No Middle Ground: Our Words Either Hurt or Heal

For years, I had a parable of sorts printed and posted in our garage, right next to the most-frequently-used entrance to our home. I don’t know where I originally read it, but it had a powerful impact on me; so much so that I even moved that piece of paper a few times, always posting it where we all could see it on a daily basis. Eventually, the paper it was printed on fell apart and I no longer have it, so I can’t share it verbatim, but it went something like this:

There once was a boy who had a temper, and struggled to control his words when angry. One day, his father asked him to help him on the family farm. He handed him a bucket of nails and a hammer, and asked the boy to hammer each nail into a nearby fence, one next to the other, until the bucket was empty. It took some time, but finally the boy finished and called his father over to show him his work. His father then asked him to remove every nail.

The boy couldn’t believe it! All that work…only to remove them? His father patiently asked him again to remove the nails. Frustrated, the son nevertheless complied and removed every nail, and again called his father back over.

The father said, “I asked you to do this work so I could show you something. Son, every time you say a harsh word to someone in anger, you cause a wound much like the nail hole you put in that fence. Saying you’re sorry for those harsh words is like removing the nail. The nail is gone, but there is still a hole, evidence of the wound you caused.”

The message is obvious, right? It’s far better to bite our tongues and not say things we’ll later regret than it is to utter things in anger and then apologize afterward. Your apology – however sincere and however genuinely accepted – simply does not fully remove the damage those words can cause.

I wish I could say that little parable helped me to see how powerful our words can be, and I’ve been a soft-spoken speaker ever since.

Nope. I have a sharp tongue and an often-biting sense of humor. After just a year or so of marriage, my husband Warren and I had often sparred verbally, hurting each other needlessly. Pastor Dave Cover finally said to us, “You two are pretty evenly matched. Both of you really need to read War of Words.” I obediently complied. (My husband, a far more rebellious sort, has yet to read it cover-to-cover.)

Years later, thanks to Paul Tripp, an uncompromising sermon from Sinclair Ferguson and God’s patient work in our lives, we’ve both learned that our words have great impact. Created in the image of the God, who spoke our world into existence, we build up or tear down with our words, as well. Tripp points out, “You’ve never spoken a neutral word in your life.” Everything we say has a lifeward or a deathward arc to it.

Think about it. Even a quick, one-word response can be said with a tone that either brings the hearer joy or pain, happiness or fear.

A child asks for a snack twenty minutes after eating half his lunch. Mom can respond with the words, “Not right now. You just had lunch.” Those words spoken patiently and with the intention of teaching will have a lifeward turn, an edifying “building-up” goal. Those exact words spoken in frustration, with furrowed brow, will have a deathward turn, tearing down that child’s tiny soul.

Even if you don’t speak to someone with the intention of hurting, you can, indeed, cause pain with careless words.

As the person on the receiving end of hurtful words, we are tempted to “return fire,” or run away and nurse our wounds with unforgiveness. The things people say to us are some of the hardest things for us to forgive and then truly set aside. I can still remember exactly the way certain sentences were uttered to me, sentences that went so deep as to change a relationship forever. “I liked you better before you were a Christian,” for instance. I know that unforgiveness is a poison in our souls, hurting no one but ourselves, and yet I still struggle to let go of offenses that come to me from the mouths of people I love. I’d rather see justice dispensed than extend God’s grace.

However, as someone who has been on the other side of the fence – the one throwing words like nails and creating those damaging wounds – I also know the despair that comes from speaking in anger, then later seeing that no amount of remorse will ever take away the piercing sting that was felt when I chose to sin against someone with my words. On this side of the fence, I desperately want the grace that comes from being forgiven for my foolishness.

James saw how helpless we all are, noting that anyone who can bridle his own tongue is a perfect person in every way (James 3:2) – and since we know that absolutely no one is perfect, we can see James is clearly saying that no one can control his tongue all the time.

The older I get, the more clearly I see why we all need a savior. We are all so very helpless, indeed. We cannot save ourselves from drowning. We need a Rescuer. Thank God we have One. Only through knowing Christ can the wounds from words – whether we spoke them ourselves or were wounded by others – ever heal.

James 3:1-12 (ESV)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look 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. So 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! And 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, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

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