The Power of a Word

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But a words will never harm me.

Proverbs are short, pithy statements to teach a truth about what we can expect happen if we do something.

That old English proverb above was apparently meant to teach a child how to brush off insults. If only the proverb was true. If only the proverb worked in today’s culture of bullying. Words may not leave visible bruises but we all know from experience that words can bruise our ego and squash our spirit. Being a red-haired boy with more than my share of freckles I received more than a fair share of verbal taunting, especially the two years we lived in Akron, Colorado after moving from our farm in Nebraska. Being the new kid on the block whose father was a preacher made me a marked man.

Words are much more than ink on paper. More than sounds formed by lips and air moving over vocal chords. Words are tools to create beautiful art – a novel or a love song or a hymn of praise. Words can also be salve to help heal a wound. However, words can also be weapons to injure and kill.

Solomon understood the power of a word:

A word fitly spoken

is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold

is a wise reprover to a listening ear.

Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest

is a faithful messenger to those who send him;

he refreshes the soul of his masters.

(Pr. 25:11-12)

Solomon understood the power of words to skillfully create something beautiful as custom designed jewelry. It is easy to imagine Solomon talking about soft, gentle, syrupy and flattering speech. However, note the word “reprover” in the fourth line above. Sometimes, the appropriate response may actually be a word of rebuke or correction. However, “in your face” rebuke often results in denial and counter-attack, but a proper word in a relationship of love can be a caution light to prevent a casualty down the road.

Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down,

but a good word makes him glad.

(Pr. 12:25)

When life is tough and we are ready to throw in the towel, a word of encouragement can be a game

Changer. Consider how a simple word of encouragement from a parent or a teacher can make a child’s grey day sunny.

Caution, exclusion clause: When a person is wrestling with grief and loss a listening ear or a warm

embrace is more appropriate than words of advice. Consider how the voluminous and wrong-headed

counsel of Job’s friends was more like rusty knife blades than healing salve.

To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,

and a word in season, how good it is! 

(Pr. 15:23)

An appropriate response shared at the appropriate time can refresh the one who hears it. I recall how God has sometimes used something I said, that seemed totally insignificant to me at the time, to encourage a friend. However, I confess there have been times when I felt I should say something but didn’t or worse said something inappropriate.

A soft answer turns away wrath,

but a harsh word stirs up anger.

 (Pr. 15:1)

When dealing with conflict, an appropriate word spoken in the right spirit can defuse the atmosphere, but a hasty word spoken in anger is like pouring gas on a smouldering fire. How many domestic conflicts could be defused if only one “combatant” raised the white flag by lowering the decibel level and volatility of the vocabulary? It takes two to tangle; it takes only one to choose humility and reconciliation over conquest.

When I counseled as a pastor, I referred to Eph. 4:25-32 more than any other text in the Bible. Paul challenged his readers to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called….” (See Ephesians 4:1-3) This new way of thinking and living is demonstrated by our speech and actions toward one another. Ground zero in communication is to always speak truthfully. We are to decisively put away anything that smacks of deception or falsehood. Truth is that we can, in essence, lie to one another without deliberately forming a sentence containing an outright untruth. Sometimes we choose to just remain silent to avoid speaking truthfully. We’ve all been there.

Just like the proverbs above, Paul demonstrates the power of words to heal or hurt.

“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 4:29)

Every word in that sentence is significant. Note that not even one “corrupting” word is ever appropriate. Some versions of the Bible translate corrupting as unwholesome. Some words are like a virus that can infect and destroy a relationship. Paul instructed Titus to teach “sound” doctrine. The Greek word translated sound is the source for our English word hygienic. A word can be either healthy or unhealthy- can heal or infect. Paul is not warning about using coarse or filthy vocabulary; such crude, locker room talk is forbidden in Ephessians 5:3-4.

Unwholesome words are words that we choose to use in the heat of the moment in order to shame and beat someone down. It’s negative motivation. Simple words that can be used appropriately are morphed into weapons to sting and wound and manipulate- simple words like “always” and “never” flung from the lips of a frustrated parent of spouse can wound. Accusations like “you always do that” or “you never…” are seldom true, but the listener receives the message that they are hopeless losers. Over time we build scar tissue to dull the pain or just give up trying to please the other person.

The alternative to unwholesome and unhealthy speech is to choose words that encourage. Words that give grace are always appropriate. Before I release the hurtful word out of the trap (mouth) I should stop to consider what the listener needs to hear rather than what I feel like spouting.

One word can break a child’s or spouse’s spirit or encourage them to succeed. I know because I have been on both ends of the conversation. I have felt, and can still feel, the sting of a careless word. I also have felt the shame and regret of a word I selfishly unleashed.

Before I close our conversation on the front porch today I offer another thought about using words appropriately. Silence is not always golden. Sometimes it is just cowardly yellow. When God provides a natural (perhaps supernatural) opportunity to express our faith in Christ let us be prepared to “give an answer for the hope within” us. (See 1 Peter 3:15.)

That’s it! Live and speak with such consistency that people take note we speak a different kind of language that the brutal and gutter language of the day. Then always be prepared to share our story about experiencing God’s amazing grace.

Psalm 141:5: “ Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him read rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.”