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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.

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? Yes, that's what I thought. Words cause deep wounds and wretched scars on the mind and heart and it's often a long road to forgiveness and spiritual and emotional freedom.

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

Marriages, family relationships, friendships, and professional relationships can be destroyed by angry words. It is usually a pattern of behavior that comes from a wounded and bitter heart. 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.

Our nation is 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. Social media is a common and worst venue for insults and threats. Twitter especially is a hotbed of venom. Even the President wields his sword of insults there. It's a popular hangout for celebrities and people of power and influence ripping each other apart.

We have the constitutional right to free speech, even if it's ugly speech. But it has torn the very fabric of our nation to shreds. Fox News, CNN, and other major networks do not report the news, they editorialize the news and yell and scream and talk over one another and exchange insults. The television show The View is a battleground of vitriol toward issues and people in the world they disagree with. Guests who are on the opposite side of an issue are eviscerated.

Then there is shaming and blaming everyone. The blame game could easily become an Olympic sport. More like being thrown to the lions.

The titles on Youtube to draw viewers are especially disturbing. "So and so destroyed so and so." So and so owns so and so."

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.

Unkind words do hurt.

Unkind words do hurt.

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.


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

Kindness Must Be Modeled for Our Children

Our children, grandchildren, students, and young neighbors are watching us. I remember my kids being deeply involved in play and later repeating something they heard me or my husband say (good or bad) while they were playing. Even when they appear not to be listening, they are. 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. The greatest influence on a child is what he hears or sees from his parents.

Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity (Titus 2:7).

Children bear the wounds of harsh words. I wish I could go back and tame my tongue better with my children. I have made amends but I can't take back words. I was wounded by words when I grew up. We all have in one way or another. The bible warns fathers not to be harsh with their children. It also applies to mothers, of course.

Colossians 3:21 admonishes fathers not to provoke their children lest they become discouraged.

On the other hand, 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, and spur them on. Best of all, they will become kind and loving people. My mother was a great encourager and it helped me a great deal.

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 (James 1:22). 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.

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

— Richelle E. Goodrich, Making Wishes

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

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

The Prescription to Overcome

Paul told the Ephesians, "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 are devastatingly destructive. I recognized a tendency for resentments a while back. It really is quite miserable to be caught in that sinful trap. It is not easy to admit this, but I have been working on it through the power of the word of God and submitting it to God in prayer when it tries to rear its ugly head. It is part of what motivated me to write this. I can't rest in God's presence with it on my conscience. I don't want to grieve the heart of God or hurt people with my words.

God went to the cross to forgive me, how terrible it is not to forgive others. After Jesus instructed the disciples how to pray (the Lord's prayer) He ended with this statement:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15).

To forgive is glorious. The ball and chain have fallen off and you feel the freedom. Your relationship with God is restored. But as we are human, we must watch and pray lest we fall when temptation comes.

There is a prescription given in Romans 12:1-2, on how to change and maintain godly living:

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.

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

How grateful I am for God's word and the example of Christ to convict, correct, and teach me. This side of eternity, we will always struggle with sin: however, the Christian should be able to recognize it and follow God's prescription—the highway to holiness.

© 2019 Lori Colbo

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