Easy for you to say. Whoever came up with this ancient proverb? I just think it is not true. Oh, yes sticks and stones can hurt you physically, and the healing and costs can be significant. I don’t underestimate this cost. But I probably am not the only one who finds unkind or harsh or “snarky” words from a friend or not can be far more hurtful.
Cutting words on social media are a leading cause of teen suicide and mental illness. Un-thoughtful words at the family Thanksgiving dinner have brought division and years of acrimony and silence. I can still remember my middle school football coach’s saying to me, “You pudgy little rich kid, start running” as he let out a kick at me. By the way, I now believe this some 200-pounds overweight “coach” was insecure and a bully. Or how about my Latin teacher saying, “I could pick up a kid off of Wisconsin Avenue and he would know more Latin than you.” Or my favorite, “you are a dumb as a rock.” Soon after these “halcyon days” my troubled days with a severe eating disorder began. I survived and God has used my experience to be a counselor to other adolescents in the pain of growing. Suffice it to say, wars are started over words. So what does God have to say about this?
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalms 19:14). This self-admonition is often the preamble to a sermon from a pulpit. It might be a short prayer before opening your mouth in any conversation. I know that I need to employ these words for guidance more often.
James, the brother of Jesus, writes about taming the tongue. “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set afire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil amongst the parts of the body. I corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness Out of the same mouth comes praising and cursing” (James 3:5-9). Pretty scary what the tongue can do.
Frankly speaking, those are tough words about the tongue, but absolutely true. So, what else does Scripture have to say that might be redeeming? Moses told the Israelites speaking of Scripture, “Fix these words in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road” (Deuteronomy 11:18-19). He went on to tell them to write them on their doorposts or everywhere. Today we might say to put Bible verses on sticky notes stuck to your fridge or mirrors. Don’t forget them for they are, “life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body” (Proverbs 4:22). Yes “all Scripture is God-breathed and suitable for teaching and correcting and rebuking and training in righteousness that we may be prepared for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God tells us that it is what comes out of the heart that matters. “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). God tells us to “Above all else, guard our heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). So if the heart is the wellspring, what should come out? “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). This is one that I personally am convicted and am working. Sometimes I am not gentle; in fact I have chosen the trait of “gentleness” to pursue in 2016. My spiritual mentor suggested such a concentration. Last year I did not do very well on “kindness.” I will keep on pursuing God’s holiness until He takes me home. These traits are reflected in actions and speech. I have written an essay called “The Ministry of Stoning” in which I describe how Christians often treat each other and especially their pastors at times. I often react unkindly to harsh words or someone who lectures me with unkind responses. This might fit with, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). The movie Frozen would say “let it go. The pop singer Taylor Swift would say, “Shake it off.”
I think Proverbs has some other good admonitions. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). When we are hurt by words, “a wounded spirit who can bear” (Proverbs 18:14). Have you ever been wounded by words, of course you have. It is hard not to react. However, healing usually does not come from fighting back, not that you should be a “door mat.” But Solomon would say that timely words could be “Sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24 RSV). One’s attitude to another person may be affected by a mere whisper. Beliefs and convictions are formed by words, making or destroying. “A scoundrels speech is like a scorching fire. A perverse man spreads strife” (Proverbs 16:27b, 28a RSV). So too, a good man will find his words bearing good fruit that finds its way back (Proverbs 12:14). Good words can be the “fountain of life” (10:11) or the “tree of life” (15:4).
Some would say that words are good but deeds are better. “What good is it, my brothers, to say you have faith but no deeds?...in the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action is dead” (James 2: 14,17). He is saying that the love of Christ should convince or guide us to do good things. It is attributed, perhaps falsely, to St. Francis of Assisi to have said, “preach the gospel and if you must use words.” Do and speak. “The word is near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, ‘“Jesus is Lord,’” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”’ (Romans 10:8-9).
God’s word is powerful and so is our behavior. “It is to a man’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3). James again reminds us to be, “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
So, I have said a lot. Perhaps one of my favorites is, “A cheerful heart has a continual feast and a happy heart makes the face cheerful. The discerning heart seeks knowledge” (15:13,14). How about this closer? “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply- and how good is a timely word!” (Proverbs 15:23).