The morning after my very first book was published—the day people said relief would flood in after months of anticipation—I read a review about The Well-Watered Woman that left me in a puddle of tears. The words felt like a stone hurled at my soul, sucker-punching my identity in Christ. I can still recite several of the phrases from that review verbatim. I can still feel the pain they inflicted on my heart when I call them to mind. It’s been two months since I read that book review, and yet, the words still linger, deep in the recesses of my mind.
You’ve probably heard the common saying at one point in your life, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This might have sounded like wisdom when we were children, but the longer we live, the more we will realize words do hurt. Just like hurled sticks and thrown stones leave wounds, scars, and damage on the body, so do careless words inflict pain on the soul.
The question is not if words hurt, but rather, what do we do when words break us like a stone slung with the intent to injure? How do we respond when thoughtless words drift in our minds long past the moment we heard them? How do we repair what we damaged when we find ourselves as the stone thrower and pain inflictor?
Words Have Power
In the beginning, God’s words ushered life into the world. The very first recorded words in Scripture are God speaking light and life into existence from what was “without form and void” (Gen. 1:2). “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3, emphasis added).
The spoken word of God literally created refracting light prisms, the relentlessly burning sun, the vibrating invisible molecule, and the creatures that dwell in the darkest parts of the sea. The first chapter of the Bible makes it clear: words have power.
God not only created the universe with his powerful words; he also created man and woman and blessed them (Gen. 1:26–28). With words, God gave Adam directives in the garden of Eden, commanding him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and commissioning him to name all of the livestock (Gen. 2:15–17).
Power to Bring Life or Death
Through life-giving words, God created, and through doubt-stirring words, Satan attempted to destroy. When the serpent slithered up to Eve with his cunning and shrewdness, he asked her a question that pointed her gaze away from God, her Maker, and back to herself: “Did God actually say?” (Gen. 3:1)
The third chapter of Genesis records a conversation that leads to death, the first words spoken with the intent to distract from God’s goodness, inflict wounds, and mar creation. The fall of man infected everything, including our hearts, bodies, and words. Jesus explained it clearly when he said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
Fallen, sin-stained words wound, lead astray, deceive, tarnish, tear down, and destroy. Straight from the serpent’s mouth came words that hurt, but on the other hand, straight from our Savior’s heart come words that heal, and these words of gospel hope are what ultimately have the power to conquer the venomous wounds fallen words inflict.
The Powerful Little Tongue
Just like sticks and stones can break our bones, words can also break our spirit and our communion with God and others. What drives the ship of our words that come from our mouths? The powerful little tongue. Solomon wisely writes in Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
James goes further to state, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5–6). The tongue is the helm of the words we speak and write, created by God to bring him glory, yet marred by Satan and set ablaze from hell’s flames. The warning is clear, and it’s one that the wise will heed—we must be careful about the words we speak and the words we receive (see James 3:13).
Just today, my own words inflicted a wound on my husband. Spoken carelessly and at a pitch just above my normal voice to display my frustration, I allowed fiery words to bruise him. In that moment, my powerful little tongue hurled a stone at the one I love, and, ironically, I’d just been thinking about the words I’d write in this article. I tell you this because I know how quickly words can pour forth without being checked first for truth, love, or wisdom and how injuring they can be. But I also know that God, who created the world with words, can also create life again in our hearts and relationships.
The Word That Gives Us Hope
We are not left without hope while we live on this earth as we attempt to put out the fires our little tongues start. We have a Savior whose own life redeemed the brokenness of this world. On the cross, he bore every blow, received every accusation, endured every grief, and carried all our shame on his shoulders. He absorbed the wrath of God in our place so we could live in the light of his glorious grace.
His blood speaks a better word (Heb. 12:24). It ushered in the hope of redemption. We also have a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth so we can live in freedom, find healing, and have everlasting hope. Ultimately, God's Word is our means to life and the foundation we stand upon when words afflict us or when we wound others with our words.
Good News for the Hurting
To the one afflicted by the words of others (everyone):
- Jesus feels your pain. He was mocked, accused, belittled, and scorned, and yet, in spite of all the undeserved ridicule, he was sinless (Isa. 53; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). There is no pain we endure that he has not also endured and conquered (1 Cor. 15:54–58). Bring your hurt to your God who cares (Ps. 55:22).
- The Word of God heals. No other word has such life-giving characteristics. Man’s words may hurt, but God’s Word has the power to heal (Prov. 4:20–22; 12:18; 18:21). Trust in his Word (Prov. 3:5–6).
- The Word of God has the final say (Isa. 40:8). Ultimately, what others say about you does not impact your forever, unchanging identity in Christ. His Word is final, and it is your freedom (John 8:32).
Good News for the Hurtful
To the one who has afflicted someone with stone-slinging words (everyone):
- Your tongue is not hopeless (James 3:1–12). Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, we can harness our tongues through repentance and surrender.
- Make it a practice to think before you speak (or write, post, text, etc.). James 1:19 also cautions us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Slowness in speech is wisdom when brought under the guidance of God’s Word.
- Commit to speaking life by knowing the life-giving words of Scripture (Eph. 4:29). If we want to be those who speak life over others and the truth in love, we must be committed to knowing God’s Word. When the Word is at the helm of our hearts, we cannot go wrong.
We are all both the ones afflicted with negligent words that hurt and the stone-throwers who afflict others with our words. The good news of the gospel is that Christ meets us in both places, first as the One who bore the blow and gives us life in his name, and next as the One who takes our stones from us and gives us a cross to carry instead. Scripture tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and in him was life and the light of men (John 1:1–4, 14).
Light and life—this is exactly what we see in the very beginning coming from the mouth of God. Christ, who is the Word, is the Life-Giver and the Light-Bringer. Through his life, death, and resurrection, there is redemption for our fallen words, taming for our tongues, and healing for our hurting hearts. The Word made flesh conquered death so we could have life in his name—this is what we stand upon when sticks and stones break our bones and words hurt us deeply. No word of man can stand against the Word of God, and it is his Word we stand upon.