Never mind all that stuff about “words will never hurt me.” Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…words hurt worse. Somehow a full-out beating hurts less than a tongue-lashing. After the bruises have faded, the words remain dug in like daggers. I know people who are still deeply wounded by brutal words launched at them years or even decades before.
No wonder, then, that the Bible so often warns us against angry words. And no wonder, then, that the Bible warns against an angry or bitter heart. Our words are, after all, merely the overflow of the heart so that what the heart believes, the mouth speaks.
But the Bible does not warn only about the words we speak; it also counsels about the words we hear. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes says this: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (7:21-22).
As always, The Preacher speaks a deep truth. I know well that too much of what I say about others is merely idle and inappropriate, and that my words say far more about me than they do about the other person. I speak too often, too freely, and too harshly of others—even of people I love. I don’t even mean a lot of what I say, but somehow I still say it. Jim Winter says, “Many of us would be ashamed if others knew of the things we said about them when they were not there. If we had to explain our action, we would say that we either spoke in a fit of anger; or we did not really mean what we said; or we were simply having a bad day and did not have a good word to say about anyone. This may well have been true, but the damage will have been done.” I always have a handy excuse that can explain it all away.
When I look at my own words, I can easily discern what I really meant and what was just the bitter overflow of a discontent spirit. But, as usual, my self-focused view of the world causes me to miss the obvious. “The thing we must bear in mind is that when people speak ill of us, their explanation would probably be the same! If we are over-sensitive, we will dwell on every word. If we have received the information through a third party, we will dwell on every misquotation.” Even though I know how many idle words I speak, I assume that other people mean every word. I allow myself far greater leeway than I allow others. I excuse myself while condemning them.
The Preacher offers wisdom. He tells me to treat other people’s words just the way I would want them to treat mine—to know that they sin just like I sin, to know that they don’t mean every word anymore than I mean every word. The notes in the MacArthur Study Bible say it well: “Since you have many offensive words to be forgiven, don’t keep strict accounts of other’s offensive words against you.” Or as Spurgeon counsels, “You cannot stop people’s tongues, and therefore the best thing to do is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken. There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and he who takes note of it will have enough to do.” There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and a world of idle chitchat within.
The simple fact is this: I have cursed you, and you have cursed me. We have both sinned and both desperately need to receive and extend the grace of the God who cursed his own Son so we could have forgiveness through him.
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