Preaching the Gospel, Preparing a People

Our Words: Harmful or Helpful?

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Our Words

Harmful or Helpful?

MP3 Audio (11.97 MB)


Our Words: Harmful or Helpful?

MP3 Audio (11.97 MB)

From time to time we need to take a closer look at how we use our words. Our words can harm, but our words can also help. After all, one of the most devastating ways we can sin is with our words.


Our Words: Harmful or Helpful? Joseph Telushkin wrote a book titled, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. At his seminars he will ask “Can you go for 24 hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, anybody?” Invariably, someone will say yes. “I can go for 24 hours without saying any unkind words.” (Perhaps you live alone!) Some people may laugh, but quite a large number would say, “No, I couldn’t go for 24 hours and not say something that might hurt someone.” (Remember that this goes for your words to your spouse, your children, your neighbors, your workmates and your friends! Anybody!) If you were asked to go for 24 hours without drinking liquor, and if you said, “I can’t do that,” then perhaps you have an alcohol problem. Similarly, if we can’t go for 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then we’ve lost control over our words. Think about your own life: Unless you have been the victim of terrible physical violence, chances are the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly. One reason that many people often use words irresponsibly and cruelly is that they regard the injuries inflicted by words as intangible and, therefore, minimize the damage they can inflict. Thus, for generations, children taunted by playmates have been taught to respond, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”

In our hearts, we all know that this saying is untrue! The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse has compiled a list of disparaging comments made by angry parents to children, including: “You’re pathetic. You can’t do anything right.” “You disgust me. Just shut up!” “Hey, stupid. Don’t you know how to listen?” “You’re more trouble than you’re worth.” “Get outta here. I’m sick of looking at your face.” “I wish you were never born.” Does anybody really believe that a child raised with such abuse believes that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me”? As powerful as the capacity of words to hurt is their ability to heal and inspire. The anonymous author of a medieval Jewish text, the Orhot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous), spends pages warning of the great evils routinely committed in speech. “With the tongue one can commit numerous great and mighty transgressions such as informing, talebearing, mockery, flattery and telling lies,” but, he reminds his readers, “with the tongue, one can also perform limitless acts of virtue.” PSALM 34:12-13 Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? 13 Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. This is a key to enjoying life and seeing good fruit. This morning we’re going to take a closer look at our words. During this time of Unleavened Bread, this time of “Sincerity and Truth,” we’ll see how words can harm, but also, how words can help.

I’ve titled this sermon: Our Words: Harmful or Helpful? First: Words That Are Harming Words British philosopher Bertrand Russell once noted: “Nobody ever gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” What is most impressive to most of us about other people is their character flaws and private scandals. Talebearing and slander is often at the root of hurtful words. Many sermons have been given about slander, and I’m going to skip over that here today and look at seven other points for us to consider. After all, one of the most devastating ways we can sin is with our words. This week we are concentrating on putting sin out. We are to be putting on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth—beautiful words. 1. The Danger of Angry Words! The Bible almost always describes romantic love from the male’s perspective. We are told that Isaac loved Rebecca (Genesis 24:67 Genesis 24:67And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.
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), Jacob loved Rachel (Genesis 29:18 Genesis 29:18And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.
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), and Samson loved Delilah (Judges 16:4 Judges 16:4And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.
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). In the entire Bible there is only one woman whose love for a man is recorded: 1 SAMUEL 18:20 Now Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved David.... A short time later, when Michal’s father, afraid that David would usurp the throne, plotted to kill him, she helped David escape by lowering him from a window. She then confused the hired assassins by placing a human image, topped with hair and dressed in clothes, in David’s bed. You may remember the story from 1 Samuel 19. By the time the would‑be killers realized Michal’s ruse, her beloved was far away.

Although the Bible never reports that David reciprocated Michal’s love, we do know that he risked his life in one‑on‑one battle with two hundred Philistines to win Michal’s hand in marriage (1 Samuel 18:25-29 1 Samuel 18:25-29 [25] And Saul said, Thus shall you say to David, The king desires not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king's enemies. But Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines. [26] And when his servants told David these words, it pleased David well to be the king's son in law: and the days were not expired. [27] Why David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king's son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife. [28] And Saul saw and knew that the LORD was with David, and that Michal Saul's daughter loved him. [29] And Saul was yet the more afraid of David; and Saul became David's enemy continually.
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). 1 SAMUEL 18:28 Thus Saul saw and knew that the LORD was with David, and that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him; Later, when David spent years hiding from King Saul, Saul married off Michal, still David’s wife, to another man. Although many husbands would have left a wife who had acquiesced to such an arrangement, when David became king, he restored Michal as his queen. Yet, despite the intense love at their relationship’s outset, David and Michal’s marriage becomes perhaps the saddest in the Bible, and within a few years this once devoted couple were totally estranged. David and Michal both suffered from the same character flaw—a sharp tongue, angry words, which they refused to control when upset. The Bible describes the incident that triggered the end of their love. Ironically, it was a celebration: David was supervising the return to Jerusalem of the Ark of the Lord which the Philistines had captured many years earlier. In an outburst of joy, he danced passionately, even wildly, in front of thousands of his subjects.

Watching the whole scene from a palace window, Michal was disgusted by the spectacle of a monarch carrying on with such abandon. And so when David returned to the palace, she greeted him with cold sarcasm: 2 SAMUEL 6:14-20 Then David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet. 16 Now as the ark of the LORD came into the City of David, Michal, Saul’s daughter, looked through a window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart. 17 So they brought the ark of the LORD, and set it in its place in the midst of the tabernacle that David had erected for it. Then David offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. 18 And when David had finished offering burnt offerings and peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts. 19 Then he distributed among all the people, among the whole multitude of Israel, both the women and the men, to everyone a loaf of bread, a piece of meat, and a cake of raisins. So all the people departed, everyone to his house. 20 Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How glorious was the king of Israel today, uncovering himself today in the eyes of the maids of his servants, as one of the base fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” Were Michal’s withering remarks justified?

Had David truly acted in a manner that diminished the dignity of his office? Perhaps, but whether or not Michal was right, her tactless criticism of her husband on this great day in his life turned the dispute into a gale‑force fury. Michal’s attack, however, was only the first factor in the tragedy that ensued. In the face of his wife’s scorn, David did not remain silent, walk away until the tension eased, or even try to defend his behavior. Instead, he responded with the cruelest counterattack he could muster: 2 SAMUEL 6:21 So David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me instead of your father and all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the LORD, over Israel. Therefore I will play music before the LORD.” David’s words in no way addressed the substance of Michal’s critique. As many of us do when criticized, he went “straight for blood”—attacking the most painful event in Michal’s life—God’s rejection of her father, and his subsequent death, along with three of Michal’s brothers, at the hands of the Philistines. In verse 23, the Bible records: “Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.” Why is Michal’s childlessness recorded at this point? Perhaps because after so brutal an exchange—and there might well have been others—Michal and David were never again intimate.

The Bible’s point is as clear today as it was in 1000 BC: If a husband or wife, or two siblings or friends, do not restrain their words when they are angry, love may not survive, no matter how deeply the two people once cared for each other. The ability to control what we say when we’re angry is a prerequisite for a lasting relationship. Consider whether observing the following rule could have led to a different outcome with David and his queen: “Limit the expression of your anger to the incident that provoked it.” What David did wrong was to attack Michal at her point of greatest vulnerability. His words were calculated to humiliate and devastate his wife. To bring another person’s vulnerability into an argument is wrong. Limit your concerns to the incident that caused your anger! Had David and Michal abided by this rule, they could have fought about the issue that provoked their anger, and their dignity, and hence their relationship, could have remained intact. And of course, we all remember that God is “slow to anger.” Something that we can all learn from Be careful of angry words. 2. The Danger of Keeping Anger Bottled Up While we should not go into a rage, the flip side of expressing disproportionate anger is not expressing it at all. Many of us, when injured, tend to withdraw from the person who has hurt us rather than address the issue. By way of example, note the story of two half brothers, Amnon and Absalom, who were sons of King David. In one of the Bible’s unhappiest episodes, Amnon rapes and then abandons Absalom’s sister Tamar (who is Amnon’s half sister). Afterward, Absalom never confronts his brother: 2 SAMUEL 13:22 And Absalom spoke to his brother Amnon neither good nor bad. For Absalom hated Amnon, because he had forced his sister Tamar. Ultimately, after two years have passed, he arranges to have Amnon murdered!

2 SAMUEL 13:23, 28-29 23 And it came to pass, after two full years, that Absalom had sheepshearers in Baal Hazor, which is near Ephraim; so Absalom invited all the king’s sons. 28 Now Absalom had commanded his servants, saying, “Watch now, when Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, `Strike Amnon!’ then kill him. Do not be afraid. Have I not commanded you? Be courageous and valiant.” 29 So the servants of Absalom did to Amnon as Absalom had commanded. Then all the king’s sons arose, and each one got on his mule and fled. Whether or not Amnon deserved to die is beside the point. But what can be deduced is that a person who remains unnaturally silent when an expression of anger is called for might later explode in murderous rage. Of course, most of us suffer much less grievous provocations and, rather than overreacting to them by killing someone, we nurse our injuries in silence, talk about them to people who cannot help, or inflict our anger on innocent people. The moral? Always address your grievances to their source. Much wisdom still inheres in William Blake’s old 4-line poem: I was angry with my friend I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow. If we have reason to be angry with someone, we should address it with them, and not keep it bottled up. As Paul wrote to the Ephesian brethren: “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26 Ephesians 4:26Be you angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down on your wrath:
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). This implies that we deal with our emotions in a timely fashion, not stew over it for two years as Absalom did, but perhaps take care of it that day—before the sun goes down! There is a time to express our feelings in the appropriate way, without keeping it bottled up.

3. Offering Criticism In our closest relationships, we often have reason, and even the obligation, to offer criticism, whether it is to express justified anger, to protect innocent people from being harmed, or to benefit some other person. Indeed, the Bible includes criticizing those who have done wrong among its 613 commandments: LEVITICUS 19:16–18 ‘You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD. 17* ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. 18 ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. Some scholars interpret the commandment’s words in verse 17, “but incur no guilt because of him,” as obliging one to speak up lest one share in the responsibility for another’s destructive behavior. There are times when we have to speak up, when we have to say something. But it must be done in a loving and kind manner. Love your neighbor as yourself. For example, if a friend is drunk and about to drive a car, this verse obligates you to do everything possible to dissuade him from doing so. Even if you don’t succeed in changing your friend’s behavior, if you don’t make a serious effort to stop him from driving while drunk, you share in the guilt for any injuries he may cause. There is a second interpretation of “incur no guilt because of him” that has been offered by several writers: Although you’re permitted, and sometimes obligated, to reprove another, it is sinful to do so in a demeaning or humiliating way. Something like public humiliation is wrong. The wounds of such situations are very difficult to heal. So, be careful how you offer criticism.

4. Handling Criticism! How do we handle criticism when it is directed toward us? Most of us can tell the difference between unproductive rebukes and well‑intentioned ones. Yet even loving criticism—perhaps especially when it is loving (because it is most inclined to highlight our true faults)—can be a bitter pill to swallow. PROVERBS 28:23 He who rebukes a man will find more favor afterward Than he who flatters with the tongue. Many people, when criticized, fight back by saying, “So you think I have a bad temper? At least it hasn’t alienated my children from me the way yours are alienated from you” or “You think I treated you unfairly in that deal? Well, it so happens that my reputation for honesty is higher than yours. If you think I am exaggerating, maybe we should ask some other people what they think.” Keep in mind that even if our friend possesses the flaws of which we accuse him, so what? If what he says about us is true, the fact that he himself has numerous flaws is irrelevant. We grow by hearing what our friends are saying, and learning to distinguish what’s true from what’s false. We certainly don’t grow if we only listen to people who just offer us praise. PROVERBS 10:17 He who keeps instruction is in the way of life, But he who refuses correction goes astray. PROVERBS 12:1 Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, But he who hates correction is stupid. PROVERB 9:8 ... rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.

Of course, there’s a good chance that the person criticizing us has numerous faults—indeed, they might even be guilty of the very flaw that they’re pointing out in us. But we should quash such thoughts as What gives her the right to criticize me? Look at her fangs. Instead, we should ask: “Is what she is saying true?” Even if the point is exaggerated, that is no excuse to reject everything that is said. Instead, we should ask: “Is there some validity in the criticism? Can I take what is said, and use it to improve myself?” Only someone who is already perfect doesn’t need to learn how to accept criticism—but that certainly doesn’t include us! 5. Words With Our Children A European scholar, Johann Paul Friedrich, wrote two centuries ago: “If a child tells a lie, tell him that he has told a lie, but don’t call him a liar. If you define him as a liar, you break down his confidence in his own character.” By restricting criticism to a specific bad act, a parent is unlikely to damage a child’s self‑worth. It reminds me of our suggestion to King David and his queen: “Limit the expression of your criticism to the incident that provoked it.” Admittedly, finding the perfect mean between being critical but not overly uncritical is difficult, but the alternative choice of many parents—vacillating between broad and destructive comments, and tolerating behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated—is far worse. Parents commonly err not only in criticizing harshly, but also in forgetting to praise. It doesn’t matter how old our kids are, they still need kind words.

In Signs of the Times, the religious writer Gottfried von Kronenberger relates an incident about a young mother who confessed to her pastor: “My little boy often misbehaves, and I have to scold him. But one day he had been especially good. That night, after I tucked him in bed and started downstairs, I heard him crying. I found his head buried in the pillow. Between sobs he asked, ‘Mommy, haven’t I been a pretty good boy today?’ “That question went through me like a knife,” the mother told her pastor. “I had been quick to correct him when wrong, but when he had behaved, I hadn’t noticed. I had put him to bed without a word of praise.” I am reminded of the time as a young boy, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, when I had had a particularly bad week, with spankings every day for being disobedient. I determined that this particular day I was going to be perfect! At the very end of the day, when going to bed, I had successfully avoided any spankings. When my mum put me to bed she scolded me for something, I don’t remember what for. But I was mortified that she hadn’t noticed that I had been very good the whole rest of the day! Parents words can be so much more powerful than we realize! The common parental formula of “heavy on the criticism and light on the praise” causes children to go through life feeling inadequate as human beings and unworthy of being loved. One psychologist advises mothers and fathers: “If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others.”

COLOSSIANS 3:20-21 Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Another way in which many parents verbally wound their children is through comparisons: “Your brother never spills things. He tries to be careful. Why don’t you?” or, “Your sister always says ‘please,’ and ‘thank you.’ I wish you would be polite and considerate like her.” or, “Your brother and sister don’t get into trouble in school. You’re the only one who’s always causing us aggravation.” These sorts of comparisons spring to the lips of many parents. How many women would appreciate being told by their husbands, “Tom’s wife, Mary, also has a full‑time job, yet she doesn’t go around complaining all the time how overworked she is”? And how many men would like to hear their bosses say, “If you could only learn to be more like Bill, and be more precise and innovative in your work”? In addition, comparing children undermines family unity. This type of competition rarely brings out the best in anyone, and increases the likelihood that such children will not be close to each other when they grow up. The Bible tells us that Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons, and made no effort to disguise his favoritism. He even had a special and exceedingly beautiful coat of many colors woven for Joseph.

GENESIS 37:3-4, 19-20 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. Also he made him a tunic of many colors. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him. 19 Then they said to one another, “Look, this dreamer is coming! 20 “Come therefore, let us now kill him and cast him into some pit; and we shall say, `Some wild beast has devoured him.’ We shall see what will become of his dreams!” This, and other acts of favoritism, helped inflame Jacob’s other sons against Joseph, and eventually they sold him as a slave into Egypt, telling their father that a wild animal had killed him. Many children grow up having been deeply hurt by their parents’ words; by the time they become adolescents and adults, many have learned how to fight back—also with words. Usually, they are quite successful at hurting their parents in turn, although the greater their success, the more pain they usually cause themselves. In his My Daddy Was a Pistol, and I’m a Son of a Gun, the late Lewis Grizzard recalls going through his father’s meager possessions at the hospital where he died. In the dead man’s coat, Grizzard found a letter that his dad had evidently been carrying for a long time: “It was a letter from me. I had written it six months before. It was short, maybe a page, typewritten. Down at the end, I had given him some grief about straightening out his life. I told him I would have to think twice about inviting him to my house again if he didn’t promise he wouldn’t show up drinking. I’d just signed my name. I didn’t say ‘love’ or anything. I had just signed like I was real [hardnosed]. I still wonder why he carried such a letter around with him for so long. Maybe he kept it as a reminder to do better. I don’t know. Maybe he kept it to remind himself his only son was turning on him. Whatever, I never forgave myself for that letter. I can’t get it out of my head he died not knowing how much I loved him.”

Look at this passage from Thessalonians that shows how parents and children are to interact: 1 THESSALONIANS 2:10-12 You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; 11 as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, 12 that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. Secondly: Words That Are Helping Words 6. Kind Words Art Buchwald, the humorist, wrote an excellent column about saying a few kind words. It’s reprinted in a book called The World of the High Holy Days by Jack Riemer. Let me read you a quote from it: I was in New York the other day and rode with a friend in a taxi. When we got out, my friend said to the driver, “Thank you for the ride. You did a superb job of driving. “ The taxi driver was stunned for a second. Then he said, “Are you a wise guy or something?” “No, my dear man, and I’m not putting you on. I admire the way you keep cool in heavy traffic.” “ “Yeh, “ the driver said and drove off “What was that all about?” I asked. “I am trying to bring love back to New York, “ he said. “I believe it’s the only thing that can save the city.” “How can one man save New York?” “It’s not one man. I believe I have made the taxi driver’s day. Suppose; he has twenty fares. He’s going to be nice to those twenty fares because someone was nice to him. Those fares in turn will be kinder to their employees or shop‑keepers or waiters or even their own families. Eventually the goodwill could spread to at least 1,000 people. Now that isn’t bad, is it?” “But you’re depending on that taxi driver to pass your goodwill to others. “ “I’m not depending on it,” my friend said. “I’m aware that the system isn’t foolproof so I might deal with ten different people today. If, out of ten, I can make three happy, then eventually I can indirectly influence the attitudes of 3,000 more.” ....”You’re some kind of a nut,” I said.... “You just winked at a very plain looking woman.” “Yes, I know,” he replied. “And if she’s a schoolteacher, her class will be in for a fantastic day.” Look at these two proverbs about kind words.

PROVERBS 19:22 What is desired in a man is kindness, And a poor man is better than a liar. PROVERBS 31:26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, And on her tongue is the law of kindness. Although most of us recognize the healing potential of words, we are often stingy about offering them. Also reprinted in the book called The World of the High Holy Days by Jack Riemer, is a poem,”Things You Didn’t Do,” describing the regrets of a woman who realized too late how stingy she had been in sharing her gratitude: Remember the day I borrowed your brand new car and dented it? I thought you’d kill me—but you didn’t. And remember the time I dragged you to the beach, and you said it would rain, and it did? I thought you would say, “I told you so, “—but you didn’t. And remember the time I flirted with all the guys to make you jealous—and you were? I thought you’d leave me—but you didn’t. And remember the time I spilled blueberry pie all over your brand new rug? I thought you’d drop me for sure—but you didn’t.... Yes, there are lots of things you didn’t do, But you put up with me, and you loved me, and you protected me; And there were so many things I wanted to make up to you when you returned from the war—but you didn’t.

2 THESSALONIANS 1:3 We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, Don’t forget the value of kind words, before it’s too late. 7. Saying “I’m Sorry” One additional, indispensable phrase to any person who wishes to heal the hurt that he or she might have caused someone is “I’m sorry!” Yet, for many people, “I’m sorry” are the hardest words to say. Apologizing means acknowledging that one has been wrong. We have all heard of feuds between siblings or close friends, quarrels that have lasted for years and which could have been brought to an immediate end if only one side had said, “I’m sorry.” The Hatfields and the McCoys! Think of someone who has made you angry. In most cases, if that person suddenly came to your house, and sincerely expressed his remorse and sorrow at the hurt he had caused you, could you really remain unmoved? It takes humility to apologize. ISAIAH 57:15 For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones. It takes humility to admit being wrong, and to apologize. God appreciates such an attitude. Conclusion Anger is a very common, powerful emotion. Yet as difficult as it is to control what makes us angry, we can generally control how we express our feelings. If we have made comments while angry that we subsequently regretted, or that might have ended a relationship, observing a simple rule may well guarantee that we never do so again: Limit the expression of your anger to the incident that provoked it. Above all, remember that the most important person with whom you should speak is the one with whom you’re angry.

Regarding criticism: We should regard those who criticize us fairly and constructively with the same gratitude we feel toward a physician who accurately diagnoses an ailment. Without the diagnosis, we would remain sick and likely grow sicker; without our friend’s words, we might deteriorate ethically. So when someone criticizes you, resist the temptation to point out similar or other flaws in them, whether they exist or not. Instead, ask yourself: “Is what she is saying true? Can I take what was has said and use it to improve myself?” And finally, remember to praise our children when appropriate, to balance out those times when we must be corrective. And use those kind, healing words that can make a person’s day—including “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry.” The scriptures are filled with such admonitions that we can take to heart during the days of Unleavened Bread. This week we are concentrating on putting sin out. We are to be putting on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth—beautiful words. Let’s see how much progress we can make this week!