It was a shocking story that gripped the nation. In 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted at knifepoint from her bed in the middle of the night in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her family searched for her in vain. Nine months later she was recognized while walking down a street with her abductor. For some time, Smart was kept chained to a tree. Eventually, chains became unnecessary to keep her from fleeing. Words were enough. Her captor constantly threatened to kill her family if she did not comply with his demands. She later recounted, “I have been chained up with actual chains, but I have also been chained with words and I can tell you that words are so much stronger than actual chains.”
Words can subtly and powerfully destroy a person. I mean, look at yourself. Who else would want you? You are the worst thing that ever happened in this family. You’re an idiot. Even if the person on the receiving end of abusive speech knows the accusations are untrue, that the hurtful words hold no truth, damaging words embed themselves in the mind. In their neuroscience experiment, “Do Words Hurt?”, Maria Richter and collaborating scientists monitored subjects’ brain responses to auditory and imagined negative words. During this process, they discovered painful or negative words increase Implicit Processing (IMP) within a specific part of the brain. Put frankly, their study proved that negative words release stress and anxiety-inducing hormones in subjects.
The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences. Proverbs 18:21 NLT
The Bible speaks about the power of the tongue. In James 3:6, 8 (NLT), we read, “The tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself…But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
And yet, words can be life-giving blessings: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” says Proverbs 16:24. Proverbs 25:11 paints my favorite word picture: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Watching my own words is a struggle; I can be too blunt, bitingly sarcastic, and forget to encourage others through my words. Once, to teach my kids an object lesson (well…really for my own reminder) I painted an apple with gold paint, set it in a silver bowl and placed it on our kitchen counter. “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” is my personal verse! (Psalm 141:3 ESV).
But what are the characteristics of wholesome words?
1. They build people up.
(See Ephesians 4:29) Is someone better off after having had a conversation with me? Were my words balanced with listening?
2. Wholesome words are grace-giving.
Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone,” or as a different version says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” (Colossians 4:6 NIV) The perfect amount of salt enhances food and presents its flavor at its very best.
3. Wholesome words are spoken at the right time
(See Proverbs 15:23). Have you ever wanted to share something with someone so badly that you didn’t notice at all that they were exhausted? If you have, you probably got your feelings hurt. “It is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time” Proverbs 15:23 reminds us!
Do your words hurt or help those closest to you? Words can be more powerful than actual chains. Together, let’s ask God to place guards over our mouths! God, help us to pause and choose words that build others up, words that are seasoned with grace and spoken at the right time.
Resource reading: James 3:1-12