(Click to listen to an audio recording of this article: Do you realize how hurtful your words can be?)
It is very easy to post a comment on Instagram without putting much thought into it. It only takes a few seconds to send a text message. It is easy to make a sarcastic remark or make fun of someone. It is very easy to hurt someone with words.
Recently I read a heart-wrenching account by a 17-year-old girl. She told about how she had been stepped on, spit on, and sent horrifying, taunting messages by her peers in high school.
Tragically, her story is only one of many; however, it made an especially deep impression on me. In her story, she begs and pleads for us to be careful of what we say and write to each other. “Words can kill. Remember this when school starts,” she says.
Even though the examples she shares are horrible and despicable, it is the images of the text messages she received that were an extra hard punch in the gut. “You’re ugly,” they write; “you deserve to die.” She is harshly accused of horrible crimes with no evidence. Rumors spread quickly through social media.
Words that tear down
It is not necessarily physical blows that are the most harmful. Words can reduce a person’s self-esteem to next to nothing in an instant. Text messages that tell you that no one cares about you, or that no one likes you because of how you look, are hard to face. The damage can last for years. Maybe they were actually meant as a joke; maybe the person sending them was together with some friends when he wrote it, and was pressured into it. Maybe several other people share the same opinion, and someone feels like he or she deserves to know the truth. These are hollow excuses.
We’re not just talking about words that take the form of death threats, like this poor girl received. We’re not just talking about bullying. We’re talking about harsh, judgmental words that you and I can easily let slip out without thinking. Words that can hurt, harm, make someone feel insecure or excluded. That is never right. Regardless of the intention, we should never say or send a message that can be interpreted in this way. This is one of the great dangers with social media – people feel distant enough from the person they are writing to, that their standards for what they let themselves say are lower than ever before. And it happens terribly quickly; just a few keystrokes, and “send.”
Is it possible to erase words?
Words do not disappear. They continue to exist from the moment you say them or send that message. They exist in the thoughts and mind of the recipient, and also in God’s memory. This applies to good and evil, because God is a righteous judge. (Matthew 12:37) Let us not say or write anything we wouldn’t repeat, but stop and think again before we laugh at someone or make sarcastic comments.
But if we do say words we regret, the best thing we can do is make it right. Ask for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness can be hard, and requires courage. We all need forgiveness, most of all from God Himself. (Ephesians 4:32) When we pray for this from a true and honest heart, then God is good and forgives us of all kinds of sin, even thoughtless words. But we also need to make it right with those we have hurt. Then we can pray that God gives us a new mind, and pray to start over so that the same thing doesn’t happen again. The intention is that we become so transformed that those kinds of words no longer come out of us.
Choose to bless instead
What is the opposite of hurting someone? Blessing. What is the opposite of criticizing? Encouraging. It is written that the fruits of living a life for God are goodness, righteousness, and truth. (Ephesians 5:9) This ought to be reflected in our words. Think to be an example in these things instead of being someone who tears down with negative words. We are called to build up, to be kind to each other; to bless. We can use messages and social media for this purpose as well. These are words we will never regret, either now or in eternity!
“Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12.
We need to guard so that our words don’t bring darkness to anyone, but instead bring light. In this we must always be alert and aware.
“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
Keep watch over the door of my lips.” Psalm 141:3.