Words have tremendous power to hurt and to help. They can discourage, they can cause anger, they can cause separation, but words can also heal, they can encourage, they can lift up, and they can empower someone else. Words have an enormous amount of power.
When I was in seventh grade, I still lived in Puerto Rico, and my seventh-grade teacher gave us a special assignment. She told us to write a paper about an unlikely relationship. Our job was to pick two things that would normally not be friends and create a story about how the friendship was possible. I wrote a story about a friendship between a giraffe and an ant.
The paper apparently came out pretty good. I got an A+. My teacher told me it was a really clever story, very well written.
I hear her telling another teacher what a great paper Ines wrote. I’m was so happy. I turned around to experience more words of affirmation, and she said to me, “Egoísta.”
Do you know what that word means in Spanish? It means egotistical, excessively conceited, absorbed in one’s self, self-centered, selfish, arrogant, narcissist. All in one word. I froze, and those words went so deep in my heart. To this day, I remember where I was standing. I remember where the teachers were sitting. I remember that word so vividly, even the tone of her voice.
I’m a perfectionist. I think I’ve shared before I’m afraid of failure, but I’m actually more afraid of success because of that word, because success means maybe I’ll become prideful. That’s what that word did for me, so for years I wouldn’t write because I was afraid if I wrote well I would be become a selfish, self-centered person.
Words have power, don’t they? Words can hurt, but they also have power to heal, to encourage, to strengthen, to empower.
To give you an example of how words can also heal, I’ll share this story from my husband, Jim. When he was around 10 or 11 years old, he worked at the machine shop with his father. They took engines apart and rebuilt them. It was dirty, oily, messy work. He worked with very dangerous equipment to rebuild engines, and his father would tell his customers and his friends and the other workers who came, “Look at my son! He’s doing the job of a grown man, and look how good he’s doing!” He would say positive things about Jim in front of these men.
For Jim, those words became an absolute encouragement toward a work ethic that he still lives by today. I’m proud of my husband. He’s a very successful businessman, and he accounts that to the words his father spoke over him in those times. Those words were life-giving, and they had an effect on Jim’s entire life.
Words have power. I want to be on the side of encouragement. I want to speak life. I want my words to bring strength, encouragement and empowerment to others.
I’m thinking we’re all wanting more of that, but why is it so hard for us to control our words?
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but 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.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” James 3
James isn’t difficult to understand, but it is difficult to accept.
Here are the main points that James makes to us, as we try to be life-givers with our words:
1. The tongue is too powerful for us to control on our own. James illustrates this point in several ways. He talks about the bits in the mouths of horses. He talks about the rudder in the ship. A large ship, which in this case in the first century would have been one with big masts, but imagine today. We have cruise lines that are like little cities, and these large ships are directed by a rudder. The rudder might be large for the large ship, but in comparison to the ship, it’s pretty small.
When we say things that damage another person, whether it’s by gossip or we humiliate someone else, it’s very difficult to undo the damage we have done. On our own effort, James is telling us, our tongue is much too powerful.
2. The tongue is rebellious. Humans can harness the power of an atom and create atomic power for destructive purposes or for productive purposes. Humans have the power to tame just about any animal, whether it’s a parrot or a great whale, but we can’t control this little thing, our tongue.
3. The tongue is deceptive. Not only is the tongue destructive, not only is the tongue poisonous and rebellious, but it’s also completely out of control and hypocritical, because in one moment it says nice things and the next moment comes out vile and poison and venom and pain.
How did God create everything? He used his words. He said, “Let there be life,” and there was life.
Every time he spoke, creation came into being. Words matter to God. He chose to speak to us through his Son Jesus Christ. We have the entire Bible as God values the power, the life that words bring, and they create life, and you and I were created, intended, to bring life with our words.
Words are powerful, both in a negative and in a positive way. Proverbs says the tongue has the power to bring life and death, and the Bible teaches us time and time again, we are created in God’s image and Jesus redeemed that for us. We are now a new creation able to speak words of life much more consistently through the power of the Holy Spirit. You can control the tongue, not on your own, but with the power of the Holy Spirit, with the help of Jesus Christ.
I don’t hold a grudge against my seventh-grade teacher because she taught me the power of words. Therefore, I know I’m a better writer because of it because I’m careful about my words.
Do I get it right all of the time? No, but I am striving every day to be a life-giver with my words. Will you join me?
This week, I challenge you to pay attention to your words. You won’t be able to control them all, but ask God for help as you seek to be a life-giver with your words. I will be praying, and watching my words along with you.