Let me see if you can finish a sentence that I begin. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but…"
You're right, you got it. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." I don't know who ever thought of this saying, but they lied. It's not true at all. Sticks and stones will hurt your bones, but words can actually break your heart. Words matter.
Let me ask you: What's the meanest thing that anyone ever said to you? You may have heard of the person who pretended to be a 16-year-old boy on MySpace. She became "friends" with Megan Meier, age 13. After starting out nicely, the person, pretending to be a teenage boy, started sending Megan messages like, "I don't know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I've heard that you are not very nice to your friends." More messages like this came. Tragically, Megan became so upset by these messages that she took her own life. Sticks and stones can break bones, but words can break a heart. Words can kill.
The Bible compares our tongues to a fire, that can set "the whole course of one's life on fire" (James 3:6). Our words are like the cigarette that a 46-year-old woman in South Dakota threw into a forest. That cigarette started a fire that burned for two weeks, that burned eighty thousand acres of forest. Rumors, half-truths, grumbling, sarcastic remarks, hurtful things said in the heat of anger—all of these smoldering matches have the potential for burning down acres of office morale, family peace, and church unity.
Let me ask you, on the other hand: What is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you? There was a man that I really respect who came to my wedding. He said something about me that day that I overheard – he didn't even mean for me to hear it – that is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me, and I've never forgotten it. Words can break a heart, but words can also heal a heart.
We've been studying what the book of Proverbs says about how to live. Listen to what Proverbs says about our words:
The words of the reckless pierce like swords,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit.
We need to remember two words: Words matter. Your words are like a fire. Your words, the Bible says, are like a sword that can cut right into people. It can kill. But your words can also bring healing and life. How you speak is going to bring you and everyone around you life, or death.
A pastor was welcoming some members into the church. This is what he told them:
And now, I charge you that if you ever hear another member speak an unkind word of criticism or slander against anyone—myself, an usher, a choir member, or anyone else—that you stop that person in mid-sentence and say, 'Excuse me—who hurt you? Who ignored you? Who slighted you? Was it [the pastor]? Let's go to his office right now. He'll apologize to you, and then we'll pray together so God can restore peace to this body. But we won't let you talk critically about people who aren't present to defend themselves.'
I'm serious about this. I want you to help resolve this kind of thing immediately. And know this: If you are ever the one doing the loose talking, we'll confront you.
That pastor says, "To this day, every time we receive new members, I say much the same thing. That's because I know what most easily destroys churches. It's not crack cocaine, government oppression, or even lack of funds. Rather it's gossip and slander that grieves the Holy Spirit."
We need to take our words as seriously as we do swords, guns, and fires. When someone uses them recklessly, we need to deal with it right away. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words kill. Words matter more than we could ever think.
Learning How to Speak
So words matter. Words can kill, but they can also give life. How then should we speak?
It's actually quite easy. Proverbs tells us how we should speak: Speak less, speak honestly, and speak fittingly. Simple – yet as we're going to see, impossible without God's help.
Speak less – The average person speaks sixteen thousand words a day. There's lots of room to get into trouble with this many words. One former U.S. president (Calvin Coolidge) said, "I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm." Proverbs says something similar:
Sin is not ended by multiplying words,
but the prudent hold their tongues.
And then one of my favorite proverbs:
Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent,
and discerning if they hold their tongues.
One of the best ways that we could improve in how we use words is to speak less. Words are so powerful that we need to guard how many words we actually use.
Speak honestly – When we do speak, though, it's important to speak honestly. Proverbs 12:19 says:
Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Proverbs 24:26 says:
An honest answer
is like a kiss on the lips.
Telling the truth is right, beneficial. Telling the truth is a kind act. One of my friends says that many times we're too unloving to be truthful. Telling the truth is an act of love, even if what we're going to say is hard. What we say has to be for the other person's good, but our words must be honest even when it's hard.
Speak fittingly – This is the hardest. It takes real wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. Proverbs 15:23 says:
A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
and how good is a timely word!
Proverbs 25:11 says:
A word aptly spoken
is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (NIV)
There's a beauty, artistry, and skill in knowing how to speak. In fact, we can't do it without God's help. Proverbs 16:1 says:
To human beings belong the plans of the heart,
but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue.
What I want to do right now is to ask a few people to pray for all of us in this area. If there's one area that I want to focus on today, it's in our families. If there's anywhere where it's tough to speak well, it's there. I've asked a few people of different ages to pray that God will help us speak well. Let's take a few minutes to pray.
What Words Reveal
Most of all what words reveal is the condition of our hearts. Words reveal that ultimately we need a new heart. Jesus said, "But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these defile you" (Matthew 15:18). What we say reveals what's in our heart.
Proverbs 22:11 says the same thing:
One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace
will have the king for a friend.
What we need more than anything else is for our heart to be changed. A pure heart and words of grace go together.
What we say is a reflection of what's inside. You'll remember that the heart in the Bible doesn't mean our emotions. It means it's the essential you. Your heart is what makes you you. God promised in Ezekiel 11:19, "I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh." Paul wrote, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)
God himself came to earth. One of his closest friends said of Jesus, "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). He's the only person who ever lived who never misspoke. And he died for us so that he could take upon himself all of our sins, all of our misspoken words. He gives us his righteousness, and also a new heart.
Jesus said, "Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart. For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). We don't need new words; most of all we need clean hands and clean hearts, given to us through the gospel.