In the beginning, God created the universe and everything in it by simply speaking. And by that same powerful word, everything continues to exist (Hebrews 1:3). As beings made in God’s image, our words also have power. Granted, the power we possess is not supernatural like God’s power – we can’t speak galaxies into existence – but our words can have a profound influence on others and ourselves.
Think about the impact that a lie has on a relationship, or how a word of encouragement spoken when someone is feeling low or in mourning can change their outlook. It’s not without cause that we are often cautioned to guard what we say. “The tongue has the power of life and death,” says Proverbs 18:21. With our words, we can wound, but our words can also bring healing to the people around us.
The enormous power that we wield ought to give us pause. How are you using your words? What impact do your words have on others and yourself? Our words may take a mere instant to utter, but they often outlive us. What are some reasons why we ought to take care with our words, especially words that may be hurtful?
Hurtful words: Reasons to be cautious
If you’ve ever seen little children at play when at home or school, you’ve probably heard a parent or educator say multiple times, “Don’t run with scissors!” This is something that must be repeated until the lesson is grasped because if it isn’t taught and absorbed, it could mean danger and harm to the child, someone else, or both. A pair of scissors can be used to cut fascinating shapes but handled poorly they can also cause severe injury.
Our words wield deadly potential as well. As James wrote in his letter warning Christians concerning the tongue:
We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire.
It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. – James 3:3-9
James’ strong words alert us to the amount of damage our tongue (and in this age of social media, our thumbs) can do in the world. Some of the reasons to be cautious with your words include:
They can damage or destroy relationships. Hurtful words are the quickest way to harm relationships. Whether you intend it or not, hurtful words may communicate that you don’t care about the other person, their feelings, hopes, and dreams. Relationships are nurtured and built through mutual support and care, while hurtful words are like a harsh sun that can wither those connections.
They can undermine confidence. Hurtful words, such as words that are derogatory, insulting, or that put another person down can go a long way toward undermining their confidence. This is especially the case in situations such as the parent-child relationship, the teacher-student dynamic, and in romantic relationships, among others.
When a child is called “stupid,” “ugly,” “fat,” or anything else akin to these terms, they can carry it with them for years. It can alter their self-image, causing them to continue to perceive themselves that way even when it’s patently and demonstrably false. Their confidence and ability to face the world with their head held high can be severely undermined through unhelpful and hurtful descriptors such as these.
They may internalize what was said of them and begin to think that’s the truth about who they are. And if they don’t address those lies and the patterns of thought and behavior they generate, through therapy or other means, they may in turn replicate that behavior in other relationships. In that way, words that were spoken months or years before have a long and radioactive afterlife.
They can undermine the mental and emotional health of others. In concert with the loss of confidence that hurtful words can engender, there are emotional and mental health implications to hurtful words.
While many factors influence whether one develops conditions such as anxiety or depression, one of those factors includes the negative input from others. When people are bullied, for instance – whether online or in-person – it can have negative mental and emotional health outcomes.
Our words can impact how we think of ourselves, and they can have a deep impact on others as well. It matters how we use our words because hurtful words have an afterlife that allows them to continue wreaking havoc long after we’ve said them.
How to deal carefully with our words
Since our words influence others, taking care of how and when we speak is one of the most important skills in building relationships and being a positive influence in the world. In saying everything that’s been said above, one point was left unaddressed. Not all words that are hurtful shouldn’t be uttered. We can wound a friend to build them up, but how we do it matters too.
The wounds that a friend inflicts can be trusted above the kisses an enemy showers you with, to paraphrase one Biblical Proverb. A friend might hurt you by telling you that you’re in a toxic romantic relationship. They may hurt you by telling you that you’re living beneath your potential, or they may wound you by calling you out on your sin. We can deliver these hurtful truths to others with empathy and the intention to build them up.
If we are the ones speaking into the lives of someone else, we must carefully weigh our words and see the heart behind them, as well as consider the best way to deliver them so they are heard. If we are the ones being spoken to, we also need to reflect and consider what is being said to us. Moving forward, we can deal carefully with our words by:
Apologizing to people you’ve spoken unhelpful and hurtful words to. The hurtful words we speak to others can lodge in their hearts and minds like splinters. They may have forgiven us, but wounds may remain. Taking the step to apologize sincerely for our hurtful words can help them with closure and healing in their own lives. Going through that process will also help us to see firsthand the effect our words have on others, and we will measure our words more carefully in the future.
Thinking carefully before you speak. Repentance means “turning away,” and that’s what we need to do with any patterns of speaking hurtful words to others. One step in the right direction is to pause and think before speaking. In the heat of the moment, in a flash of anger or annoyance, all manner of hurtful things can come flying out of our mouths.
We want to speak and be heard, otherwise, we may be left behind. Listening to others and paying close attention to the impact of what we say often become casualties in the effort. “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise,” reads Proverbs 10:19. Being slow to speak may not be such a bad idea, especially when you consider that effective empathetic listening yields much fruit.
Considering the feelings of others: Exercise empathy and emotional intelligence. Standing in the shoes of others can help us be more measured with our words.
Using your words to build others up. Doing a self-inventory to ask yourself how you tend to use your words is helpful. What is the purpose behind the bulk of the words you use on any given day? Considering this may help us to reorient ourselves towards using our words to build others up rather than tearing them down.
“Choose Your Words”, Courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Speak Truth”, Courtesy of Brett Jordan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, Courtesy of Paulette Vautour, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Meditating on the Word”, Courtesy of Olivia Snow, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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