Words That Harm
Three things never come back: the spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity. What we say cannot be unsaid. What’s more, we will be called to account for every word we have spoken—even our careless ones—at the day of reckoning (see Matthew 12:36). As King Solomon put it, “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3); and “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21). Our words can serve to encourage, to nourish, and to heal. But they can also cause strife, create dissension, and do harm. Solomon gives us a multifaceted picture of what characterizes such harmful words. He describes words that harm as those that are reckless, as being “like sword thrusts” (12:18). Our words so often spill forth unguardedly, and we become someone who “gives an answer before he hears” (18:13). “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (10:19).
You will likely have heard the saying that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never harm us—but that is dead wrong. Bruises may fade and the marks they made be forgotten. But hurtful words that have been said to us and about us tend to remain with us for a long time. Truer are these lines:
A careless word may kindle strife,
A cruel word may wreck a life,
A bitter word may hate instill,
A brutal word may smite and kill.
It would be difficult to estimate how many friendships are broken, how many reputations are ruined, or the peace of how many homes is destroyed through harmful words. The very source of all such animosity and abusive language, according to James, is none other than hell itself. Yes, our tongue is “a fire,” and “no human being can tame the tongue” without the work of God’s Holy Spirit.
Stop and think of how many words you have used in the last 24 hours, and how they were used. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”—so did any of your words cause harm, tearing someone else down in some way? That is a sin to be repented of and turned from. Is that something you need to do, both before God and to the person to whom those words were spoken?
Then think of the words you may speak over the next 24 hours. How might they be used to bring life? How might you reflect the one who “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth”? Rather, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return … He himself bore our sins … that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:22-24).
2For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life,1 and set on fire by hell.2 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,3 these things ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
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