Missouri statehouse lawmakers learned the hard way that words matter. “World Magazine” reported that the Missouri state legislature decided to ban Styrofoam coolers from their rivers. Inexpensive white foam coolers are easily broken, and when discarded, cause unsightly river litter. So they passed a law to ban polypropylene. What they meant to ban was polystyrene. Because the deliberative body almost used the right word, their law resulted in banning Tupperware and plastic containers instead of ice chests! So, for now, if you float a river in Missouri, you can bring cold cuts and cokes in your cheap ice cooler, but will be breaking the law if you bring a Tupperware container of lunch meat! Words matter. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Words matter, and they contain and convey tremendous power, both for good and for harm. For each word on the 720 pages of Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” 1,880 people died during World War II. Words matter.
To some people, words matter only if they get them what they want. Dishonest politicians use words to make extensive promises to woo voters, but often conveniently forget them after the election. Slick salesmen may use words to get you to buy something you don’t want that leaves you with buyers remorse. However, Jesus said, “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36, 37). Imagine—people will be justified or condemned—based on their words!
Solomon wrote, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18). Some words cut and slice, leaving carnage in their wake. Harmful words cut deeply; sometimes they are remembered for a lifetime, altering the thinking and direction of those who heard them. Other words, spoken with grace, compassion and love, can bring healing to a hurting soul. Mere words may fortify others with boldness and courage. Sometimes simple, caring words bring comfort that encourages the downcast surveying his losses. The saving gospel of Christ can be communicated in words. Not only do words matter—they have great potential.
Wise and godly speech have several things in common:
First, wise speech requires care and wisdom. We should be selective and careful in our speech. Proverbs 17:27 and 28 say, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has an excellent spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” The psalmist David wrote “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). Proverbs 13:3 teaches, “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Words should be guarded so they will build up and not tear down people around us. Take time to think before you speak, so your words will not harm. “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28).
Second, wise speech should be truthful, not false or exaggerated. “A trustworthy witness will not lie, but a false witness utters lies” (Prov. 14:5). Always tell the truth. You don’t always have to tell all you know, but what you do say should be truthful. When words matter to us, they can become a blessing to others. Kind words are a creative force that builds up what is good and showers blessings on hearers.
Third, a wise person realizes the power of words. James compared the power of the tongue to the rudder of a great ship. He wrote, “Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (James 3:4-5). Amazingly—hasty, critical or hurtful words spoken scores of years before, can be recalled and still render pain to the recipient. Harsh words may be forgiven, but they are not often forgotten.
Fourth, wise speech should be considerate of others. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly” (Prov. 15:1, 2). When in another’s company, everything you say can soothe hurts or stir up anger. A wise person considers the consequences of his words before they come out of his mouth.
Finally, wise speech is timely. Words spoken at the right time are priceless. “How delightful is a timely word!” (Prov. 14:23). The writer of Proverbs paints a beautiful picture of the positive effect of spoken words: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. Like the cold of snow in the the of harvest is a faithful messenger to those who send him, for he refreshes the soul of his masters” (Prov. 25:11-13).
Let’s determine to speak carefully, truthfully and wisely, so Christ will be glorified and His kingdom extended! Good words are extremely valuable, but cost little. Words matter. Choose yours wisely!