We've all heard the phrase "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But let's be honest, all of us have experienced the painful effects of a word used against us, and it hurt longer and harder than any stone ever could.
For me it was fat. For others it's dumb, slow, and worse. Some have been called curse words. Some have been called racial slurs. Some have been told they'll never amount to anything. Words. They have overwhelming power. Why?
In Genesis, we see a compelling scene. God is in eternity and He speaks. And when God speaks, things appear. He speaks, and creation comes. He speaks, and order is established in the universe. And yet, there's another character that speaks just two short chapters later. A crafty serpent speaks, questioning God's words. Whether we realize it or not, they were the most destructive words ever spoken. Believing those deceitful words led Adam and Eve to disobey God, and it fractured God's creation. Words were spoken once before to give life, and now words were spoken to disrupt, to distract, and to destroy. And the words that allowed for this were words that questioned God's goodness, His holiness, and His god-ness. And because of that we see destruction.
Sin fractured the world, fractured our hearts, and the words that once gave us life became invisible weapons to which we could deeply harm one another. And what was worse, is that these words could wound without us feeling the guilt, because we rarely see the internal bloodshed. People carry deep scars from the wounds they've heard, which was evidenced by the many people who were at a retreat I just attended.
James 3 has this to say about the tongue: “...the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell... but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” (vs. 5-6, 8-10a)
Did you catch that? Nearly 2000 years ago, James, the half-brother of Jesus, recognized the destructive force that resides in our mouths. It's a fire, it can't be tamed, it's a restless evil, full of deadly poison. He even goes after the most religious of people, saying that even if they bless God, they still use their tongues as a weapon of destruction against other people. None of us are safe from it. So it begs the question, what do we do?
As Christians, we must first look to another Word. In John 1, Jesus is called the “Word made flesh.” He is the living embodiment of God's Word. And, as before, God's Word breathes life. He transforms us so that we see the power of words, and thus use them appropriately. His blood assures us that God doesn't look at believers as orphans, but as His beloved, adopted children. And now his words of love compel us to share words of love.
It means we are driven to share this good news with other people.
It means we speak the truth, but we do it in love and empathy, not out of self-righteousness or fear.
It means we walk among the hurting, even when it's hard. Even when we disagree. Even when words are used against us.
We do it because that's what Jesus did for us. He walked among those who cursed him, who disobeyed him, who hated him, and strived to the point of death so those who would come to believe in Him could be transformed into His beloved. And now the word love, God's perfect love, is His word spoken over us.