The Bible has much to say about words – some of the clearest are found in Proverbs and James. Both books warn us about the need to be careful in how we speak. One example is in Proverbs 12:18, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” James 1:19 reminds us of the importance of listening, “You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” The expression “God gave you two ears and one mouth, so you should do twice as much listening as speaking?” was likely taken from this verse in James.
The goal of communication should be to create better understanding. However, a single misstep along the way can bring devastating results. I recently experienced this in an email correspondence with someone who once lived in Logan. They sent me an email to reconnect and as our emails went back and forth he sent me a picture of himself with his wife and son. With the picture he said, “I'm not sure aging is a process to be enjoyed.... endured, perhaps!” In good humor, I responded that I couldn’t offer much sympathy (I was older after all).
However, unbeknownst to me, he had sent an email outlining some personal struggles he was experiencing and all that he received from me was my unsympathetic response. He was devastated and hurt while I was oblivious to when the friendly banter had turned a corner. Once I learned my error I sent him a note saying, among other things, “What I dislike about emails is that it lacks the personal connection; the visible and tonal clues.” Maybe you can relate.
I am truly not the cold-hearted person that my words suggested. However, had I applied the words of Proverbs and James, seeking to bring encouragement, there would have been no problem. Paul also says, “When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.” (Ephesians 4:29) Without even knowing the struggles my friend was facing, I should have chosen words with intent to “help him become stronger.” My desire should have been to do “good to those who listen.” Instead, my jocular attempts at humor brought pain.
This does not mean that there is not a place for friendly banter, but we must remember that our words have power. James warns about the power of the tongue saying, “And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part ⌊of the body⌋, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our ⌊bodies⌋. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.” (James 3:4-6)
How then are we to speak? With our eyes and hearts on the other person. Hebrews tells us to, “encourage each other daily, while it is still called today;” speaking words that “spur one another on towards love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24) It also tells us to not neglect meeting with other followers of Christ so that we may both give and receive the encouragement that we share in Christ.
We may wonder, “Where can we find the words to speak?” Paul reminds Timothy that the Word of God offers something greater than religious instruction, it offers instructions for life, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) While my words may lack power or authority, God’s words are always reliable and true. I am wise to depend on these and consider them as I speak with others.
Of course, there will be times when people speak harsh words to us. In those times, we need to see them as one who is loved by God; one for whom Christ died to redeem. Finally, remember, “Careful words make for a careful life; careless talk may ruin everything.” (Proverbs 13:3)