Our words carry enormous weight. More than we sometimes think. They often impact people for decades, providing the courage to press on or one more reason to give up.
When I was fourteen, my family moved from Nebraska to Texas. It was the middle of my ninth-grade year. Junior high is always an awkward time, but the move during this critical year made it even more difficult.
I remember walking into the school cafeteria for the first time. I was all by myself. The other kids had the luxury of established friendships. I didn’t know a soul. The cliques were already defined.
After making my way through the serving line, I slid into the nearest open seat. The kids at the table gave me the once-over, wrinkled their noses, and then snickered. I could feel my face getting red with embarrassment. I looked down at my food.
Finally, one of the kids broke the ice. “Man! You have one BIG nose!”
I was mortified. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to cry, but I managed a little laugh—like it didn’t really bother me. But it did.
Every day from that point forward, I would look at myself in the mirror. All I could see was that big fat nose. It dwarfed every other feature. I studied it from every angle, but kept coming back to the same conclusion: I was merely a life support system for a nose. It was my defining feature.
Thankfully, I eventually grew out of this perception. But it literally took me twenty years. Even now, I’m a little self-conscious about it.
It just goes to show you how powerful words can be. A careless word can shape—or misshape—someone’s reality for years to come.
I think that is why Ephesians 4:29 is one of my favorite Bible verses:
Let no unwholesome word 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.
I don’t intend for this to be a sermon. But there are a few key truths here we should all be mindful of, especially if we’re leaders. What are they? This verse provides three characteristics of wholesome speech:
- Wholesome words build people up. This is the meaning of the word “edification.” It’s the same word from which we get “edifice” or building. Other people, the Bible also tells us, are temples (see 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19). As leaders, we have the privilege of working with God to build these living cathedrals.
I love that imagery. It applies to everyone: your overbearing boss, that rude flight attendant, the stressed-out family member, everybody. All of these people have potential, and we have the power to build them up or bring them down.
That power is mostly in our mouths. It takes more than good thoughts and deeds to build people up. The real creative power is in the words we use. This is what it takes to develop the people around us.
Wholesome words are timely. The right words at the wrong time can be just as damaging as the wrong words.
When someone experiences a major setback or disappointment, for example, we need to be careful not to dismiss their pain or frustration. Likewise, it’s usually a bad idea to to lecture about what they could or should have done differently.
Words left unsaid can also be hurtful. I once worked for a man who literally never acknowledged, affirmed, or praised my performance. He only acknowledged my mistakes. An encouraging word would have cost him nothing and meant the the world to me, but he didn’t do it.
As leaders, it takes discernment to know when and if to speak. The right word spoken at the right time can make all the difference for someone.
Wholesome words provide grace. I take this as more than merely being generous or accommodating—though those are both important. I see grace as also the power of God to do His will (see Philippians 2:13). Our words can either empower people and make them want to press on or diminish them and make them want to quit.
I remember going through a horrific business failure. My partner and I lost everything. We didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I had no clue how I was going to provide for my family.
I called my dad, and his words provided grace. They were just what I needed: reassuring, encouraging, confidence-building, and more.
That call was like Red Bull for my soul. It gave me the energy to hang in and keep fighting. And it gave me the grace I needed to do the next right thing for my family, for my business, and for my future.
King Solomon said, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Every day, we are shaping reality for someone by the words that we use with them.
The choice is ours. How will our words impact others?
Question: How have the words of another—positive or negative—impacted your life?