More Than Sticks & Stones
By Nathan Key
This article is featured at Relevant Magazine
“You’re out, daddy long-legger!” came the taunt as I recoiled from a kickball smashing against my face. I fought back tears, not only because of the injury to my head but also because of the hurt in my heart. It was the nickname that stung most of all. I hadn’t chosen to be awkwardly tall and it seemed cruel of other boys to continually poke fun at my height.
If you grew up in the company of other children, there is a good chance that you, too, were privy to playground name-calling and the subsequent motherly advice that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This well-meaning retort never really did much to disarm bullies. Even as young children we understood that the little ditty was no more than a coping mechanism. Words really can hurt us because they yield more power than sticks and stones could ever possess. So much more, in fact, that a pastor of mine often recited the axiom in this manner instead: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cut right to the heart and can never be taken back.
Words are almost never insignificant. For within our words is an innate ability to call new realities into existence. Don’t believe me? Consider the reality a verbally abusive father creates for his little girl with every insult he hurls. Watch for the moment when a bride and groom proclaim their vows with the words ‘I do.’ Or behold a Judge handing down a ‘guilty’ verdict. Feel the tension in the room- the yearning. In each case, just a few simple words determine a new reality of identity, marriage, or incarceration. With just one utterance, lives are changed forever- for better or worse, richer or poorer.
And if these examples weren’t enough to prove the reality changing power of words, consider two stories from the Bible. The first story appears in the very first paragraph of Genesis. "In the beginning," we see a narrative of God’s spoken word bringing all of creation into existence. “Let there be light,” He proclaimed, and there was light. Then, He spoke the rest of the world into being and all living things with it. God spoke humans into existence, too, and in the process He uniquely crafted us into little representations of His own image, each one of us possessing a similar ability to address creation with our mouths. In the creation story, God literally created reality with words.
This second story occurs as John informs us in his gospel that The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This particular story serves as a means to conjoin the Old and New Testaments together with perfect prose. I love these opening lines in John’s gospel not only because they sum up the Christmas story in a concise theological manner, but also because of the rich symbolism they arouse. In the same way that the spoken words of God brought creation into existence, so also The Word made flesh created a new reality of salvation. Through the power of The Word, the old reality of sacrifice and law was replaced with mercy and grace. The author of Hebrews reiterates this narrative of words when he describes Jesus as the “author… of our faith.” In the salvation story, God literally change reality through The Word.
And once they are expressed, words not only create; they also reveal. Words are windows for us to see deeper into the heart of the one who is speaking. Or to borrow from Matthew’s gospel: “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” In Jesus’ case, The Word made flesh gave us a better picture of who God is. We were finally able to plainly see the heart of God in the reality of creation and salvation. Through Jesus we are able to see the unifying theme that God is speaking and establishing the reality of life. The Word created life and sustains life. The Word provides salvation (which is even more life). The Word reveals that within God’s heart is life, life, and more life. So, Jesus isn’t kidding when he tells His disciples “the words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.”
But where does that leave us? Since we’ve been created in God’s image with this strange ability to affect the world we live in with what we say- what do our own words reveal about who we are? What do the realities that we’re creating disclose about our hearts and our character? As we consider this together, let me share a story that’s been unfolding in my life over the past few weeks.
I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I’m often the first to offer encouragement and exhortation- when a certain colleague of mine enters the office, I’ve been making some cutting remarks that attempt to put her in her place. They’re subtle, like criticizing her for printing out an e-mail or calling her out for grammar usage, but they’re cruel nonetheless. And for some reason I seem to think these remarks will solve my problems. As if an insult would get her to understand that I’m tired of the busy work she piles on my desk from time to time. But, I’m not really lightening the workload when I voice these critical words. I’m merely creating a reality of bitterness and cynicism between us. It actually makes the work that much harder because I’m at odds with her. And although it’s not what I intend, my words betray me. Revealed in my utterances of spite is a heart overflowing with deep-rooted selfishness and anger.
James wrote about this contradiction in his letter. He bluntly pointed out that there’s something suspect about a mouth that pours forth both blessings and curses. He gives us a good metaphor a few verses later when he writes that it’s impossible to draw completely fresh spring water from a brackish reservoir. If blessings and curses are pouring out of our mouths- it’s probably because the source of our words isn’t pure. There’s a warning here for all of us; to consider what we’re using to irrigate our heart and mind. The realities that we create depend on it!
I believe that if we want to begin creating realities that bring truth to the world, we’d do well to begin filling ourselves with “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, or excellent or praiseworthy.” Now, please hear me clearly- I’m not suggesting that this means creating a legalistic set of parameters that ban rated R movies or controversial music from our lives. But I simply think that we should be aware of how things affect us. We must be cognizant of our own words the realities they create. Is what we say creating life or death for those who hear? After a quick personal assessment, we may need to make a few changes. If we’re going to speak words that create life for those who hear us, we must begin by surrounding ourselves with things that create life within ourselves.
To help you do that, here are a few questions you may want to ask yourself:
Is there anything inherently good or bad about it?
A great way fill your heart with goodness, is by running toward what is good and away from what is bad. And while it’s true that the idea of “good” and “bad” may be a bit subjective- it’s an appropriate place to begin because there are some things that automatically scream GOOD or BAD. Not everything is a gray area. For instance: Scripture=Good / Porn Site=Bad. See? Not so hard!
How do I feel after experiencing it?
This particular question is a little tricky because our emotions are so fickle. But there is definitely value in assessing how we feel about what we do and who we meet. I know from personal experience that I can’t watch TV News during election years because political commentary makes me want to punch someone in the head. In the same way, if the movies you watch, music you listen to, books you read, or people you surround yourself with make you feel angst ridden or fearful, you may want to consider spending yourself somewhere else.
Am I gaining more clarity or more confusion?
It’s good to have your worldview shaken up every once in a while. But a good dose of truth should begin to peel away the layers of false reality- not add more. If the things you do and people you interact with are making you less and less confident of what you think and believe, look for people and experiences to involve yourself with that help you understand who you are (and whose you are).
Am I changing because of what I do and who I know?
Stagnation is one of the worst things possible. Try to engage the things that evoke positive change in you. We need to look at art that inspires us and watch movies that make us want to be better people. We need people in our lives that speak truth and encouragement. Neutral goes nowhere, so make sure that what you experience does something to you, drawing you closer and closer to faith, hope, and love.