To Wound or to Heal
The power of words
By Ted N. C. Wilson
Words are a power for good, or not.
The Lord asks us to pass everything—every thought, every word—through the filter of His grace.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” goes the childhood nursery rhyme that many a child blurts out through tears at their tormenters. But as we all know, this little saying isn’t exactly true. Words can and do hurt, often for a long time.
Take a moment to think back to your childhood: how many times did you get hurt by something someone said to you? And how many times did you lash out, hurting others without really intending to because you just wanted to defend yourself?
As we grow older and become more mature, we learn that we need the Lord to defend us, and not we ourselves. “Do not take revenge,” we are told in Romans 12:19, “but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (NIV).
Importance and Power of Words
Words are important for communication. Have you ever tried to go an entire day without speaking? It’s hard. But either words can heal or they can hurt, if not controlled by the Holy Spirit.
One of my favorite books of the Bible is Proverbs because it’s so practical and true. For example, Proverbs 12 is filled with such gems as: “There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health” (verse 18); “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are His delight” (verse 22); “A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness” (verse 23).
Not only are these words of wisdom, they are filled with promise, such as: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1); “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends” (Prov. 17:9); and “He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive” (verses 27, 28).
The book of Proverbs frequently links wisdom and compassion, encouraging us not to follow our natural inclinations, such as: “A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back” (Prov. 29:11); “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly” (Prov. 14:29); “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Prov. 25:21, 22).
Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount
In the Beatitudes, Jesus shows us that if we follow heavenly wisdom, it will bring blessings, and encourage us to have a sweet relationship with people: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. . . . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:5-9). Wisdom and compassion go hand in hand.
The story is told of a man dying alone in a Brooklyn, New York, hospital. He sent for his son, who was working in the state of North Carolina—more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. The young man came and sat the entire night, holding the hand of this dying man, talking to him and encouraging him. The old man died in peace, unaware that a mistake had been made with the contact. As soon as the young man walked into the room that night, he realized that the person lying in the bed was not his father. Nevertheless, rather than just turning away or saying something hurtful, he had compassion and encouraged the elderly man during his final hours.
As Christians we are called to be like Jesus. Everything we say and do has to be cushioned by the Lord’s guidance. We are told, “The religion of Jesus softens whatever is hard and rough in the temper, and smooths whatever is rugged and sharp in the manners. It makes the words gentle and the demeanor winning. Let us learn from Christ how to combine a high sense of purity and integrity with sunniness of disposition. A kind, courteous Christian is the most powerful argument that can be produced in favor of Christianity.”1
Filter of God’s Grace
In today’s culture social media is pervasive in many developed areas, and nearly instantaneous. It’s so easy to respond immediately to something we find upsetting on Twitter, Facebook, a Web site, or blog, or in an e-mail we have received. We’re insulated from the person: all we see are letters on a screen. But the Lord asks us to pass everything—every thought, every word in response—through the filter of His grace.
Living in an increasingly digital age makes actual person-to-person conversations even more important, and it’s vital that we ask God for guidance as we speak. At times I have to check myself when I respond about something. I could respond in what appears to me a calm way, but to others I might appear to overact. Even the inflection of the voice, or intonation, or how something is said, can hurt people or put them into a combative mode.2
Heavenly Peace and Christian Tact
With the General Conference session approaching, this is an important time to consider the wise counsel given to us and to pray for the approximately 2,700 delegates who will have voice and vote. Those voices have to be used to bring glory to God, even in discussions in which there are differences of opinion. We are earnestly asking all church members to pray that God will grace our lips and our attitudes with heavenly peace and Christian tact and respect for each other, even though we may not agree.
In preparation for the 2014 Annual Council last October, our leaders made a fervent appeal that everyone speak in the most Christlike manner: “We General Conference and division officers appeal to all Annual Council attendees to accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of some differences of opinion that may be evident on certain subjects. We ask for Christlikeness and humble respect for each other in our words and activities during this Annual Council and beyond.”3
We praise the Lord that we saw the Holy Spirit moving on the hearts of people in their speeches and responses at the Annual Council. We give God glory for His presence, even though we had strong differences of opinion.
The General Conference and division officers will be making a similar appeal to the General Conference session, asking the Lord for this same Christlike spirit. Regardless of the outcome, the process may be the greatest testimony to the world of the power of the Holy Spirit to control our lives, of how we can approach items of difference with a Christlike spirit.
Not Just Political Politeness
Christian tact and grace, of course, aren’t to be confined simply to public forums: they actually begin in the home. With what kind of tone do we address our spouses and our children? Are we hard-hearted and demanding, or are we sweet and forgiving? And in the workplace, do we allow the pressures to create responses that are terse and disconnected from the human recipient? On the telephone, do we use Christian tact, not just political politeness? Are we truly using Christian tact in the way we respond to e-mails and other forms of communication?
It’s important to remind ourselves that once words leave our mouths, our fingertips, they’re gone forever, and it’s almost impossible to pull them back. It’s helpful to pray and think three times before writing something that might hurt, or saying something that might cut.
So when you’re ready to give that speech, submit your mind and tongue to the Lord and let Him filter what you were going to say, giving accurate and important responses, but in a Christlike manner. “Christ Himself did not suppress one word of truth, but He spoke it always in love. He exercised the greatest tact, and thoughtful, kind attention in His intercourse with the people. He was never rude, never needlessly spoke a severe word, never gave needless pain to a sensitive soul.”4
As we see world events forming to create the last prophetic scenario, it’s so important that each of us represent our Lord—publicly and privately—with the right demeanor and a sweet, humble spirit. This can come only as we are in daily communion with the Lord, asking His indwelling Spirit for revival and reformation. As we face the closing events of earth’s history, may it be written in the books of heaven that each of us spoke in tones of conviction, but with Christian tact and grace, all through the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. n
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.