“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words
will never hurt me.”
Speaking for myself, I relate more to this revised edition of the cliche:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words can cut me deeply.”
Words are potent. Words change things. Words brought galaxies into being when “God said…and there was”(Gen 1:3). God’s words have impact (Isa 55:11), are living, active, and sharp (Heb 4:12), illuminate dark places (Ps 119:105), nourish souls (Mt 4:4), and defeat death (Lk 11:43). The words of the gospel are “the power (literally, dynamite) of God.” Words transform. They heal. And they can…and sometimes do…“hurt me.”
Mariah Carey once said in an interview that for her, one criticism will instantly overrule 1,000 praises. There is something to this. Words have power.
Words can wound and steal life. Gossip and slander bring a cheap thrill to some, while exploiting and objectifying others (the similarities to pornography are striking). False testimony uses words to misrepresent, caricature, or malign the reputation of fellow humans, usually for selfish gain. Words of condemnation, accusation, and cutting sarcasm create pain as they shame, belittle, and discourage. Coarse joking uses humor to draw attention to oneself, while sending rotten fruit in the atmosphere.
There are also “healing words” (Prov 12:18). Words of praise have healing power. Communities thrive in a culture of mutual celebration, of “catching each other doing good.” This is a hallmark of life together as Spirit-filled daughters and sons. Words of encouragement will “put courage into” those who are weak, afraid, and torn down. A timely rebuke protects a friend from self-destructive patterns. A gentle word turns away wrath (Pr 15:1) and halts the cycle of evil. Grace-filled words engage skeptical minds and doubting hearts (1 Pet 3:15-16).
The question remains, how are toxic words transformed into healing words? Scripture tells us how. It begins by identifying the source of our words: “…out of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). Our words are healed as we replace what fills our hearts.
Why does we gossip, slander, condemn, accuse, slash with sarcasm, joke crudely, boast, and lie? Every toxic word traces to some sort of pseudo-savior—something that the heart is clinging to more tightly than Jesus. The comedian Tom Arnold once admitted that he uses humor in order to have something out there so people will like him. “It’s the reason behind almost everything I do,” he said. For some, human approval is the preferred narcotic. For others like Rachel, it’s having children: “Give me children or I’ll die” (Gen 30:1). For the Pharisee, it’s the feeling of superiority: “Thank you, my God, that I’m not like other men” (Lk 18:9-14). The options are endless. Our words echo the beat of our hearts.
Words are transformed through what Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” For our words to become life-giving, and for toxic words to fade from our vocabularies, this new affection must be Jesus. Hearts taken by the beauty of Jesus will yield beautiful words.
What makes Jesus beautiful? Jesus only spoke beautiful words—never careless, unkind, hateful, or untruthful. Even his sharp, strong words were beautiful, always perfectly suited for the occasion. But there’s more. Jesus also IS the Beautiful Word Incarnate, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-14). His perfect words flowed naturally from his perfect life, which secured the benediction or “good word” of his Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” This same benediction has since been transferred toward and secured for us who believe—when we are at our best and when we are at our worst.
Throughout their childhood and even into the teen years, at bedtime I have regularly pronounced a benediction over them:
God made you beautiful and special,
and he loves you so much.
So does your Dad.
Don’t ever forget that.
My hope is that these last words of many days past (both our girls are adults now) will register as the first words of tomorrow. Abby and Ellie crave a paternal blessing that overrules the negative verdicts that the outside world, as well as their own hearts, so easily pronounce against them. Words of life hearken them back to their true identity as daughters, precious and beloved—an identity that’s fixed when they’re at their best and when they’re at their worst.
The Father’s benediction, his irrevocable paternal blessing, is ours. Through Christ and because of Christ, we are pronounced as his beloved. We can enjoy deep rest because the last word of Jesus’ life—“It is finished”—is the first word for ours. Through Christ, with us he is well pleased. Nothing can change this.
There’s one more thing. For us to gain the Father’s benediction, Jesus had to lose it. At his baptism, Jesus received the “good word” from on high. On the cross, he heard no word from the Father. Just shaming, condemning, deafening silence. The silence did not break Jesus’ bones like sticks and stones, but it broke every other part of him. This was for our healing. The Word Incarnate receiving silence from heaven opened heaven’s heart, and secured the Father’s “good word” toward us.
If this does not melt our hearts and transform our words,
Scott Sauls is a pastor, author and blogger in Nashville, TN.