“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” This old adage, which first appeared in the early to mid-nineteenth century, has been used by children throughout the years in response to the mean-spirited taunts or name-calling of others. It was a way for children to deflect the hurt intended by those words by saying that physical harm (sticks and stones) was more hurtful than words, that physical harm could hurt while words could not. Of course, we know that is not true.
Words are powerful and have the ability to hurt just as much, and oftentimes more, than physical harm or abuse. Harsh words spoken by a husband to a wife can damage that relationship; insulting or demeaning words spoken by a parent to a child can damage a child’s self-esteem; and the bullying words of one child to another can even lead to self-harm by the child being bullied. Words, just like “sticks and stones,” can hurt in so many ways.
God’s Word makes it clear how powerful and how destructive our words can be. James 3:5 says that the tongue is powerful, despite that fact that it is just a small part of the body. James then points out that just a tiny spark can set an entire forest on fire. That tiny spark can cause great damage. The same is true of the tongue, the vehicle of our words. The words that come out of our mouths have the capacity to give praise to God while at the same time cursing the very people that God has made (James 3:9). The words that come out of our mouths have the capacity to build others up and also to tear them down, to heal and also to hurt.
Proverbs 15 also talks about the power of the words that come from our mouths and makes it clear that, when we speak with words that are gentle, the results are much more desirable than when we speak with words that are hurtful. Verse 1 says that a gentle word, a gentle response, is able to defuse anger. A harsh, hurtful, or angry word, on the other hand, will just escalate a situation. It will cause a spark to ignite into a flame. Then, in verse 4, we read that soothing or gentle words are like a tree of life, while a perverse tongue, one that delivers words that hurt or tear down, will break the spirit of the person on the receiving end of those words.
Just as our lives should reflect the gentleness of Jesus, just as we need to live lives rooted in the fruit of gentleness, so should our words be a reflection of a gentle spirit.