When we were children we had a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We usually quoted this little jingle when words had hurt us, and it was usually followed by sticking out our tongue for emphasis. Somehow this ditty has been passed down through the generations, even though it is not true. Words can destroy us.
It is not the well thought out words that give us trouble, words that we wrestle with before writing them down, words that we edit a dozen times before finally putting them in print. The words that trouble us and cause our difficulty are the careless words, the thoughtless words, the words that escape our lips without thinking. These words cannot be called back. Unlike animals escaped from the cage, words cannot be hunted down and returned to captivity.
Sometimes the careless words run rampant causing unknown damage without our knowledge. We don’t even remember what we said, or when we said it. But the damage is done nonetheless.
We try to bury our careless words beneath repeated apologies. “I’m sorry.” Or “I didn’t mean it.” Sometimes we are forgiven. Sometimes others claim to overlook them. But words are rarely forgotten. They lodge in the memory and cast a shadow on everything else.
Jesus said, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” (Matt. 12:36) Jesus was referring to our final judgment before God. Ultimately, when we stand before Him we will be required to give account for every careless word. But, perhaps he had something else in mind. Perhaps He was drawing our attention to the reality of human relations. Careless words destroy relationships.
We have seen prominent careers come to an abrupt end due to careless words spoken in the public arena. Like the classic movie, A Face In the Crowd, few are able to overcome racial slurs and arrogant expletives caught on an open microphone. But more damaging to us all are the careless words spoken in the privacy of our homes each and every day. Careless words chip away at relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children. They leave families fractured and psyches shattered.
On the other hand, an encouraging word, the right word spoken at the right time, can make an enormous difference. The opposite of careless words is not careful words, words that are guarded and self-serving, but caring words, words that are spoken in the interest of others.
Nothing is more important than learning the discipline of our speech. James compared the tongue to the small rudder that turns a huge ship, or the bit placed in the mouth of a horse, able to harness the animal's great strength. Careless words, he said, are like sparks that ignite an uncontrollable fire that consumes everything in its path. “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” (James 3:2).