As far back as I can remember, I have largely interpreted life, my value, and my impressions of those around me through the words I hear. What I have taken in through my ears has lodged deep into my soul. Countless words have cut like a knife, leaving me emotionally bleeding and struggling for air, while many others have wrapped around me like a warm blanket on a wintry day, imparting strength to keep going. And still others, for better or worse, have quietly and subtilely shaped my perceptions and understanding of the world. Some carry the breath of life. Others work to strangle or crush it. They are more than just physical sound waves pounding on my eardrums. They carry something invisible and other-worldly with a potency that can rearrange my insides for good or for bad.
Their force, I believe, is rooted in their origin. The Bible tells us that the Almighty Creator brought into physical existence that which was in His mind by speaking. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). In that same chapter, we’re also told that God created man and woman in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). While bearing His image holds many theological implications, one of them, it seems, is that we possess abilities patterned, to a lesser degree, after our Creator. Humans can take something they have imagined in their minds and bring it into existence through creative labor. Every invention (like the lightbulb), every work of craftsmanship (like a mahogany table), and every organizational system (like government agencies) started at one time as an idea in someone’s head. Like the One who made us, we all are creators at some level . . . for good or for bad.
What are we calling into being?
Words are the most basic creative element we possess. They start as ideas in our heads, or even in our spirits, and as we choose to speak or write them, they can transform into forces that impact everyone around us.
I heard a phrase when I was young that I believed to be true, but I now am certain is a falsehood: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” It would be nice if words with ill intent would just bounce off like rain on an umbrella. But typically, they do not. There have been moments in my life when I would have much rather endured a physical injury than bear the cutting trauma of being ridiculed, accused, discounted, or belittled by what someone said. The pain a person’s tongue inflicts can leave a soul cut, battered, and feeling as if it is dying.
My life experiences align with the writings of the Biblical Proverbs. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21, ESV). “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18, ESV).
The human tongue is a scary thing. Fortunately, this part of my body is not solely a source of destructive power. My mouth’s ability to speak words can also be used to rejuvenate and restore. The tongue merely projects onto others what a person’s mind and spirit have been dwelling on. The motivations of the heart come to the surface through the tongue. As Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45, ESV). The intentions of my heart are what energize the sound waves of my voice, or the clicks on my keyboard, with an other-worldly power to destroy or heal, kill or renew hope.
Wounding and Destroying
For most of us, things flow out of our mouths so thoughtlessly we often don’t realize the effect they have. Mean-spirited words are not the only kind that can suck or extinguish life. Complaining is a common use of our mouths that leaves those nearby feeling heavier and struggling to hold onto joy. In general, when negativity rolls off our tongues, it is not unlike hanging bulky weights on a person treading water in a deep pool. And it seems to have an affect on God too. He didn’t take kindly to the Israelite’s grumbling and negativity as He was leading them through the desert (Numbers 14:26-30).
And then there’s the way we use our mouths to talk about others when they’re not around. It’s sometimes referred to as gossip. But regardless what we call it, when we talk about the pain or negative stuff of others for mere entertainment value, with no intention to impart life or offer healing, we are using our tongues for evil. And it leaves a dark residue not just on the other person but on the speaker as well. I know of no one who finds life in having their misfortunes or failures aired in order to gratify the itching ears of whoever may be listening. And yet we still use our mouths to abuse others this way.
Recognizing the Power to Heal and Restore
As followers of Jesus, we need to repent and change the way we think about how we talk. Many of us are still like children playing with loaded guns. In our minds we minimize or completely ignore the damage our words can inflict, flippantly shooting our thoughts and feelings out at whoever may be nearby. We remain unmindful or just don’t care how our tone or use of sarcasm blows destructive holes into those we talk to. Instead, we must cultivate a healthy fear of the awesome creative power that has been put into our mouths with the ability to expose the inside of our hearts. We can choose to practice transmitting hope and healing with our tongues through what we say and how we say it. For that’s what our Creator had in mind from the beginning. We are meant to communicate life!
Words of encouragement are so underrated and so underused. To build another up with what we speak is more than just an emotional ploy; it is deeply spiritual with eternal ramifications. When it is done from a sincere heart, it imparts the substance that allows a soul to breathe and can be a lifeline that pulls someone from the brink of despair. Declarations of thanksgiving are also powerful in championing the good that manifests all around us (but often goes unnoticed) as well as promoting the practice of believing the best, rather than the worst of the person we’re interacting with. Affirming words pave the way for healing.
As God’s image bearer, you have been given the power to create certain realities with what you say. The question is, what is in your heart that needs to be spoken that can encourage life to put down deeper roots in another? Everything else that rumbles, grumbles, and burns inside can and should be laid at the foot of the cross, rather than on the soul of the person next to you.
(Edited and reposted from April 26, 2021)