“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
How many of us believe this lie? Even worse, how many of us perpetuate it? We feebly recite this ditty to our children while remembering the scars of our own verbal wounds.
But this convenient untruth is not just for kids. In the age of social media—the age of the soundbite—disagreements about politics, policy, race, and patriotism are everywhere. We can be tempted to think that stridently airing our opinions is not harmful. But all too often when engaging those who disagree, we do not seek conversion, compassion, or understanding. We seek victory.
And so our words become weapons.
From Genesis to Revelation, we can trace the power of words.
The creation of the universe began with words: “’Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Gen. 1:3).
Humanity fell into sin because Eve dared to exchange words with the father of lies (John 8:4), wrapped in the skin of a snake. Craftily he placed doubt in her mind with words: “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Gen. 3:1). Then his words provoked pride: “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:6).
After the fall, God’s words cursed Adam, Eve, the earth, and the snake (Gen. 3:14–24). Then his words proclaimed the gospel, pointing the first sinners to the hope of a Savior: “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
And so it continues. Throughout the Old Testament, words altered individuals, families, and nations. The scheming words of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Rebekah devastated families.
But God also uses words for great good. The Hebrew midwives and Rahab the prostitute spoke words to preserve life (Ex. 1:15–21; Josh. 2). God even used a chatty donkey to capture the attention of a wicked prophet too blinded by his own ambition to see death approaching (Num. 22:22-35).
The Lord used the prayerful words of his people to bring rain and famine, healing and death, deliverance and destruction.
Heed His Words
Biblical narratives demonstrate the power of words, and God also gives us explicit teaching about how we should wield their power.
This teaching is necessary. Perhaps you have witnessed or even participated in a discussion that hastily goes awry, hijacked by pride or irrationality. As the conversation deteriorates, it becomes evident that its purpose isn’t to seek understanding, but to prove something. The participants use words to demonstrate their intelligence, perceived superiority, or rightness. But they produce the opposite effect—revealing their own foolishness. Solomon warned us about this: “Even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent—discerning, when he seals his lips” (Prov. 17:28).
Words can be lethal. Constant vitriolic words spewed from a caustic heart (Matt. 15:18) not only destroy the speaker but often leave a trail of broken relationships and embittered people.
When we tear others down with our words, we also grieve the Holy Spirit. Instead we should say “only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). We should speak words that give life.
Consider how “I’m sorry, please forgive me” restores a relationship and makes it stronger. Think about the well-timed compliment or encouragement that “is like gold apples in silver settings” (Prov. 25:11). Ponder the helpful words in a speech, sermon, conversation, or book that inspired you to dream, pursue, create, or build.
Indeed, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21).
Word Made Flesh
The greatest testimony to the power of words is the reality that our faith depends on the the Word made flesh (John 1:1–3, 14).
The Word was present with his Father in the beginning, and brought this universe into being. Two thousand years ago the Word emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and humbly dying on the cross (Phil. 2:5–8). And Christ’s final words, “It is finished,” declared his completed redeeming work for all who would come to him by faith (John 19:30).
Our faith comes from hearing the gospel preached—with words (Rom. 10:17). And this faith in the heart is then confessed with the mouth (Rom. 10:8–10).
In the present age, people will continue to use words to hurt and tear down. But by faith we look forward to that day when the Word himself returns and recreates a new world, where all words bring life.