Sticks and Stones
by Scott Sauls
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Really? Let’s not kid ourselves. Words are potent. Words start with God, who spoke galaxies into being. “God said … and there was” (Gen. 1:3). God’s words have impact (Isa. 55:11); are living, active, and sharp (Heb. 4:12); illuminate dark places (Ps. 119:105); nourish souls (Matt. 4:4); and defeat death (Luke 11:43). The words of the gospel are “the power of God.”
To a lesser but significant degree, our words have power also. Our words transfer ideas. They can heal. And they can “hurt me.” I will never forget Mariah Carey saying in an interview that for her, one criticism will instantly overrule a thousand praises. There is something to this.
Words can wound and steal life. Gossip and slander bring a cheap thrill to some, while exploiting and objectifying others (the similarities to pornography are striking). False testimony uses words to misrepresent, caricature, or malign the reputation of fellow humans, usually for selfish gain. Words of condemnation, accusation, and cutting sarcasm create pain as they shame, belittle, and discourage. Coarse joking uses humor to draw attention to oneself, while sending rotten fruit into the atmosphere.
There are also “healing words” (Prov 12:18). Words of praise have healing power. Communities and families thrive when members notice the best in each other and verbalize it. Mutual celebration is a hallmark of life together as Spirit-filled daughters and sons. Words of encouragement will “put courage into” those who are weak, afraid, and torn down. A timely rebuke protects a friend from self-destructive patterns. A gentle word turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1) and halts the cycle of evil. Grace-filled words engage skeptical minds and doubting hearts (1 Peter 3:15–16).
The question remains, how are toxic words transformed into healing words? Scripture tells us how. It begins by identifying the source of our words: “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Our words are healed as we replace what fills our hearts.
Why do we gossip, slander, condemn, accuse, slash with sarcasm, joke crudely, boast, and lie? Every toxic word traces to some sort of pseudo-savior—something that the heart is clinging to more tightly than Jesus. The comedian Tom Arnold once admitted that he uses humor so people will like him. “It’s the reason behind almost everything I do,” he said. For some, human approval is the preferred narcotic. For others like Rachel, it was having children: “Give me children or I’ll die” (Gen 30:1). For the Pharisee, it was the feeling of superiority: “Thank you, my God, that I’m not like other men” (Luke 18:9–14). The options are endless. Our words echo the beat of our hearts.
Words are transformed through what Thomas Chalmers called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” For our words to become life-giving, and for toxic words to fade from our vocabularies, this new affection must be Jesus. Hearts taken by the beauty of Jesus will yield beautiful words.
What makes Jesus beautiful? He only spoke beautiful words—never careless, unkind, hateful, or untruthful words. Even His sharp, strong words were beautiful, always perfectly suited for the occasion. But there’s more. Jesus also is the Beautiful Word Incarnate, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-14). His perfect words flowed naturally from His perfect life, which secured the benediction or “good word” of His Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” This same benediction has since been transferred to and secured for us who believe. At our best and at our worst, by grace and through faith, we are clothed, with Jesus’ righteousness, credited with His beauty and goodness.
Since our daughters’ births, at bedtime I have regularly pronounced a benediction over them: “God made you beautiful and special, and he loves you so much. So does your Daddy. Don’t ever forget that.” My hope is that these last words of today will register as the first words of tomorrow. They crave a paternal blessing that overrules the negative verdicts that the outside world, as well as their own hearts, so easily pronounce against them. Words of life welcome them back to their true identity as daughters, precious and beloved—an identity that’s fixed when they’re at their best and when they’re at their worst.
The Father’s benediction is ours. Through Christ and because of Christ, we are pronounced as His beloved. We can enjoy deep rest because the last word of Jesus’ life—“It is finished”—is the first word for ours. With us He is well pleased. Nothing can change this.
There’s one more thing. For us to gain the Father’s benediction, Jesus had to lose it. At His baptism, Jesus received the “good word” from on high. On the cross, He heard no word from the Father. Just shaming, condemning, deafening silence. The silence did not break Jesus’ bones like sticks and stones, but it broke every other part of Him. This was for our healing. Heaven’s cold silence toward Jesus secured the Father’s “good word” toward us, once and for all. If that doesn’t melt our hearts and transform our words, what will?
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