proverbs 18:13 in the Message, “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.”

Think before you speak and thereby choose your words carefully. Proverbs 17:28 warns us, “Even a fool is thought to be wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” And Proverbs 29:20 presses the point, “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Be honest. Proverbs 6:17-19 tells us seven things God hates, and two of them are “a lying tongue” and “a false witness.” Paul’s related instruction in Ephesians 4:15, “Speak the truth is love,” has always presented a challenged to me. Even though some speak of being “brutally honest,” I think situations that call for that description would be rare. We are to speak the truth, but to do so in love.

Finally, Use words to build others up. We need to take Ephesians 4:29 seriously: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs , that it may benefit those who listen.” Other verses deal with crude talk, but “unwholesome talk” in this verse is the opposite of “building others up according to their needs”—talk that is caustic and sarcastic, that attacks, and is negative and rude. To take Ephesians 4:29 seriously is to use our words to express appreciation and to be encouraging.

Words are powerful — let’s use them wisely.

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WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Most readers are probably familiar with the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes’ statement: “I think: therefore I am.” I’m not sure exactly what it means, but most people think it is profound. Not too long ago I was reminded of a lesson about thinking that reminded me of Descartes’ words.

What got my attention was the report from a friend that something I had said to another friend was offensive. And it troubled me because the person I offended has done a lot for me and is someone I greatly respect. The sad part is that I was trying to be funny, but was oblivious to the fact that my words had landed with a thud.

Since then I’ve been wondering about all the people I have spoken to through the years who may have been hurt by what I said and I didn’t even know it. And my sense is that most of the time when it happened I was trying to be funny.

My friend who shared with me how my words had hurt our mutual friend challenged me to do better in the future by thinking about what I say. Borrowing from and adding to Descartes words, I want to suggest a lesson we all need to keep in mind and practice: “You think, therefore you are—therefore think about what you say—before you say it.”

And there are two additional important lessons for me not prompted by Descartes: don’t always try to be funny, and remember teasing is not always appropriate.

If the question is “What was I thinking?”, too often in my life the answer has been “I wasn’t thinking.” In the future I plan and hope to do more thinking about what I say– and before I say it.

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THAT HURT!

Has anyone ever said something to you that hurt your feelings? Has anyone ever said something about you to someone else that was relayed to you that hurt? I sure have—many times, but mercifully, only a few I remember. I was reminded of the power of our words (and actions) to hurt others last week as I spoke with one friend who had been deeply hurt by the words of another friend.

The next day in my Bible reading I came across this in Ecclesiastes 8:9 (NIV), “All this I saw, as I applied my mind to everything under the sun. There is a time when a man lords it over others to his own [or to their] hurt.” Intrigued, I checked a few other translations:

New Living Translation: “I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other.”

New Revised Standard Version: “All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.”

Contemporary English Version: “I noticed all this and thought seriously about what goes on in the world. Why does one person have the power to hurt another?”

The Message: “All this I observed as I tried my best to understand all that’s going on in this world. As long as men and women have the power to hurt each other, this is the way it is.”

I am no expert in the Hebrew language, but I think this verse includes not only physical hurt, but also hurting others with our words. Taking a cue from the biblical writer, I too gave serious thought to what my friend had shared with me the previous day. I was hurt because she was hurt and disappointed by what my other friend had said and done to her.

Earlier I said I have been hurt by both what others have said to me and by what others have said about me that got back to me. Equally important, however, if not more important, is the truth that I have said things to people that have hurt them as well as things to others about people that got back to them and hurt them. The purpose of this post is not just to alert and challenge readers about this matter, but also for me to confess my guilt in this area and commit to doing better myself. I am not referring to having fun teasing someone with no intention to hurt–however, we do need to be aware that sometimes our teasing hurts those we tease (especially when we go too far with it).

I think it also needs to be said that there are times when it is appropriate to hurt a friend with our words. Proverbs 27:6 (NIV) informs us, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Wounds hurt, but sometimes our friends need to wound us with their words for our own good. It has never been pleasant, and I certainly don’t like it, but I am grateful for the times in my life when friends have appropriately wounded me with the goal of helping me. Even though it is meant to be helpful, and perhaps even necessary, a real friend will never delight in wounding a friend even when it is needed.

Back to being hurt by the words of someone, how should we respond? I have three suggestions for our consideration:

Try not to be defensive. It’s easier said than done, but try to let it roll off your back. Sometimes it may be helpful to set the record straight, but generally speaking ignoring it is probably best.

Try not to strike back. I’m confident the person who hurts us with words has shortcoming and faults we could attack, but for the most part escalation will not prove to be helpful.

Try not to be overly sensitive. Again, it is easier said than done–and I know because I am often overly sensitive to such things. But in the end, being overly sensitive just compounds our hurt.

To conclude these thoughts, here are two more verses from the book of Proverbs to contemplate:

Proverbs 12:18 (NLT), “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing.”

Proverbs 15:4 (NLT), “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

Lord,

Forgive me for hurting others with my words and help me do better. Empower me to appropriately respond to those who hurt me with their words. Guide me in knowing when and how to wound a friend for his or her own good. May my words encourage and build up others as well as honor and praise you.

Amen

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