When I was a child, one of the earliest phrases I ever remember being taught to me by my parents, was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It is quite likely that you may have also heard this statement during your own childhood. This simple idiom is often expressed to children in order to help them try to learn that verbal attacks, those unpleasant words spoken to them or about them, cannot hurt them as much as physical attacks that may result in broken bones.
No one seems to know exactly where this idiom was first stated. The earliest known source that I was able to locate is in the official newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, The Christian Recorder, March 1862, where it states, “Remember the old adage, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.’” However, even this publication simply cites, “the old adage,” without pointing to the source.
The fact is, words do hurt!
While the idiom may be an attempt to help a child deal with the hurt caused by name-calling, deep down we all know that this idiom is not entirely accurate. The fact is, words do hurt! More often, broken bones heal much quicker than the wounds from hurtful words. Some people will struggle their entire lives from the aftermath of something said to them or about them.
The words we use, the tone and volume in which they are delivered, the innuendo implied or an out-and-out lie can destroy a person’s character, reputation or self-esteem. Conversely, the words we use can build up, praise, encourage strengthen and show mercy. Thus, the words we use can be a stumbling block or footstool, they can hurt people or lift them up. Words can sow discord or bring about peace.
The Ninth Commandment does not merely say “you shall not lie,” it says, “you shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16). Bearing false witness includes lying, but also much more. It includes not telling the whole truth, repeating something you heard without finding out if it is true, or making a statement with the intent to create a false impression. The Ninth Commandment has to do with being careful to consider every word we speak, knowing that we will have to give an answer for every idle word spoken (Matthew 12:36).
In the wilderness, the children of Israel experienced some of the greatest manifestations of God, yet they grumbled and complained. In fact, the apostle Paul states, in his letter to the church in Corinth, that some of the Israelites died because of their constant murmuring and complaining (1 Corinthians 1:10). Therefore we see that there is power in the spoken word, but there is accountability as well.
We read about six things the Lord hates listed in the books of Proverbs, and a seventh item listed as an abomination (Proverbs 6:16-19). A careful look at the list reveals that three of the seven items involve the improper use of our words, what we say or how we say them. A lying tongue, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.
Let’s pause and consider the meaning of sowing discord. Sowing discord, is not limited to someone who is engaged in a regular, active, ongoing pattern of stirring up dissention. The Hebrew word for “sows” is salah, which means to send forth, to send away, to let loose, to shoot forth (The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament, 2003, p.1146). There is imagery here of “launching” or sending on its way, more-so than the thought of one who would be involved in active, ongoing behavior. This word is used in 1 Samuel 20 to describe the action of shooting an arrow (1 Samuel 20:2), which is a single action that launches an arrow on its trajectory.
The Hebrew word for “discord” is madon, which means strife or dissention. “It refers to a quarrel or dispute that cannot be stopped once it starts” (The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament, 2003, p.571).
Never underestimate the importance of your words. God wants our words to build up, to edify, to encourage, not tear down or discourage.
So as we put these two definitions together, we can see that an individual who sows discord is someone who launches, or sends it on its way, a quarrel or dispute that cannot be stopped once it starts. It is not limited to one who has ongoing, active involvement in stirring up trouble. Sowing discord could be the result of a single statement.
Sometimes a person deliberately sows discord—that is their intended purpose. Other people may unintentionally be responsible for sowing discord, possibly the result of someone passing by a conversation and overhearing a single statement, but the result is the same—hurt, damage, discord. Whether deliberate or accidental, the person making the statement is now accountable for having sown discord. So we see that we must be careful with every word we speak.
Another quote I heard some years ago that is worth remembering is, “Words are like fire, they can warm your house or burn it to the ground.” Do our words bring warmth to the house of God, or try to burn it down? The adversary will continue to launch fiery darts at individuals and the church as a whole, in an attempt to burn down the house (Ephesians 6:16). Let’s be sure that we are not inadvertently participating in this attack.
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he instructed Timothy to remind the brethren not to strive about words to no profit, and to shun profane and idle babblings because they only lead to more ungodliness (2 Timothy 2:14,16). In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).
A principal reason for us to gather together on the Sabbath and Holy Days, is not to strive or contend over words to no profit, but rather that we “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).
Never underestimate the importance of your words. God wants our words to build up, to edify, to encourage, not tear down or discourage. As Solomon wrote: “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, Sweetness to the soul and health to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).