Included in Paul’s letter to the believers in Ephesus were these instructions: “Do not let unwholesome [foul, profane, worthless, vulgar] words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak]” (Ephesians 4:29, AMP). Though they professed to be followers of Jesus, building up others did not come naturally. Maybe that is one reason the Bible says much about words and their power. Because death and life, the greatest evil and good, are in the power of words (see Proverbs 18:21), we must be told and constantly reminded of how to use them with ourselves and others. Yehuda Berg, as quoted by Dr. Hyder Zahed in his blog post Power of the Spoken Word, puts it this way: “Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” It depends on how we use them.
Given our human propensity to be reactive instead of proactive, the words we use are often a reflection of our emotional state. When we passionately give someone “a piece of our mind,” the reward is that we often feel better for having done so regardless of how negatively impacted the other person was. However, any behaviour that is rewarded or reinforced is repeated and through frequent repetition, we become proficient in that particular behaviour. The same thing happens when we weaponize words and use them sarcastically, critically, or to deliberately hurt another person. While we may not openly admit to it, we feel “better” knowing that we inflicted the hurt we intended. Sometimes we hurt others because we ourselves have been hurt or are experiencing hurt though that is no excuse. Because “all the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes” (Proverbs 16:2), we often can justify our behaviour too. It is those feelings of satisfaction that is our enemy. Without being intentional to do differently, we become good, in some cases very good, at hurting others.
Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians was not only applicable during corporate worship, but it was a practice they were expected to live out wherever they found themselves. The same is expected of us. Some of the people we interact with are walking around with hurts we cannot see; hurts, real or imagined, inflicted by self, and/or others. However, if we make it our mission to build up others, we can become instruments of healing. In Proverbs 15:1 we read, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words cause quarrels” (TLB). In verse 4, “Gentle words bring life and health; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (NLT). In Proverbs 18:4, “A person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook.” Struggles with self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth can be lightened or lifted when we use encouraging and affirming words. What do we get out of it? “Your own soul is nourished when you are kind, but you destroy yourself when you are cruel” (Proverbs 11:17, TLB).
In a culture where it is easier to tear down than it is to build up, in one way or another we all need to be built up. When we speak to ourselves, let us use uplifting words. When we are giving feedback, we can make sure it is constructive and our speech is always seasoned with grace (Colossians 4:6). For followers of Jesus, building up others honours God and brings Him closer to those who are hurting (Psalm 34:18a). James puts it this way, “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and sea creatures, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the human tongue; it is a restless evil [undisciplined, unstable], full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. These things, my brothers, should not be this way [for we have a moral obligation to speak in a manner that reflects our fear of God and profound respect for His precepts]” (James 3:7-10). I believe Paul would agree. Selah.