I wish I could invent a way to tie a string to the words I say so that if I say sometime stupid, hurtful, or offensive, I could just pull them back in before anyone hears.
Have you ever felt that way? If I could invent it, I bet you'd buy it. I bet I’d become so rich that I could buy out Warren Buffet.
The other day, I was sitting in a class on Sunday morning at church when one of those moments came around. A friend of mine was sharing a lengthy comment on the subject we were discussing when all at once a horn began to sound outside. It kept going off and my friend continued to share for several more seconds before some of the guys jumped up to see what the noise was all about. It didn’t seem to be much of anything important, so everyone came back to their seats. Someone was commenting on how it was under control, but I said:
“I thought it was just someone trying to get (my friend) to stop talking.”
Folks laughed. My friend seemed to not be overly bothered. But, immediately I wished I had not spoken. I wished that I had the ability to reel the words right back in.
Words are powerful things. Words have consequences. Words can change things…for good or ill. Think Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech. Think Hitler in pre-WWII Germany. Good or ill.
That event from Sunday reminded me of a story from my days in the youth group as a teen in Muncie. I can’t remember if I was a junior or senior at the time, but I was regarded as a leader among the teens. I knew that, but often my insecurities took control and I tried to be funny to win the other teens’ approval through their laughter. Usually, those attempts at humor were harmless…although I suspect they were likely quite obnoxious too. However, there was one time when I said something so horrible that I still cringe when I think about it today.
I’m going to share it with you now.
It was “Monday Night Fellowship.” That was our youth group’s weekly teen event. It was held at a different family’s home each time we met, but I don’t recall where we were that particular week. We all loved those nights together! We had so much fun playing games, singing songs, and learning from our youth minister’s devotionals. I have so many memories from those days! Wow.
Monday Night Fellowship was also the one event where we could bring friends and be assured that they would have a good time. It was an outreach event for our group. It was not uncommon for new kids to show up on any given Monday.
On the night of my big mouth, Kristi had brought a friend, a girl from her school. In general, I remember that she was very friendly, and out-going, and sort of cute. However, she had one rather prominent feature that was overtly apparent to everyone in the room. Fortunately almost everyone had the good sense to keep their mouths shut and their thoughts to themselves. Almost everyone.
Everyone but me.
During the devotional, our youth minister, Neil was sharing a message…I don’t recall the overall gist, but in the message we were asked to say something encouraging about someone else in the room.
“Look around the room,” he said. “Share something encouraging about someone.”
Enter me…and my personal insecurities blanketed in a need to be funny.
I looked around. I spotted the cute, out-going, visiting girl with the prominent feature, and with impeccable timing, I said: “She has a big nose!”
Looking back, I just don’t understand how I could say something like that. Why would I put the need to be funny so far ahead of any sense of common decency? Was it some twisted, adolescent attempt at flirting? I am still ashamed to this very moment.
The room went dead silent for what seemed like eons, but was probably only about long enough for Neil to connect his brain to his mouth and say: “THAT WAS UNCALLED FOR! I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANYTHING LIKE THAT FROM YOU EVER AGAIN!”
My shame was immediate and deserved and I withdrew into myself for the rest of the evening out of humiliation. I can’t recall if I ever apologized. I sure hope I did, but that wouldn’t have made the girl’s pain and embarrassment any less.
But, here’s the thing. I never saw that girl again. That, maybe is the worst thing about this. My words severed the potential of relationships between that girl and our group and our church. Perhaps we could have been great friends, but my words spoiled it all. Who knows what lasting effects that event has had? Who knows what the downstream consequences have been?
Words are powerful things. Words matter.
In the Bible, in the book of James, the writer says: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” James 1:26I wonder how often our religious words have a similar effect on folks as my thoughtless words had on that girl so many years ago?
Obviously, from the story I told at the outset of this article, I have not yet mastered my mouth. Unfortunately, I still have a tendency to want the approval of others that can be found in their laughter, and that need comes out occasionally in a rather sharp, sarcastic manner. I am a work in progress, but my highest goal these days is to use my words in meaningful ways. To help and not to harm. To build up and not to tear down.
I like to think that I follow that positive course much more than I used to.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29
I was thinking about the story of my hurtful words tonight while perusing the vast amount of words bantered around on Facebook. This person hates that public figure. That person is standing up against that terrible social wrong. There’s another vulgar joke. Again, there is another hateful rant against this group or that group. Many of the words are strong, but how many are truly meaningful and meant to build up rather than to tear down? How many are meant to show love to one another? You be the judge.
If I had the chance today to stand in humility before that girl from so many years ago, I would tell her how sorry I truly am. May I NEVER again have the need to apologize like that to anyone.
Words have power. Your words matter. Be meaningful, helpful, and encouraging to someone WITH YOUR WORDS every chance you get. You can make a positive difference in someone’s life.
The world can be moved with strong, loving, meaningful words; yours and mine. Be mindful of your power.
Your humbled blogger,