The power of harmful and helpful words



July 24, 2012, 9:29 AM

“Deplorable craftsmanship.” Those were the words a professor wrote on my sister’s assigned art project one semester at design school. That was almost 35 years ago, and when she mentioned it to me recently I was stunned by the staying power of words. Imagine her carrying that phrase around since the mid-1970s. Not that she thinks about them every day, but they are rattling around in her soul somewhere.

You have words like that in your life, and so do I. In the schoolyard we used to chant: “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”—before we knew better. Most of the stick and stone wounds are gone by now, but not the scars from hurtful syllables.

But if harmful words can wield such power, helpful words can too. There is a mystery to words that has not been fathomed by the human mind. Jesus, after all, is called the “Word.” Not the Hand, not the Tree, not the Idea, but the Word. What is that about? Jesus says of his words:

“… The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

Jesus even implies that if you had to choose between literal bread and the Word of God in the Scriptures, you would be smart to choose the latter:

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

We would expect Jesus’ words to come with a transformational power, since He is God. But what does it mean that our own words have power to change people’s lives? And they certainly do:

“When he had gone through those regions [Macedonia] and had given them much encouragement [or, the literal translation from the Greek: “encouraged them with many words”], he came to Greece” (Acts 20:2).

Words matter. Words have consequences. Words change the courses of lives. The Apostle Paul thought words important enough to puddle-hop all over the Mediterranean to speak them, and Luke, the author of Acts thought the detail important enough to mention specifically: Paul encouraged “with words.” The recipients of the words were churches, groups of people already saved, so these were not words to attempt to convert, but words to strengthen and establish (see also Romans 1:11-12; Acts 14:21; 15:41).

Moreover, Paul says he never got tired of repeating the same helpful words and truths to them, whenever they slipped:

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you” (Philippians 3:1).

My own husband is as tireless as the Apostle Paul. He encourages me daily “with many words” (Acts 20:2), trying to come against and overcome some of the harmful and negative words I tend to repeat to myself. And like the author of Philippians 3:1, he hasn’t seemed to tire of it yet.