Words that Hurt; Words that Heal
Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs, Ephesians 4:29-32
Most of the book of Proverbs after chapter 9 is a collection of short, pithy, self-contained sayings on different topics scattered throughout the book. So as we study Proverbs this summer, each week I am going to pull together verses from Proverbs on different themes and print them on an insert in the bulletin. This week I have collected verses from Proverbs about how we use words, how we communicate with each other. Instead of reading them before I start the sermon, I will read them as we go along. Let’s pray: “Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, for you are our strength and our redeemer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The insert in your bulletin this morning has only a fraction of the verses in Proverbs dealing with words. I think there are more verses in Proverbs about how we use words than any other subject. The reason is simple: words have power. There is an old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” That’s bogus. Words have enormous power to hurt or to heal. Look at the insert:
10:11—“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.”
12:18—“Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
15:4—“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
18:21—“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
That last verse means people take words into themselves. They experience the consequences of words in a deep way. Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
In June 2017 a young woman named Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for text messages she sent to an 18 year-old named Conrad Roy. They had met in 2012 and began exchanging text messages, though they met in person only once or twice over the next two years. Conrad had struggled for years with social anxiety and depression, and he told Michelle that he was thinking about committing suicide. At first Michelle discouraged him, urging him instead to get help. But in 2014 she began encouraging him to go ahead and do it. When he expressed concern about how his suicide might affect his parents, Michelle sent him a text saying, “I think your parents know you’re in a really bad place. I’m not saying they want you to do it, but I honestly feel they can accept it.” In a later text message she says to him, “You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were going to do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t.”
This goes on for weeks. Michelle keeps encouraging him to go ahead and end his life. She even advises him on how to do it, using carbon monoxide from his car tailpipe. Finally, on July 17, 2014, Conrad decides to do it by using a small gas water pump that he puts in his car and starts up with all the windows closed. At one point, though, he gets panicky and calls Michelle. Michelle later sent a text to another friend saying, “I could have stopped him. I was on the phone with him, and he got out because it was working and he got scared. I told him to get back in.” His body was found in the car later that evening.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and the text.
One place you can clearly see the power of words is in a courtroom:
12:17—“Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence; but a false witness speaks deceitfully.
14:25—“A truthful witness saves lives, but one who utters lies is a betrayer.”
But Proverbs is not concerned only about telling the truth. Proverbs is concerned about the affect our words will have on other people, even if they are true. Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” A wise word is not only true but fitting. It brings healing and life to the person who hears it. Verse 12 continues, “Like a gold rings or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear.” A wise word is not only true but helpful, encouraging, healing. Proverbs 10:32 says, “The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked what is perverse.” A wise person considers the impact of his or her words on the person receiving them.
While I was in seminary, I did an internship working with youth at a small Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. There I learned how to speak Philadelphian, which is not always the same as how we speak in the Pacific Northwest. One time we were having a barbecue with the youth group, and as I was taking the hamburgers off the grill I told the high schoolers to bring their buns. They broke into hysterical laughter. I said, “What?” Then the other adult advisors explained to me that the bread you put around a hamburger is called a “roll.” The word buns refers to something else.
You have to know how your words will be heard by the people receiving them. For that reason Proverbs says it is important to listen before you talk. Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.” I can think of numerous times when someone has been talking to me and I have been thinking about how to answer instead of listening to what they said. Proverbs is right. If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.
For this reason it is also important to think before you communicate.
15:28—“The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.”
29:20—“Do you see someone who is hasty in speech? There is more hope for a fool than for anyone like that.”
The motto of Proverbs is deliberate before you communicate. I always write out my sermons word for word before I give them on Sunday morning. I do this for several reasons, but the most important is so I can go back and delete things before they get out of my mouth. You folks have no idea how many stupid things I might have said from this pulpit had I not deleted them before I got up here. We need to deliberate before we communicate. Before you push send, consider whether you need to push delete.
I included the next verse, Proverbs 11:12, because I think it is particularly relevant for us today: “Whoever belittles another lacks sense.” I think that part of the verse should be on a banner over every presidential debate between now and election-day. Maybe the second half, too: “…but an intelligent person remains silent.”
However, the second half of that verse does not mean we should always be silent. There are times when we need to confront. There are times when we need to tell people things they might not want to hear. Proverbs 28:23: “Whoever rebukes a person will afterward find more favor than one who flatters with the tongue.” Yes, we should stop and listen and think and pray before we speak, but that does not mean we should never confront someone with our concerns.
One of the more striking sayings in Proverbs is chapter 26, verses 4-5: “Do not answer fools according to their folly or you will be will a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.”
This is not the only time Proverbs gives contradictory advice. We will see it again when we come subjects like money and conflict resolution. Proverbs does not give us simple rules for living. Sometimes Proverbs gives contradictory advice, depending on the situation. In those cases it calls us to use our heads, to understand nuances, to discern when to confront and when to keep silent. There are no simple rules for that. You have to pay attention, listen, think, and pray.
One of the hardest things I have done in ministry is telling a young couple coming to me to do their wedding that they should not get married. When I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, a 17 year-old girl who had grown up in the church came to me with her boyfriend wanting to get married. This was not an unheard of thing to do in Potlatch—getting married at age 17 even when the girl was not pregnant. In fact her parents had given their permission for the wedding. But at that point during my ministry in Potlatch, I had done two weddings of young women still in high school. One ended in divorce, and the other ended in a shooting. So I was gun shy, so to speak, about doing any more weddings for young people in high school, and I told them I thought they should wait to get married. They were angry and left, and I felt bad. This young woman had grown up in the church; her father, though not a member, had been a regular church attender.
Afterwards, I thought about this situation and prayed about it, and finally I went over to the parents’ house to talk to them. The father told me how angry he was. I tried to lower my defenses and listen while he explained his feelings. He said he understood that his daughter was probably too young to make this decision. But he wanted me to work with them, because he was hoping I might give them a better grounding, a better chance to succeed, than they would have if they went off and got married by a Justice of the Peace. I told him understood that. But then I shared with him the grim the statistics on young people who got married while still in high school, and I said to him, “I think the best grounding I can give them is encouraging them to wait.” “It is also,” I said, “the best witness we can give to our community, encouraging young people in Potlatch not to get married while they are still in high school.”
Well, after that, I didn’t hear from the family for a few months, and they quit coming to church, so I figured I had driven them away. But a few months later the father called. He told me his daughter was postponing the wedding. I said, “Until she graduates?” He said, “Indefinitely.” Then he told me, “I guess you were right. It looks like they are breaking up.”
The apostle Paul summarizes the view of Proverbs in his letter to the Ephesians. He says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Deliberate before you communicate. That, according to Proverbs, is the wise and faithful way to use our words.