As we continue our series on the causes of suffering, consider the terrible effect hurtful words have on our emotional health. Too often we inflict pain on each other in the daily ebb and flo our lives together in families, communities, and at work.
A slightly overweight and suicidal girl walks home from school after another day of verbal bullying. A husband drops into a bar to postpone the open warfare that breaks out every time he comes home. A high school student cringes when his father asks him why he didn’t get straight ‘A’s’ on his report card. A woman shrivels under the stream of criticism flowing from her husband. An orphan, finding no love or comfort, cries himself to sleep in the third home he’s been shunted to in a year.
The childhood taunt is not true; Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Words: stupid, loser, fatty, you did it again, why do you always…, why can’t you be like…, it’s your own fault…, and the like, sting like an asp. Verbal poison comes in an almost infinite variety but all such toxins create emotional pain. The pain manifests itself in many ways: sadness, discouragement, despair, hopelessness, depression, frustration, anger, bitterness, resentment, or jealousy.
In terrible physical pain and anguish, Job cried out for comfort and understanding. But instead of comfort, his three friends urged him to admit his sins and repent. They held a mistaken belief that suffering and misfortune is caused by the sin of the sufferer. How ignorant they were of the reality that accidents, illness, and misfortune are the common lot of all mankind. Some of the greatest saints endured inordinate suffering: Jeremiah, David, Paul, not to mention Jesus, Himself.
Because of their faulty theology, instead of offering understanding and sympathy, Job’s three friends added immeasurably to his pain through their words. After listening to their soliloquies, Job cried, “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2). At the end of the story God spoke, “to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your friends, because you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has…My servant Job will pray for you”(Job 42:7,8).
David had a similar experience. In both Psalm 41 and Psalm 88 he laments the whispers and betrayal of his friends.
What do sad and worried people need? “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up”(Prov. 12:25). “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver”(Prov. 25:11). Imagine the effect on a depressed or insecure person of a word of commendation or encouragement.
Words can uplift and edify. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”(Eph. 4:29). Christian love calls us to use our tongues in constructive ways.
There may be times when words of correction, even condemnation are needed. But they are rare. Most often people need understanding and affirmation much more than they need criticism. Let’s leave judgment to God while we offer consolation, encouragement, and hope. In the next blog I’ll look more fully at the ministry of encouragement.