In the midst of recent events in our country, several have shared their heart in regards to race, violence, law-enforcement and justice. It is only natural for us to express our feelings as social unrest unsettles us and we seek some way of bringing order to the chaos. If nothing else, the exercise of putting our thoughts into words helps us clarify or reaffirm our personal convictions, and possibly reevaluate our assumptions.
Unfortunately, as the forming of our words facilitates clarity, it can also create pain. In recent weeks, words have hurt some of my African-American friends who fear their children will be falsely accused or abused because of the color of their skin. Words have disturbed some of my young friends who have entered a law-enforcement career with the goal of protecting and serving everyone in our community, without regard to race, gender or creed.
And words have troubled me.
Normally, I am able to process unkind words, with the possible exception of those that are carelessly directed at my closest loved ones. At this point, I must admit that I do become quite irrational.
But, apart from this, I can handle strong rhetoric of various kinds. I don’t have to agree with everyone, and everyone doesn’t have to agree with me. People have a right to be passionate with their words, and there is nothing ungodly about a disagreement, as long as respect is shown.
Yet, words hurt. And they often hurt in ways that are not immediately apparent. This is the burden I bring to the table as I attempt to share my heart. We must not lose sight of James’ admonition: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6) I wish to humbly suggest three places where words can hurt in ways that are not so evident, but deadly just the same.
Words damage our children. Most of us would not willingly hurt our children. But it is easy to forget the things we say are imprinted on their minds forever. The problem with words and children is that the things we say may take years to produce fruit, good or bad. For example, when we constantly criticize our children and refuse to be transparent about sins and weaknesses that lurk in our own lives, we run the risk of driving our children to their own secret sins and stripping them of the self-confidence they need to be successful. And, in relation to our current public debate, when we make hateful comments toward others, we plant weeds in the soil of our children’s hearts that will lead to struggles in the future.
I am not suggesting we should shield our children from all of our feelings or thoughts. But there is a difference between sharing our opinions in a rational way and spewing angry words like hot lava; words that can produce a life “set on fire by hell” (James). It is easy to blame rebellion in young adults on society, or the infusion of secular thought in our schools. There is certainly much truth to this claim. However, this can also be a handy deflection to excuse our habit of speaking our mind, no matter who it hurts. We must realize the “no matter who it hurts” could include those we would never want to hurt; our children.
Words damage our relationships. Sometimes, the impact of our words on relationships is quickly evident, as a contentious conversation leaves an obvious mark. However, more times than not, perhaps out of courtesy, other people decide not to respond to the things we say. At least with words. Instead, they begin to question our hearts, and they might determine we are not the people they once believed us to be.
The sadness in this is that, often, other people misinterpret our words, or fail to put what we say in the context of our fundamental convictions. Yet, sometimes they are right. We are not who they thought we were, and they grieve the loss of someone they considered to be their friend. And all the while, we are oblivious to what we are doing because we assume the people who know us best will respect our opinions.
On one hand, we can’t live our lives on pins and needles, with the fear that anything we say that is contrary to someone else’s view will be used against us. Nor should true friends expect us to live this way. On the other hand, our friends will sometimes withhold their thoughts, even though they are shocked by the words flowing out of our mouths, or in the case of social media, our fingers.
In case we have forgotten, we are all always asking the questions, “Do you like me? Do you care about me?” We might pretend these things don’t matter to us and that we don’t care what people think about our words. But if this is true, then why do we argue our points? We do care what others think and whether or not others care about us. This is true of everyone! Why is this important?
It is important because, as people who already feel unliked or unloved are listening carefully to determine what we think or feel, a careless or bitter word will pierce their soul like a dagger. Proverbs 12:18 tells us, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (ESV) We may think we are making a strong case for our convictions, when in fact, we are eating away at the trust others have in us. Our words are like violent waves eating away at a beach where we once all played in the sun together. In time, there is no place left to gather and a friendship is lost.
Words damage the gospel. This is the most serious consequence of all when it comes to careless words. Our children know us well enough to possibly navigate the difference between our careless words and our sincere love for them. If we lose a friendship due to the things we say, we might be saddened, but we can move on and perhaps build new relationships.
But once we harden a sinner’s heart to the gospel, they might be lost for eternity. This doesn’t mean we are fully responsible for the decision people make to reject Christ. Satan works overtime in this department and uses every sin imaginable to separate people from the love of God.
However, I think we sometimes fail to think about the unsaved before we speak our mind. I find it interesting, in the shadow of a pagan empire, Jesus didn’t spend His time speaking against Rome. Instead, He condemned the words and actions of religious leaders who were so caught up in their righteous conversations they couldn’t see the broken world around them. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23 NIV)
What a great statement from Jesus! Yes, we must be faithful and not abandon our convictions. But what good are personal convictions if we use them to push a lost world farther away from God?
Make no mistake. Words matter! One of the reasons so much bitterness is being expressed in our country is because we are discovering the words we thought were unimportant were, in fact, very painful. I will continue to be dismayed by the things I hear and read and the reactions of others.
But I will be most troubled by the seeds our unkind words sow that are buried deep in other people’s hearts.