Words have an astonishing ability to carve us up, set us on fire, or leave us numb. Those who don't believe me may adhere to the old lie mom told us, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Actually, sticks and stones and broken bones often hurt much less. I've written a great deal about the power of words in other posts and speak regularly about it in my sermons, because the Scriptures do. And, I've seen it born out over and over again–that the tongue is "full of deadly poison." Not all tongues at all times. But all tongues sometimes.
Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. It is an astonishing book about the existential struggles of an aging old bat named Olive Kitteridge. While stunning as a work of literature, it is also one of the most depressing books I've ever read. I think it may only surpassed by 2008's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. When I look back at the history of Pulitzer winners…I see this slouch toward the depressing is a clear bias. But, I digress.
Elizabeth Strout writes of an ugly altercation between Olive and her husband, Henry, during a bank robbery when they were both being held at gunpoint. During it, they said some absolutely awful things to each other. Strout writes:
"They would never get over that night. And it wasn’t because they’d been held hostage in a bathroom—which Andrea Bibber would think was the crisis. No, they would never get over that night because they had said things that altered how they saw each other. And because she had, ever since then, been weeping from a private faucet inside her…"
For those in Christ, grace and forgiveness can triumph no matter how ugly the tirade or how vicious the verbal poison. However, one practical piece of advice Emily and I try to live by is not to say the things that cause either of us to feel the way Strout describes: "No, they would never get over that night because they had said things that altered how they saw each other. And because she had, ever since then, been weeping from a private faucet inside her…"
If you've had a night or two or twenty or fifty like that–you can get over that night. Ask for forgiveness, make sure true reconciliation is sought and wrongs righted as much as possible. Make sure the private faucet inside yourself is firmly capped (for this is one reason people lash out at those they love). And, resolve to fight fairly when you fight. This is relational repentance before God and the other.
Though I'm sure it was rare, mom lied to us on this one. Words can hurt…and they can hurt badly. She also left the second part out. Sticks and stones can't heal anything, but words accompanied by righteous actions and God's grace can.
Let us speak words of grace and truth and encouragement and love to one another. Let even our rebukes be as gentle as possible and as strong as necessary for love and truth to triumph. This goes for words across the coffee table and words that come from the pulpit to a congregation. Words have power. This can be very, very good news.