Standing at the bookshelf, looking at a picture of my friend with their family, I uttered the words, “Wow. You really have lost weight.” A defeated look crossed my friend’s face, and I immediately realized I should not have said that. It was as if I had acknowledged some deep inner truth that my friend had been overweight. Like toothpaste squeezed from a tube, my words could not be put back into my mouth, as if I had never said them.
That’s the way it is with words. I have lost track of the number of times I spoke and wished I had not. To a loved one or friend. To a colleague or student. The occasions when my words were spewed in anger or stress remain the regrets I am not able to undo. In place of words that cut like a knife, I should have spoken words that affirmed and built up those whom I care about. Then there were the times when I should not have shared a story in order to get my two-cents worth in, or to “one up” the speaker with a story in a similar vein. By doing this, I devalued their story instead affirming it.
Just as damaging to people are the times when I did not vocalize and should have. Oh how I wished I had taken the time to ask questions and clarify in order to prevent assumptions or misunderstandings. In hindsight, there are moments I should have gone to a person’s aid who was being criticized or ostracized. Yet I know it is impossible to go back and redo. Learning from my mishaps and moving forward with better intentions is the best I can do.
Of all the things in my life, my word is one of the most valuable and powerful. If I spend my time speaking without thinking, I am likely to get myself into a heap of trouble, hurt someone’s feelings, or least embarrass myself. I find that as I rehash in my mind what I said to my friend about their weight, the sting of the words fester in my gut. And so I search my heart and mind for how to make it right again. It’s so much better to keep those hurtful words inside. To try each day to think before I speak. When I call on help from the Creator before I spew words, I find it can save me from being hurtful to others.
So I pause for a few seconds in order to calm my spirit. Taking a moment to breath deeply reminds me to call on the One who can save me from my hasty actions. It also reminds me that scripture has much to say about the words we choose. Especially helpful is Ephesians 4:29-32. “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. Put aside all bitterness, anger, shouting, and slander. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.” (CEB) When I remember to use words that will build up others in love, then I will likely not carry around the guilt feeling for having said something hurtful.
I seek out wisdom from Jesus as I discern those times when saying nothing may be the best course of action. Just before His death, when Jesus was standing before the council being falsely accused, He knew this was a time for silence. (Matthew 26) Even as Jesus was dying on the cross, He chose to speak very little. While it was within Jesus’ power to speak words that would have saved Him from this horrible death, He accepted His fate as Savior of the world. (Matthew 27) You see, Jesus had spoken carefully chosen words during the course of His three years of ministry. The time for teaching words was over, and God would have the final word.
I realize the interactions and conversations in my life are clearly not a comparison to Jesus’ suffering. And, I also realize I have much to learn as I study scripture and choose wisely when, where and what to say. My words, when put in God’s hands through prayer, will have the best possible outcome when delivered to the people in my life. The author of the Book of James was wisely informed. “Know this, my dear sisters and brothers: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the Word planted deep inside you—the very Word that is able to save you.” (1:19-21, CEB)
FOR FURTHER THOUGHT