Words have tremendous power. The old saw about the pen being mightier than the sword is right, just as right as “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is wrong. It may be that it is the written word that endures, and in enduring is the more powerful, but the spoken word is often the more dangerous.
A word written can be edited, erased, rewritten, interpreted and reinterpreted for centuries. In so doing it can be softened or strengthened, and put to use in different ways by different cultures in different times. The spoken word has an immediate effect on the particular people who hear it. It cannot be unsaid, and once said, its meaning exists entirely within the understanding of the hearer. Great orators and gifted conversationalists may be adept at infusing intended meaning into every tone and gesture, but the final arbiter is always the hearer. Frankly, it’s a wonder that we are able to communicate verbally at all, considering how easy it is to mishear and misunderstand, and how hard it is to confirm agreement between speaker and hearer.
The spoken word can bring blessing, joy, compassion, encouragement, and comfort. Oddly, these good things seem to stay with us only in passing. They are soon forgotten in the sense of “Yes, but what have you done for me lately.” On the other hand, words that hurt seem to embed themselves in the very core of one’s self where they continue to do damage for a very long time. It’s one reason why I think the Ten Commandments are as much about what we say as what we do. For example, there are not many of us who commit physical theft or murder, but most of us have stolen and killed with the words we have spoken. Think of the idea of stealing a good reputation or killing a portion on one’s soul with nothing more than a few words spoken in haste or on purpose. It happens without thinking in nothing more than daily gossip. Unintended harm, but there just the same. Worse are those malicious words intended not just to hurt, but to do permanent damage. Harsh words, cruel words, false words, deceiving words, they flow too easily from our mouths, and they can never be unsaid.
“Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that,” is my daily confession. Maybe it’s yours also.
If we are to be serious about following Christ, then we have to be serious, that is conscious, about the words we use, because they proclaim not only who we are, but who Jesus is, who God is. The problem is that that too often gets interpreted as an invitation to speak in self sanctimonious, preachy Jesus talk that raises immediate warnings of born again hypocrisy. Maybe that’s why St. Francis is said to have encouraged proclaiming the good news with words only as a last resort.
What I have in mind is more along the lines of speaking in ordinary ways, about ordinary things, in ordinary conversation, bearing in mind that what we say and the way we say it will convey something of what it means to be a follower of Christ, whether or not Jesus is ever mentioned.