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Words Have the Power to Build Up or Destroy

Lori Colbo loves to write about her Christian faith and the Bible to encourage and inspire others.

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Culture of Deadly Poison

When we were children and people said mean things to us, our mom's, teachers, and Sunday school teachers always gave us the comeback to issue to the bully:

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."

Raise your hand if that worked for you? Uh huh, that's what I thought. It's poppycock. Words cause deep wounds and leave wretched scars on the mind and heart and it's often a long road to forgiveness and emotional freedom if it is sought.

The Bible says, "...but no human can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8).

Anger is a huge component of a hurtful, wicked tongue. Marriages, family relationships, friendships, professional relationships can be destroyed by angry words. It is usually a pattern of behavior that comes from a wounded heart. They say that hurt people hurt people. People who are difficult are usually wounded people and their habitual wielding harm with words will be passed on to the next generation. Verbal abuse is just as traumatic as physical abuse.

We see now our nation being ravaged by hate just because there is disagreement. Prominent individuals, people groups, and political factions spar with their poisonous words. People vilify one another because of their differences. It's absolutely horrid to read comments on Youtube and other comment forums. I don't read them anymore.

We have the constitutional right to free speech, even if it's ugly speech. But it has become so horrific that the very fabric of our nation is being torn to shreds. It grieves me that our president has no filters with his tongue. I support his ideas, but not his words. He and many other political figures and celebrities fuel the fire. Twitter is nothing but a hotbed of celebrities and politicians spewing venom. Fox News, CNN, and other major networks have hours and hours of programming whereby pundits and their enemy guests yell and scream and talk over one another and call names. The television show The View is nothing but a battleground of megalomaniac celebrities who rail at each other, their guests, and anyone out in the world (mostly politicians) who have an opposing view.

We have a culture full of people with a reality show, Jerry Springeresque, insatiable drama queen mentality. The high and the mighty. The whiners and the entitled. We are self-destructing. I believe if we quit listening to this stuff (as much as possible) we will be happier and more optimistic. Our heads will be clear to let the light of God in.

Let's be the light of kindness, reason, and self-control.

Poppycock!

Poppycock!

Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs."

— Pearl Strachan Hurd

James on the Power of the Tongue

The apostle James, the writer of the book of James in the Bible, was a straight shooter. He was direct, not mincing words. Before you check out at hearing the word "Bible," bear with me. Whether you believe in God and the Bible or not, the truths James speaks about the power of the tongue and its use for good or for evil are spot on. The fact is, James' intended audience was to the Church at large, but everyone can learn from it.

He starts by pointing out that a horse can be lead by the bit in its mouth and a ship is guided by its rudder. Then he goes onto the tongue:

"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 (James 3:3-4)."

Next, he masterfully uses fire as an analogy.

"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 (vs 5-6)."

I have lived on the west coast all my life. The summers are often fraught with wildfires. When I lived in California it was particularly bad. All it takes is a small spark on dry vegetation during a heat wave to become a raging forest fire destroying hundreds, even thousands of acres of forest and neighborhoods. My cousin had to evacuate twice last summer during a wildfire in southern Oregon. And then there was one of the most devastating fires in American history just months ago in Paradise, California. A whole city wiped out by fire.

Here are some statistics about the Paradise, California fire (aka Camp fire):

  • Deadliest wildfire in California history
  • Deadliest wildfire in America since the Cloquet fire in 1917 (Minnesota).
  • 85 confirmed deaths
  • 3 missing persons
  • Burned 153,336 acres
  • Destroyed 18,804 structures

I think those statistics are a perfect image of the destruction harsh words can cause. I have to admit, I never think of my tongue when I hear about wildfires but now that I've brought it up, I hope I won't forget.

James goes on to the topic of taming:

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 (vs 7-8).

The word poison rings true to me as well. Now here's the kicker aimed directly at the Church:

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.

Gulp. Three rapid-fire analogies to bring it home.

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 (vs 11-12).

I think we get the picture of the pervasive damage words can cause.

The tongue also is a fire... It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).

The tongue also is a fire... It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).

Words Have the Power to Refresh and Encourage

King Solomon wrote most of the book of Proverbs and he has provided a lot of insight and wisdom on the power and effect words have on people. He often contrasts good words and bad words. Let's look at a few.

A gentle answer turns away wrath but hard words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1).

Gentle words bring life and health; a perverse tongue crushes the spirit (Proverbs 15:4).

Kind words are like honey -- sweet to the soul and healthy for the body (Proverbs 16:24)

A person's words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook (Proverbs 18:4).

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver (Proverbs 25:11).

I love the beautiful word pictures of life, health, sweetness, refreshing, bubbling brook, gold and silver. I feel vitality surging into my spirit and refreshed just reading them. It is amazing how powerful encouraging words can be. I can think of many times when I was hurting, struggling, or wandering and a gentle soul came and said just the right thing. Maybe it was just a kind word from a stranger.

I noted also the word "gentle." A gentle answer can indeed defuse a contentious conversation. If you allow the angry person to rattle you, you will be tempted to get into it with them, or you may cower at their abuse. A gentle response can be very effective. Not always, but often.

The apostle Paul told the church at Colosse, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." He said "salt" not pepper. Salt flavors and purifies. By grace, he means gracious and kind.

He also admonished the Ephesians, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Read it again. He nailed it. This is how we should live our lives. I want to be that person. I can be many times, but as a fallen human being, I sometimes fail. There is a saying with the acronym T.H.I.N.K. It is an encouragement to think before you speak by posing a list of questions. It is something to live by. See it below.

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Imagine what our real neighbors would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person. There have been so many stories about the lack of courtesy, the impatience of today's world, road rage and even restaurant rage. Sometimes, all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person. Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone. One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many.”

— Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

Seek Transformation By Renewing the Mind

Paul went on to tell people to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, slander and every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Bitterness, anger, and malice reflect the attitude of the heart and that is what comes out. We need to seek a transformation by the renewing of our minds; t


I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:1-2).

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” – Colossians 3:2

It's amazing what an encouraging word can do for a child.

It's amazing what an encouraging word can do for a child.

Kind words are salve to a cankered soul; spread generously.”

— Richelle E. Goodrich, Making Wishes

Kindness Must Be Modeled for Our Children

Our children, grandchildren, students, and young neighbors are watching us. They have keen ears and hearts. If the most influential adults are angry, exceedingly proud or foul-mouthed, chances are the child will be the same way when he is an adult. Children will bear the wounds of harsh words. I wish I could go back and tame my tongue better with my children. But I have another chance with my grandchildren. They know their Nana loves them, encourages them, and guides them.

Children are also listening to our culture through television, radio stations, video games, and movies. I am shocked at what some parents let their children watch on TV. Such horrific language, violence, and sex. It isn't even a blip on the radar of such parents. The garbage infiltrates those young innocent minds and taints their view of right and wrong. The world is not so safe.

It is truly amazing to see what encouragement does for a child. If a parent, grandparent or teacher consistently gives loving attention and encouragement to children it will affirm to them their intrinsic value, make them feel safe, spur them on, help them to mine adversity in the future. Best of all, they will become kind and loving people.

We need to surround ourselves with positive kind people and also be positive kind people. God calls us to not just be hearers of the word, but doers. I want to be a doer when it comes to my speech and actions. I want to maintain a kind heart. I want to be a builder upper. Let's do it.

© 2019 Lori Colbo

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