Sticks & Stones: Restraining Rotten Words

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

This little song is a lie, albeit a well-intentioned one. While I am sure that the heart behind the song is a desire to give children a way to deal with the sting of words, it does just the opposite. It teaches children that words are light, powerless and fleeting when, in fact and experience, they are quite the opposite.

Words have the power to build up and bolster courage and beauty, but they also have a lethal power to destroy and deeply maim. All of us have been on both the giving and receiving ends of these two powerful realities.

“Build up words” is a catch phrase used often in our home, taken directly from Ephesians 4:29.

Let no unwholesome words proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. 

The Greek word translated unwholesome is sapros, which literally means “rotten, over-ripe, over-done” and conjures an appropriate image of nasty, foul-smelling fruit.

The Greek word translated proceed is  ekporeuomai, which literally means “to journey out from” and emphasizes the outcome, the end-product of the journey.  I love how that meaning adds depth to what Paul is writing.

Paul is saying, in essence, “Let no rotten words journey up from your heart and out through your mouth if the end-product will be destruction and pain.”

I love how frank God is with us in His word. He knows our frames and our faltering condition; He knows that our hearts are factories for both life-giving, beautiful words and nasty, rotten words unfit for speaking. We have divided hearts and we can create some rotten thoughts, feelings and words.

The question, then, becomes, what are we to do with these rotten words?  Will we allow them to be passed through the deadly assembly line from the heart through the mouth to the hearer? If not, how do we deal with them?

When rotten words are on the edge of our tongues, we must do truly radical work, which means we must look for the root of that rottenness in our hearts.  When nasty behavior or language start to rear their ugly heads, I ask my boys and myself the question, “What’s going on in your heart right now?”

Oftentimes my rotten words come from a heart that is fretting and fuming, too busy, too envious, too threatened. But particulars aside, they always proceed out of a heart that needs a fresh application the good news of the gospel.

Once we have done the radical work of figuring out why our words are rotting, we will have to assess the next steps. Sometimes we realize that the fault was all ours; sometimes we can overlook a wrong or a particular circumstance; other times we must follow the Matthew 18 protocol. Once we have dealt with the rottenness in our heart through the gospel, we will be able to assess what edifying, life-giving words must be used, even if that means a gracious rebuke.

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of the sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

Build-up words don’t always have to be saccharine sweet. Sometimes the words that give healing grace for the moment are the words of a loving rebuke or correction. But loving correction can never proceed from a rotten heart.

When we blow it, when they blow it, and rotten words wreak their havoc, we will have an opportunity to demonstrate the power of words by saying and modeling two phrases: “I am sorry” and “You are forgiven.” Thus we shall continue until the day when our rotten hearts are completely uprooted and only the language of life will proceed from our lips.

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