The Need for Gracious Words
In Colossians 4:6 Paul give us a lovingly wonderful piece of guidance: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”
It seems to me that Paul’s advice here grows out of his own personal struggle with ungracious speech. In our earliest introduction to Paul in the Bible, he is going along with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples (Acts 9:1), and pursuing Christians to lock them in jail (Acts 9:2). Nothing gracious there! Even following his conversion (Acts 9), he called Simon Peter a hypocrite (Galatians 2:11-13), and he got into arguments with John Mark and Barnabas that split them apart (Acts 15:36-39). In Philippians 3:2 he called his opponents “dogs” and “evildoers.” In Galatians 5:12 he expresses a wish that those who push circumcision would castrate themselves. And in Galatians 1:9 he pronounces a curse on anyone who preaches a different gospel than his. Again, not the epitome of graciousness. Moreover, Paul was the frequent recipient of attacks and slander.
Perhaps Paul challenges us toward gracious speech because he knows well from his own experience how difficult it is, how destructive harsh words can be, and how life-giving gracious words can be.
Dr. R. Douglass Fields comments, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…. We all know how untrue that childhood incantation is. Words do hurt. Ridicule, disdain, humiliation, taunting, all cause injury, and when it is delivered in childhood from a child’s peers, verbal abuse causes more than emotional trauma. It inflicts lasting physical effects on brain structure.” Robert Fulghum adds, “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”
The April 29, 1992 issue of the Chicago Tribune reported, “A stripped gear in the propeller controls of a commuter plane caused it to nosedive into the Georgia woods last April, killing former U.S. Senator John Tower of Texas and 22 others, the government concluded Tuesday. A gear that adjusted the pitch of the left engine’s propellers was slowly worn away by an opposing part with a harder titanium coating, the National Transportation Safety Board said. ‘It acted like a file, and over time it wore down the teeth that controlled the propeller,’ said acting board chairman Susan Coughlin.” Likewise, hard (or harsh) words wear down a person’s spirit, causing a person to crash.
But gracious words bring life and health and healing. I love the way Glennon Doyle expressed this in one of her Momastery blogs: “Does anybody remember what God used in Genesis to make the world? Was it bricks? Was it stones? It was WORDS. God said: LET THERE BE LIGHT. And there was light. God’s words built the world. Maybe the writers of that story wanted us to think about how powerful our words are. God created us in God’s image so, like God, we can use our voices to create beautiful things. Every time we open our mouths and speak, we are either saying LET THERE BE LIGHT or LET THERE BE DARKNESS.
“When we gossip, when we criticize, when we lie or tell hurtful jokes or use labels that categorize and demean people we are saying: Let there be darkness. We create a world around us that is not so beautiful. And then we have to live in it.
“When we offer a compliment, when we defend a friend or a stranger, when we stick to the truth, when we speak a kind word to anyone—we are saying: LET THERE BE LIGHT. We are creating a more beautiful world, and then we get to live in it.
“Dear God, help us use our voices to create a more beautiful world. Let every word we speak be a stepping stone toward peace. Help us SPEAK LIGHT so we can watch darkness scatter.”