Selections from Proverbs
The Destructive force in Angry Words
We all have recited the playground ditty, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
Welts heal. Broken bones mend. The wounds that arise from words can fester for a lifetime. When a boy or girl recites the ditty, often with quavering voice, the words have done their job already. Children learn early that words are a great offensive weapon, and a lousy defensive one. Words matter, and sometimes they can hurt more deeply than any physical wound. Solomon wrote,
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.
The bad news is that the situation only gets worse as we grow older. Anyone who has watched the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh has seen words tear our nation down its ideological middle.
The Power of Inspiration
The good news is that words also can inspire. Think of the battlefield speech from the 1995 movie, Braveheart. “I am William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny....” Two minutes on the value of courage over cowardice for the cause of freedom, and the entire battle at Falkirk turned.
The inspiring power of words spans more than the battlefield. Solomon wrote,
Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down,
but a good word makes him glad.
How true. Here are other passages that talk about the power of a good word. Both the giver and the receiver benefit from them.
The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is!
Aren’t these interesting? A good word affects not only the hearer, but also the speaker. The one who weighs his words before he says them adds value to his opinions. Similarly, the one who speaks graciously becomes a welcome rain after a drought. Good words even bring joy to the one who delivers them.
The idea makes sense when we think about it. Contemplating affirmative words to say to others sets our minds in a direction of affirmation. How can this bring anything but joy?
The Weight of Words
Too often we neglect the weight of what we say. Words can turn whole tides for good or evil. Sometimes we blurt them out for a moment of satisfaction, only to realize as soon as we have said them that we cannot turn them back.
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
they go down into the inner parts of the body.
Here is a proverb that contrasts words spoken with deliberation and those spoken in haste.
The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,
but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
Planning our Words
When we take the time to deliberate over our words, our response time must slow. In an age of instant responses on Twitter or Snapchat, we stand against the tide. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Wisdom can be found in deliberation.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
As I progress through middle age, I have begun to see the wisdom in speaking deliberately. Damaging words fall far too easily from my lips, while constructive words often are rare. Here are some of the practices to which I have committed:
- Affirmation: I learned some time ago that I was too quick to disparage with my wife in public, either by talking about her in her absence or contradicting her when she is present. I did not even realize I was doing it until she told me. I will affirm my wife and children to their faces and before others. No matter what our age, we flourish with appropriate affirmation.
- Substance: Not all affirmation is good, however. Faint praise is too easy. If I make the extra effort to look for something specific and tell the person, “What you did really made me proud,” my response can empower.
- Deliberation: Life is not so much about making my opinions known as it is about seeking others’ welfare. I must put listening first and speaking comes second.
- Construction: Several years ago, the men’s group at the church where Patty and I were members did a study on biblical manhood. We learned that one of the best ways for older men to lead younger men into mature manhood is through affirmation. The study gave us three things to affirm:
“I love you.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“You are really good at ___(Fill in the blank)___.
Over the course of the study, we galvanized. We listened and encouraged more, and we became a closer group.
The Fearful Power of Words
Sometimes the power of words becomes apparent through a deeper understanding of their meaning. When I was in grade school, for example, our sixth-grade teacher introduced us to the classic meaning of the word terrible. Of course, my classmates and I all thought that the word meant an enhanced form of imperfection, fit to describe things like cooked spinach or liver. She explained that the word’s original meaning was awe-inspiring or even fearful.
Say, for example, that a college student who overindulged on his twenty-first birthday drove his car over a pedestrian. Now he stands in a courtroom, convicted of vehicular manslaughter. The judge who is about to pronounce sentence on him holds his life in her hands. While she delivers her speech to the student, his family, and the victim’s family, her words take on terrible import.
Our choice of words can be that fearful.
To borrow the ditty from the beginning of this essay, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but the power of life and death is contained in words.”