Probably the weirdest of these phases, though, was my ambition to work for Hallmark as a greeting card writer. I was probably about 10 years old, and it all started when I made a card for my grandfather on his birthday. I don’t remember what it said or even what it looked like, but I do remember his reaction. I coined some sentimental message, and my grandpa LOVED it. He wouldn't stop raving about it and then my dad chimed in, too. I mean, because of their encouragement, I was convinced I was a greeting card prodigy and had found my actual purpose in life. And so I began making greeting cards to send to Hallmark so that they would hire a 10 year old to be a part of their creative department. That’s normal, right? My dad helped me research where to send them, and I also made sure to include my hand-drawn version of the Hallmark logo on the back of each card, to really make it clear and drive the point home. And one day, I dropped these future Hallmark best-sellers in the mail.
I waited. And needless to say, I never heard back. My greeting card dream fizzled out eventually, and it was probably for the best.
It’s a fun, quirky memory, but looking back, I can pinpoint that experience as one of the first times I really understood the power of words. While I don't remember many specifics, I do remember my grandpa’s response to the words in the card and the way they made him feel. And I also remember the sense of encouragement and empowerment I felt through his spoken belief in my abilities.
Words are powerful. They affect us more than we probably give them credit for. They can both build up and tear down. Bring life and cause destruction. And the way we choose to use them, matters.
James certainly knew their power and he dedicated an entire chunk of his letter to the power of the tongue. In The Message translation of James 3: 3-10, we read,
3-5 A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. 7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
Clearly, this passage is talking about the damage a misspoken, lazy word can cause. Or worse, the toll of an intentionally harsh or deriding word. But what James points out is just how big of an impact our words can have. He is obviously warning his readers, but I have to believe that if our tongues are that powerful, if our words can have that much of a negative impact, the opposite must also be true. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant word or message can make a difference.
Let me give you an example from my own life. A week or so ago, I hit a wall emotionally and mentally. I’d been trying my best to be somewhat resilient in the midst of our new, strange reality and I generally held it together pretty well. But one day, I just lost it. The floodgates opened up, and all the anxiety, pressure, insecurity, fear, and discouragement came gushing out. I was a fragile, emotional wreck for a solid 24 hours. I decided I needed a change of scenery, so I put together our weekly grocery list and went to do the shopping. I cried on the way there, stayed composed while I was in the store, and was pretty sure I was going to lose it again right after I loaded the groceries in my car. But before I hit the road, I glanced at my phone.
There were five separate messages from five separate people waiting for me on the screen - all generally out of the blue - and each message contained words I absolutely needed to hear. Or in this case, read. They calmed me down and lifted me up. And I did start to cry again, but this time, they were tears of relief and gratitude.
Their words built me up and spurred me on. Their words changed the trajectory of my thought process. Their words made a difference.
Now, full disclosure: my love language is words of affirmation, so words carry a lot of weight in my world. But even if they aren’t the primary way you feel loved, we’re all affected by words in some way, at some point. We know the sting of criticism, gossip, and malice. We know the comfort of encouragement, reassurance, and conversation. And if our words, even the smallest of them, have the potential to be life-giving, shouldn’t we do our best to be intentional with the ways in which we use them?
Speaking of love languages, there are a couple that don’t presently fit in well. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention love languages, be sure to check out the show notes. (Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages) Physical touch, and in some ways, quality time and even acts of service, are love languages we can’t use the way we normally would in this new (for now) reality. And so, as my writer-friend Kimberly Coyle so eloquently shared, our words are even more powerful, right now. In a recent Instagram post, Kimberly wrote,
“Kind words have a way of restoring us, don’t they? Like manna, they seem to arrive when we are most soul-hungry for them. A well-timed word is sustenance for the weary. And right now, we’re all weary. While we’re distanced from one another, our words carry even more weight and power. What a smile, a handshake, or a hug may have accomplished in the way of feeling loved, understood, or connected, we now must accomplish with words from a great distance.”
I think Kimberly is right. We should always be intentional with our words and generous with the good ones. But if there ever were a time to make good words a priority, that time, is now.
Now I want to be clear. Sometimes, hard words and conversations are necessary and can come from a place of love in the context of a trusted friendship or relationship. And sometimes, our voices will be needed to call out something that does not reflect the character and mission of Jesus. Those words matter, too, and will probably show up in future episodes. But for the purpose of this particular episode, I am choosing to focus on words of encouragement and assurance and motivation.
So what might it look like to be intentional and make our good words a priority?
We think before we speak, or write, or type, or share. And if the words are not coming from a pure and humble place, we might choose to hold our tongue.
If the words add value, offer hope and bring life, we take a leap and use them.
We pay attention to our tone and our motive.
We write the hand-written letter we’ve been putting off for far too long.
We send the text or the email, even if it seems trivial or insignificant.
We make the phone call to check in and start a conversation.
We take a moment to write a review and talk up our favorite local business or restaurant as they struggle during this time.
We offer a prayer, especially when we can’t find the words or don’t know what to say.
If we appreciate someone, we say thank you.
If we love someone, we tell them.
We follow the direction of Hebrews 10:24 and consider how we may use our words to spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
Words are powerful. And so today, remember, your words matter. They have the potential to bring life and to reflect love, joy, hope, peace, comfort, connection, and encouragement. As Proverbs 16:24 says, “ Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” May we choose to use our words well.