“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

I don’t know whether my mother taught it to me or whether I learned it from some of the neighborhood kids, but this proverbial saying was my childhood go-to position whenever someone said something mean to me. Repeating these words brought me some kind of immediate comfort, but it didn’t erase the words from my memory or the their scars from my inner soul. It took years for me to realize this fully, but the proverb is a lie. Negative words do hurt us, and the hurt can stay with us throughout our lives.

One of our Biblical proverbs tells the truth about words:

“The tongue can speak words that bring life or death. Those who love to talk must be ready to accept what it brings.” (Proverbs 18:21, English Revised Version)

This tells me that every time I open my mouth to speak to another person, I have the power to bring more life to her/him or more death. This is a great responsibility.

When little Johnny puts on the baseball mitt he got for Christmas and throws a ball to his father, dad’s first words may shape his life. If he looks disappointed and says, “Is that the best you’ve got?” he may set the course for Johnny to doubt his athletic abilities from then on. But if he says, “Great throw; what an arm,” he may be planting the seed for a professional pitching career with the Dodgers.

One year when I was in college, Chuck, Bill and I kind of hung out together. During some light-hearted teasing, Chuck pointed out that Bill’s nose was too big for his face. From then on, he stopped calling him Bill and addressed him as “Nose.” Now, Chuck was on the heavy side, and Bill noticed that his ankles were, by contrast, rather slim and ladylike. Chuck’s name soon became “Ankles.” I thought all of this was kind of funny, until the two of them started looking me over. Finally they settled on this: my browline protrudes the way we see on skulls of cro magnon pre-humans, so my name became “Crow.”

This didn’t last very long, because none of us cared much for our new names. Each of us began to sense how the others felt when we used the unkind nicknames through the twinge of pain we experienced when we heard our own. It seems kind of silly, but I still find myself noticing my cro-magnon-ish brows when I look in a mirror. I’ve been hit by sticks and stones, but those hurts go away pretty quickly. Hurts from words tend to stay with us a lot longer.

Another Biblical proverb expresses the flip side:

“Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” (Proverbs¬†16:24)

Just as there is power in negative words, positive words can have an unbelievable effect in building up a person’s sense of self-worth and personal destiny. Think of the formative words of Jesus to Peter, one of his fumbling, floundering disciples:

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)

Through these words, Jesus transformed a person who had betrayed him a few weeks before into a key leader who would take his church through the horrible persecutions of its early years. I’m glad Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “You loser; can’t you ever do anything right?”.

— Pastor George Van Alstine