Written By Faith Yong, Singapore
Most of us might be familiar with the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me”.
My English literature teacher used to counter that saying. She said, “Sticks and stones do break your bones, but you recover after that. Words, if not used carefully and thoughtfully, cut through the person’s being like that of a knife piercing one’s heart.”
I remember being shocked by the graphic illustration of the power of words. But she was right. The Bible stresses the power of the tongue, observing that though it is a “small part of the body”, yet it “makes great boasts” (James 3:5). Though small, the tongue has the potential to cause huge problems. Just like how it only takes a spark to start a fire, a reckless word can cause a misunderstanding between family members, friends, and colleagues.
I saw the power of words in college, where I was encouraged to speak up and question worldviews, and even awarded higher class participation grades for being more vocal. It came at a price: I found myself often trying to outwit, outsmart, and outlast my friends in conversations. I became fixated on pushing my point across and winning every argument.
It did not occur to me that my speech was causing my friends much unhappiness until a friend sat me down one day and said, “Faith, we are friends and sisters-in-Christ. Why are you so competitive? Why must you strive to win all the time? Do you realize the signals that you are sending to others, like the non-Christians?”
It was only then that I realized my words had actually hurt my friends. My careless and callously used words were not only hurting fellow believers, they were also causing non-believers to stumble.
So how are we to guard our hearts and our lips from “harsh words [that] stir up anger?” The Bible reminds us to keep God at the center of our lives. This means that we are to align our hearts and responses with God’s, no matter how difficult the situation or how stinging the words uttered to us may be.
I’ve also learned to ask myself these three questions before giving a response to any hurtful words I hear:
1. How would God want me to respond? One of the two key instructions Jesus gave to His disciples was this: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34 – 35). As believers, we are to always demonstrate Christ’s love to each other—not just in our actions, but in our speech too.
We have all been told that we should “forgive and forget” so that “the hurt will be forgotten”. The truth is, it is difficult to forget the words that people have said to us. We need to recognize that every situation, no matter how difficult or hostile, offers an opportunity for us to demonstrate God’s love and grace to others.
2. What would God want me to say? We catch a glimpse of this in Colossians 4:6: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Regardless of the situation, we ought to exercise patience, love, and graciousness in our speech. We’re also urged to tailor our response in an interesting and witty way that will draw people to the gospel.
3. When would God want me respond? In many cases, a misunderstanding is best resolved immediately instead of letting it simmer. But often, when I reply on the spur of the moment, I am more likely to give a hasty and harsh answer. However, if I feel God’s soft prompting to retreat and pray first before responding, I find that the words that proceed from my mouth and lips are more likely to be words of love, truth, and grace that minister rather than hurt.
So when do we respond? It depends on the situation. Sometimes, we may feel that we need to quieten ourselves down first, and pray for God to grant us wisdom and anoint our lips before we speak to a friend, colleague, or family member. Then we can gently speak in private with whoever has offended us. Matthew 18:15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
Far too many times, I have been both careless and callous in my speech. In some instances, I was able—by God’s grace—to seek reconciliation with my friends; in others, I was not able to. I pray that in time, I will be able to rebuild these friendships that God has blessed me with.
Our tongues, together with our sinful human nature, can tear down and destroy. But if we center our lives on Christ, our tongues can build up and edify others, and glorify God.