Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Whoever first spoke this “back-at-you” proverb probably did so after being stung by someone else’s words. The truth is, words often do hurt. They can help and heal, but they can also hurt and destroy. And while it’s true that words are not the same as physical weapons, they often are the triggers that set off the use of physical weapons. No wonder, then, that Scripture warns believers in so many places about being wise with our words.
This powerful gift of language is part of what it means to be made in God’s image. Think about it. God created the universe out of nothing by speaking it into existence. When it came to creating human beings to inhabit His world, He made the first man and woman with the ability to speak not only to each other but also to Him. What is more, God gave them (and subsequently all of us) the capacity to speak truth or falsehood—and the guarantee of reaping the consequences of our choices to speak truth or falsehood.
James contributed to the Scripture’s warnings about the power of words when he said, “Not many [believers] should become teachers” (Jas. 3:1). He wasn’t trying to deter those whom God calls to this particular kind of Christian service. Rather, he was urging all Christians to recognize how powerful and potentially hurtful their speech can be if not kept under the Holy Spirit’s control.
Our words can be especially damaging—
- When misleading words lead others into sinful attitudes and behavior. James compared speech to two common objects that control the direction of larger objects. First, a rider controls the direction of a large horse with a bridle, the bits of which work inside the horse’s mouth. Second, a boat’s pilot steers the great ship with a comparatively small rudder. Similarly, words might seem to be a small thing but they can steer others on a course of life that in the end is dangerous and destructive.
- When destructive words poison relationships. James used another vivid image—the destruction caused by an out-of-control fire. In November 2016, two young boys in a dry, wooded area of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee were playing with matches. A gust of high wind caught the small flame, and a raging wildfire quickly developed. Before the fire was extinguished, fourteen people died, a hundred others sustained injuries, and property loss was enormous. James knew that out-of-control speech could wreak similar devastation on people’s relationships. Such hurtful use of speech is why James warned that “the tongue … is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
- When hypocritical words come from the same mouth. James lamented the way that some people could utter blessings and praise to God in one context (church meetings?) and in other contexts (at home? at work? on the highway?) spew angry, bitter curses at people who are made in God’s image. How many relationships have been damaged or destroyed because people “weaponize” their speech against each other? As James declared, “My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way” (3:10b).
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.