Everyday Christian: the power of words

Coming from a family of four children, we all learned that words could be a weapon. None of that ‘sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you’. Whoever came up with that? It is so, so wrong. I could come up with the clever putdowns with the best of them. I learned how to shut down my feelings and put on the mask of confidence.

But just stop for a minute and think about what happens when clever repartee and one-upmanship are flying around the room. I can tell you. At one point in my early twenties, I worked at 3AW. It was in the days when people cared about real news. There were 12 journalists working in the radio newsroom. All clever, competitive, and most, reasonably young. The quick wit flowed. One biting barb after another. Each potentially finding its hidden mark – piercing someone’s external armour going straight to their heart, but could we see the damage? Of course not. We all tried to out-tough the next one.

Do we remember, or are we even aware, of the words that we say that hurt others?

Walking down LaTrobe St in Melbourne’s CBD one day after work, heading to the train, God gave me an epiphany. What was I doing? How was I representing Christ in the workplace? Who was I trying to impress? What damage was I unwittingly wreaking on others? I stopped. Not to say I haven’t slipped up over the years and said things that have hurt others.

But why does it matter? It certainly matters to God.

Because as James says in his epistle, words stick. They have the power to unleash great harm and great good.

James 3:8, No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.

When we are offered kindness, it feels like a warm embrace – unlike the barbs of harsh condemning judging words.

We remember the words that hurt us, but do we remember, or are we even aware, of the words that we say that hurt others? Our words are full of deadly poison. Poison is the perfect word to use because poison is mostly ingested. The destruction it wreaks is on internal organs. Likewise, the poisonous words damage our hearts, minds and souls. And in today’s society, we don’t have to speak those words. We can spew out our ‘restless evil’ in social media. We can send it quickly via our fast-moving fingers in an email. We can write something, angrily, and hit send, only to regret that foolish decision as it disappears into the sent box.

Our words and actions can leave hidden scars.

But as we know, there is another way and we get some clues about how we might positively use our words from Paul in Ephesians:

Chapter 4: 29-32: 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every kind of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

We are causing the Holy Spirit to grieve when our words cause pain, brokenness, and division. Note that Paul is urging us to only use words that are helpful for building others up. Get rid of all bitterness and brawling. Wow. What has happened to us Christians? Sometimes brawling seems to be all that we do in public! Strutting our knowledge as if we have all the answers. Where is the compassion and kindness in our posture? Kindness is a much-undervalued fruit of the spirit, but when we are offered kindness, it feels like a warm embrace – unlike the barbs of harsh condemning judging words.

As we represent Christ every day to non-Christians and fellow Christians, are we grieving the Holy Spirit, or are we seeking to build up others with words of encouragement and compassion? May I urge you to pause before you hit send on that message and ask yourself, am I offering hope or judgment? For surely we are called to be light in all we do and say.