My 12-year-old tells us of how at school there is a practice of "burns". Burns are insults intended (so they say) to be humorous. They make a sharp comment, someone feels stupid, hurt or embarrassed and the other kids laugh saying 'You just got burned!" And sometimes, after a scathing burn, they follow up with "just kidding" like that is to make the cruel thing they just said somehow better.
A Christian’s speech should bless, not berate or abuse. The tongue betrays the world that is in one’s heart; it is a microcosm of the inner self.” - Richard Foster
Whether harsh words are intended as comedy or from those who feel it's their calling to set other folks straight, when our words aren't thoughtful and life-giving they don't produce anything healthy. Practicing speaking words of life retrains our brains to do so and can bring genuine encouragement to do better for all involved.
But we all say things that are not very thoughtful. Somedays it seems like the only time I open my mouth is to change feet. When I clue in that I have spouted-off, I almost always think back to my summers as a kid on my uncle's farm. Specifically, I remember a ceramic wall hanging with a folksy saying. I remember it because it was hung right by the door and on more than one occasion it was brought to my attention. It was a cartoon of a farmer on a tractor that was quite obviously out of control. The caption read:
“Be sure your brain is in gear before engaging your mouth!”
The words we say are surprisingly powerful despite “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!” we are told as kids. The truth is many of us have been hurt by the careless words of others, and truth be told, we too have probably inflicted others with our fair share of hurtful words. Consider some ancient wisdom from a book called Proverbs - a compilation of many wisdom writers edited and compiled from 715 - 686 B.C:
“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21
"Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider that a great forest is set on fire by a small spark." (James 3:5)
As Proverbs 18:21 suggests we can speak life and these life-inspiring words can be a tree of life and promote health (Proverbs 15). The words that are life-giving are true, kind helpful, inspiring, and encouraging. They are life-giving because of the way they encourage us deeper towards wholeness, our best work and towards acts of great love.
I like what Jesus said: what we speak (and how we say it) can be a good indication of what is happening in our hearts (Mt:12:34). Angry, sarcastic, cutting words, even when we are just kidding are almost always a sign of pain in our own lives and worth taking a look at.
This doesn’t mean our words need to be fluffy, bubblegum, rainbows and unicorns - rather our words need to be truthful AND loving. This, however, doesn’t give us permission in our self-righteousness to hack and slash others! Honesty is only a virtue to the extent that leads to making things beautiful.
I came across this acrostic that I think is a good way to test our words.
T - is it True? Sounds simple enough but be careful you are not stating an opinion as if it were gospel truth!
H - is it Helpful? Will your words bring genuine, needed help to a situation or just piling-on?
I - is it Inspiring? Will our words inspire greater love, deeper meaning, better performance, perseverance or healthier thinking and behavior?
N - is it Necessary? Do you have to say it? Sometimes its best to be silent and not re-state the obvious.
K - is it Kind? Is the fruit it will produce good?
Take a few minutes to reflect on a challenging conversation or two you have had recently. Pay attention not only to what you said and how you said it but what you felt in the midst of it.
- Is there something you need to address in yourself?
- Prayerfully ask the Father for grace and insight in those areas.
In what ways can we speak life to those around us? To our spouse, children, employers, employees, etc?
In what practical ways can we integrate T.H.I.N.K. into our lives and interaction with others?