From an early age, each of us recognized the power of words. Every parent remembers when their child learned how to say “no” because they kept saying it over and over and over. Instead of hitting another child over the head, we taught our children to “use your words” to ask for something or to express themselves.
We use words to describe what is and what should be. We use words to ask questions and give answers. We string words together into sentences to tell stories or explain problems.
Small words, big words. It doesn’t matter — words are powerful.
We understand this because all of us have a few words we hold on to. Words spoken to us by a mom or dad, a teacher or a coach, a friend or a boss. These words are forever lodged in our memory banks. They might be the words we go back to encourage ourselves to keep going, to not quit. Or, they might be the words that keep us from ever getting started.
In some respects, individual words may be neutral but how they are grouped together and used are not.
The Proverb writer describes the power of words this way: “The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Provers 18:21).
“The tongue has the power of life and death.” I, for one, would never accuse the Bible of being overly dramatic. Throughout history, a single word has been the difference between a person living or dying, between countries going to war or negotiating peace.
Undoubtedly, words have been responsible for many deaths — whether between nations or two people on the street. But physical death is just one form of death caused by the use of words. Here are a few casualties of a misspoken word:
- Family ties
This list is far from exhaustive. Not all words kill. Some words wound, scratching or cutting. But even the strongest person can only be wounded so much before suffering loss.
Last week I served at Opportunity Camp, a camp for kids who are in the social services system. Many of them are in foster care, some live with grandparents, and a few live with a single parent and receive some sort of assistance. For six days, I was surrounded by many kids — some as young as seven or eight — who had already experienced the death of something inside of them.
It’s a bit overwhelming to find an eight-year old who has already had their innocence stripped away by an adult who abused them — often a parent or family member.
By the time they get to be teenagers, many of these kids have heard they are no good, they’ll never amount to anything, they’re stupid, nobody wants them, they’re a problem, it’s their fault their parents divorced/ran away/went to to jail.
“The tongue has the power of life and death.”
For most of their life, they have only experienced one side of the biblical equation — the death-giving properties of the tongue.
As a Christ-follower, I don’t believe that has to be the end of the story. I believe life-giving words can produce a resurrection of whatever has died within a person. It may not be immediate, though sometimes it is. It may not be a single world spoken a single time.
But I have worked with these kids long enough to see a light return to the eyes when a life-giving word is spoken to them. I’ve seen a hunger rise up within them for more — begging me to keep talking.
I’m not talking about a kind word, as in “that’s what was nice of you to pick that up.” Don’t get me wrong, kind words are important, too. I’m talking about life-giving words directed at their core being, their sense of who they are.
On closing night, I saw one of the eight year old boys standing on the back bench. People are hugging and saying their goodbyes, many people are crying because camp ends the next morning. It’s a bit chaotic as people are milling around. This particular young man was one I had taken an interest in all week. He was energetic, frenetic, busy busy busy. Basically, he was a little boy acting like a little boy.
Because he was constantly in motion, it was hard for him to walk in a straight line when his counselors asked him to (and why they did I have no idea!). I don’t believe he was more disobedient than any other kid, just more easily distracted. At any rate, his counselors decided he should sit by me one night during the evening program. I’m not sure if this was punishment or just a need to hand him off to someone else.
The first thing I did was put my arm around his shoulder and began tapping my fingers to the music. Almost immediately, he tucked his head into my shoulder, nestled in, and calmed down. The simple act of physical affirmation was all he needed. From that point on, I became intentional about seeking him out and just acknowledging him with a few words or a thumbs up. At evening program, he would find his way to where I was sitting.
Fast forward to closing night. He’s standing on the back bench just looking around. He’s surrounded by motion. He’s dwarfed by the bigger kids and counselors. I just walked over to him and held out my arms, like you do when approaching a baby or toddler to see if they want to be picked up.
I’m not exaggerating — he literally leapt into my arms, nearly knocking me over. His head went straight to my shoulder.
He threw his arms around my neck and held on for dear life, letting his legs just dangle. Once I regained my balance, I got one arm under his rear-end to hold him up and began patting him on the back with my other arm. Here’s what I told him:
“You are a gift from God. You have energy and a love for life inside of you. You have a fantastic smile. But let me tell you something: you don’t have to impress anybody with how good you are, how funny you are, or how you dance (he LOVED to dance). The only person you have to impress is God and he already loves you.”
As I was speaking, he began to sob. Not simply crying, but sobbing.
I wasn’t prepared for that.
I remained silent for the next minute or so, just patting him on the back. Eventually, I had to put him down. He looked at me, didn’t say a word, and then darted off as usual.
The image that came to my mind as I watched him run off was that of a desert. Due to circumstances beyond his control, his heart had become dry and cracked. It’s hard for anything to grow in the desert. Fortunately, he was still young enough that this drought inside his heart hadn’t turned into serious mischief or harmful behavior.
I realized he was sobbing because just a few life-giving words were like pouring water on dry ground. Without continual watering and cultivation, I know these few droplets will eventually evaporate. How long they last, no one knows. But while they do … there is life!
My prayer is that those words will lodge somewhere in his memory bank. Even when he no longer remembers my voice, that he will remember my words. I also know that he will be barraged by words that drain and destroy, and those words may far outnumber the life-giving words he receives.
But here is my bias: I believe good always triumphs over evil. It might not be an immediate victory but an ability to endure, to keep going.
It’s unfortunate that we are so casual with our words.
It’s even more unfortunate when we use words to intentionally inflict harm.
Parents, teachers, coaches, friends … you have not just an opportunity but an obligation to speak life-giving words to those under your care. Don’t be dishonest or deceitful. But don’t be negligent either.
“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”