Words That Harm

And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. But no one can tame the tongue (James 3:6,8a)

Three things never come back: the spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity. What we say cannot be unsaid. What’s more, we will be called to account for every word we have spoken—even our careless ones—at the day of reckoning (see Matthew 12:36). As King Solomon put it, “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3); and “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21). Our words can serve to encourage, to nourish, and to heal. But they can also cause strife, create dissension, and do harm. Solomon gives us a multifaceted picture of what characterizes such harmful words. He describes words that harm as those that are reckless, as being “like sword thrusts” (12:18). Our words so often spill forth unguardedly, and we become someone who “gives an answer before he hears” (18:13). “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (10:19).

You will likely have heard the saying that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never harm us—but that is dead wrong. Bruises may fade and the marks they made be forgotten. But hurtful words that have been said to us and about us tend to remain with us for a long time. Truer are these lines:

A careless word may kindle strife,
A cruel word may wreck a life,
A bitter word may hate instill,
A brutal word may smite and kill.

It would be difficult to estimate how many friendships are broken, how many reputations are ruined, or the peace of how many homes is destroyed through harmful words. The very source of all such animosity and abusive language, according to James, is none other than hell itself. Yes, our tongue is “a fire,” and “no human being can tame the tongue” without the work of God’s Holy Spirit. 

Stop and think of how many words you have used in the last 24 hours, and how they were used. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”—so did any of your words cause harm, tearing someone else down in some way? That is a sin to be repented of and turned from. Is that something you need to do, both before God and to the person to whom those words were spoken? 

Then think of the words you may speak over the next 24 hours. How might they be used to bring life? How might you reflect the one who “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth”? Rather, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return … He himself bore our sins … that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:22-24).

Devotional material is taken from Truth For Life Daily Devotional by Alistair Begg. Copyright © 2021, The Good Book Company. Used by Truth For Life with written permission.

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