As a parent I am quickly learning (albeit time and time again) that my words hold a value and power that I had not fully realized before. The words that spill out when I’m upset and angry or loving and kind mean something to people close to me. And I’ve always known this, but it’s as if my tongue now can punch harder and deadlier than it ever has before.
I’ve never been one who tried to harm people by words, not least because I have actually been on the receiving end. I’ve had words thrown and names called to me by people who simply were cruel in intention. So I get it. Words hurt. I’ve always tried to be kind and considerate to people, regardless of who they are or the situation they find themselves in.
But it wasn’t until I got married and had kids that I realized that even words that don’t intend to pack a punch can actually knock the wind out of someone who looks up to you. Serious damage can be caused upon a tiny soul without intending any of it to happen. And you don’t have to be a parent to realize it (it simply happened this way for me). Aunts, uncles, teachers, neighbors, brothers and sisters--I guarantee you that there is someone in your life that simply wants to do you proud. And even when they do something bad, we must understand that our words will mean something powerful and can have unintended harm. Words can sting even if we never intended them to.
No one else chooses our words. We read in Proverbs 15:4 warns us that “a soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.” Simply put, the words we use can either build up, feed, encourage, and nourish, or break down, hurt, demoralize, and cause irreparable harm. The old playground saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” tries to give the wounded some encouragement, but speakers should know their voice can send someone into shut-down mode. And unfortunately it’s one of those things that you and I and all other people tend to fail to realize only after the tongue has done its lashing. Picking words with care is a lifelong responsibility and challenge!
When we realize that our words have value, we will hopefully be more thoughtful with how we respond. Remembering the punch a comment can have, we might be patient before speaking, choosing words carefully rather than blurting our first reactions. How will my words be heard? What does my listener need from me right now? The value we place on a word doesn’t necessarily have the same value to the other person. So let us find patience to respond carefully before reacting in haste with words we regret.
Paul writes in Ephesians 4:2 that we must be humble, peaceful, gentle, and loving towards people. We must choose words that build up and not break down. Later on in this same text (vs 29), Paul states that those things that come out of our mouths must be “helpful” to the person, which means that the words we choose actually betters the person, even if it's a word of correction.
Even really tough conversations that require strong words can be loving, kind, and gracious when one speaks from within a loving relationship. We speak patiently and desire love to overcome, but we also listen so that others feel heard as well. As we are called to speak the truth in love, consider how to frame the hard truths into a context that is loving. Acknowledge another's heart and intention, even if the behavior needs redirection. Decide to look out for the best interest of someone else and lead the conversation with a servant heart. If there is love in the conversation then transformation is possible; without love there is only condemnation.
There is no magic pill. Even though I wish there was something that makes what we say connect with the other person like aloe upon a burn, there simply are no magic words that connect perfectly, and I wonder if that’s the actual whole point and lesson. When we pause and think carefully, when we stop and think about the words we are going to use and the way they may be heard, we begin to put the other person and their feelings above our own. We begin to desire love to be heard more than our reaction, and I’m pretty sure love is more soothing than aloe.