Words Matter

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas; toys in every store, even the ones that typically don’t carry them, Black Friday deals advertised in endless emails, tree lots popping up on every corner, the streets are busier, people seem to be moving faster, lines are moving slower, and in my small space of the world we have snow! It surprises me every year; the way it sneaks up. This year was no exception. The atmosphere just feels more electric and it all seemed to change overnight. I actually love it. It doesn’t take much to get me to squeal with delight and seeing the lights begin to illuminate homes and yards and businesses everywhere makes being out and about a treat for me and causes my heart to overflow with joy.

And there I remained for about a week, in a constant state of delight until…well, until I wasn’t.

While driving home from the grocery store the other day, I was jerked back into the reality of this broken world with just a few carelessly strung together words. “Get out of my way, you…” well, you use your imagination on those last 2 words. You see, traffic is heavy this time of year and it does not let up until we have counted down to the ball drop of the New Year. When I make my way home from the grocery store that I frequent, I make a left from a pretty busy street onto another pretty busy street. The turn lane was full and 4 cars sat with blinkers on in the straight lane waiting for the light to change and space to free up in the left turn lane. I joined them making me the 5th car to stick out of the turn lane. As soon as my blinker flickered, the man in the truck behind me laid relentlessly on his horn, pulled up beside me, rolled down his window, waved his middle finger at me and the filthy overflow of his heart spewed out all over me. Adrenaline flooded my body as my fight or flight kicked in to gear in anticipation of more than just a verbal assault, but as soon as the truck disappeared from my sight, the tears began to fall.

The tears continued to fall until eventually I sobbed uncontrollably the rest of the drive home.

Admittedly, I am a person who remains calm in the middle of the storm and then looses it when the storm has passed and I realize everything is ok, but I think this was more than that. I think our words are more powerful than we care to admit or even think about. I think the adrenaline that coursed through my veins when my body detected a potentially dangerous situation had less to do with my fear than the fact that this man’s words hurt not only my ears but then pierced my heart with the message that I was some how wrong or less than or useless or disposable. It simply doesn’t matter that intellectually I understand those things to be untrue or even that I know that in that situation, I hadn’t done anything wrong. (Side note: Even if I had been in the wrong, I don’t care what a person has done, nobody deserves to be spoken to like that)

Back to the point, our words matter…a whole lot!

Unfortunately humans sometimes think we can say whatever we want, you know…freedom of speech and all. When it comes to the words we use in conversation or in meetings or in our cars, or even the words that we post on our social media or in an email, we think we can just say whatever we want to whoever we want, whenever we want simply because the thought came into our head. Sometimes we behave like we believe the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Remember that goodie? Now, it may actually be true for a while. Gossip can seem harmless in the beginning. It can feel exciting…like we are in the know…like we’re important. Put-downs, sharing our critical unsolicited opinion, rumors, and even name-calling can feel justified in the moment. It can make us feel powerful or in control. I’m sure the man in the truck felt some kind of power over me and he likely felt some amount of relief or satisfaction in the moment he shouted those words, but those words…our words…your words…my words and the way we string them together…the tone we use when delivering them…the timing we choose to let them fall out of our mouths will eventually lead to harm in the lives of both the giver and receiver of poorly chosen words.

The truth is that broken bones heal in a few weeks but words can harm someone for life!

Think about that. I bet you each have a story or two of how someone’s unkind, careless, hasty, or uninformed words changed the way you think or feel about yourself or your circumstances even years after the words spewed from their mouth. Or maybe you have stories of damaged relationships because of your regrettable words. I know I do. Not so much the words from the man in the truck. The pain from those words faded, but the incident did get me thinking about my journey with words; the way they’ve been said to me and the way in which I’ve said them to others.

Do words really have that much power?

I would say they do. When I was in middle school, right on the heels of a major life altering event in my young life, one of my teachers pulled me aside after class and told me that she didn’t care for the way I wore my makeup. She went on to say that if she didn’t think it looked good, then her own son certainly wouldn’t and if he wouldn’t find me attractive then no boy would ever find me attractive. I didn’t argue. I walked away from that conversation feeling like I had died a little and then I allowed those careless words strung together “just so” to color the way I would interact with boys and authority and food and life in general. Years later as an adult and an educator I was given the opportunity to visit my former middle school for research. I couldn’t believe my eyes when that very teacher not only approached me but recognized me, and confidently stated that she’d like to believe that her influence had something to do with the fact that I became an educator in the same area that she taught me all those years ago. And the truth is she did. I was so deeply wounded by her that I often thought to myself, “I can love kids a lot better than that” and it was a factor in my decision to work with teens for the bulk of my career. I didn’t tell her that part. I just smiled and agreed that she did in fact have an impact on my life.

Now, I’m not trying to throw my well-intentioned teacher under a bus. Not even a little. I believe that she wanted to help; that she did the best she could in that moment with what she had, and I didn’t call her out so she likely doesn’t even realize how damaging her words were. That doesn’t change the outcome, of course, but her words didn’t make her a bad person; they simply revealed that she is a person. We’ve all done it. You see, if I’m being completely honest with myself and transparent with you, I’m confident there are people who could say that I used my words thoughtlessly with them resulting in destruction of some kind and my guess is someone could say the same thing about you. (Side note: If you’re reading this and I have ever hurt you with my words, know that I am truly sorry.) Sound a bit dramatic? Destruction? Did you realize you had that much power? We each have the power to bring life or death to people with our words! That’s not just me being extra, King Solomon, arguably one of the wisest men who ever lived, said this:

“ Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.”

Our words can either kill or give life and we get to choose. What?! If we have the choice…if we can choose our words before they fall out of our mouths, why do we get this wrong so often?

I think it’s because as intelligent and functional people we know we should be kind and loving with our words and that some things are unacceptable to speak and so we control our mouths as often as possible, but then circumstances, heartache, irritations, frustrations, or injustices upset our lives…unaddressed trauma bubbles to the top…unchecked insecurities cloud our thinking and we lose control of our mouths.

We will never be able to control our mouth in every circumstance.

It’s not possible. It’s never been done by humanity. We wont ever be perfect with our words. Even as we grow and mature in our lives, we will still say something offensive…we will still let something harsh fall out of our mouths…we will still share our opinions when we should simply choose not to have one…we will still participate in a conversation that is gossip…we will still say something regrettable when we get frustrated.

You see, this isn’t as simple as just learning to bite our tongues.

I wish it were. It certainly would have kept me from saying a lot of things over the years. This is far more serious than just figuring out how to have the willpower to keep our mouths shut at the right times. Willpower only works for a short time. I mean, have you ever seen one of those weight loss shows? I love them! The transformations are incredible and seem so life changing, but the truth is when they follow up with the contestants years after the show ends, many of them have not kept the weight off. They mustered up willpower to loose the weight but never had real heart transformation to back it up. They never dealt head on with the reasons for the weight in the first place, so when the stresses of life happened, they eventually went back to their old ways of eating and living.

It’s the same way with our words. Our words are an overflow of what is in our heart. If hate or envy or bitterness or rejection or wounding is in our heart, hate or envy or bitterness or rejection will taint the words that overflow out of our mouths. I try to remember that when someone weaponizes his or her words against me.

If I had the opportunity to speak to the man in the truck from the other day, I would say this: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for whatever happened in your day, week, year, or life that led you to a space where a minor traffic irritation would cause the overflow of your heart to be so damaging.

God never intended for this life to be this way. I forgive you and I love you.

And now to you I would say this: Whether you have been the offender or the victim, you need to know that …

Your Words Matter

My hope for each of us is that we become a people who are identified by the kindness of the words that flow out of our mouths and soak the hearts of ALL people…that we become a people who use our words to bring life to others…that we become a people who want to use our words to encourage and help and love ALL people and therefore bring glory to the name of our King.

If your heart is hurting, if you need heart healing, there is hope and there is help. There are really great counselors and support groups to help you walk through the healing process. You don’t need to walk alone, but you do need to walk.

You were created in the image of the King of the Universe…created in the image of the one who created everything, which means that you were made with the ability to reflect His heart and His character. Our God opened His mouth and used His loving words to create the world! As image bearers, we hold the same power in our tongues to bring life or death, but we get to choose. Let’s choose life. I don’t know the heart condition that you are currently walking around with. Maybe hurt has crept into your heart and you have let some unkind words fall out of your mouth… maybe you have been on the receiving end of hurtful words recently, either way if you don’t remember anything else that you’ve read or heard today, remember this:

I love you and I’m so glad that you are here.