Often in the night, especially a windy one in the spring or fall as fronts pass through, I hear limbs hit the roof. They are surprisingly loud and I awake expecting to find something large and heavy only to waste Keith’s time as he climbs the ladder to discover a two foot long twig no bigger around than his thumb. It certainly sounded bigger than that!
A few months ago, after a particularly windy winter storm, Chloe and I came upon a fallen pine limb, three feet long maybe and about two inches in diameter. This one, though, was not lying on the ground. The wind had cast this one with enough force that it had stuck straight into the ground through the sod. I pulled it out and a full six inches of it was below the surface. Imagine if that one had come hurtling through the sky at me as I walked by.
Words are a bit like fallen limbs. You never know who they will hit and how. We are often just as careless as the wind in hurtling them about. We may think the only one who hears is the one we are addressing. We may think that everyone knows us and understands how it is meant. We may think that what was said was perfectly innocent and completely impossible to mistake for something bad. We may be very wrong.
Yes, people need to listen with as much charity as we need to speak. The Bible, particularly the wisdom literature, is full of cautions not only about how we speak but how we listen. Even Jesus said, “Take heed how you hear.” Hearing involves maybe as much responsibility as speaking. Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others, Eccl 7:21,22.
But just maybe we could stand to be a bit more careful in our speaking. Words can hurt, and unlike physical wounds, may never heal. What sounds like a twig to us may sound like a massive branch falling on the roof to the hearer. And a multitude of the same kinds of words has an effect that is hard to erase. What kinds of words do I use the most? Praise or criticism? Thanksgiving or complaining? Encouragement or rebuke? Tough love is necessary and is necessarily painful, but do I ever practice any other kind? Are all my words, or even just the majority, “tough?” And am I proud of having that sort of reputation? Do people cringe when they see me coming?
Those things I can control, but what about the things I say that are not meant to harm, but still manage to do so? What about things I toss off without thought, directed at no one in particular, but that, like a fallen limb, accidentally come close to someone else’s heart? Yes, for those who are mature, we can go back to the responsibility laid on hearers in that Ecclesiastes passage and in Jesus’ and the apostles’ words about being quick to judge, but what about the perfectly innocent babes? What about young impressionable Christians?
If I shoot a gun into the air, the bullet will land somewhere, and my having shot it will make me accountable to the law of the land. Will God’s law hold us any less accountable for the spiritually injured?
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned, Matt 12:36,37.