The ability to speak is one of the most amazing and important aspects of human life. Speech allows us to express our emotions, voice our needs, and share our ideas. It is so important that we are taught to speak even before we learn to walk or feed ourselves. Yet the power of our words is often taken for granted. The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword, and the pain of words lasts far longer than other wounds. With the right words, a gifted writer can weave worlds that will transport the reader to worlds beyond imagination. Words transform a common cat and mouse into a fearless hunter guarding his home against elusive invaders or a terrible beast torturing defenseless prey. The same even described through different eyes sparks different reactions, either spurring pride in the cat or pity for the mouse.

Because our words have the power to create such dramatic results, we are responsible for choosing them with care. Say the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong way and the results can be devastating. Friendships, marriages, families, even whole countries have been destroyed by a word spoken in anger or kindness left unsaid. We need look no further than the Bible for a thousand examples of the damage words can do. A hasty vow by Jephthah bid him sacrifice his daughter. A riddle led to the death of Samson’s wife and his personal war against the Philistines. An indiscreet confession led to Samson’s capture and eventual death. A careless boast saw Nebuchadnezzar turned into a beast for seven years and his son’s toast had kingdom given over to the Medes and Persians. Words exchanged created strife between siblings (Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Rachel and Leah), spouses (Abraham/Sarah/Hagar, Job and his wife), and even our relationship with God (remember the serpent only used words to tempt Eve into man’s fall from grace, an act which set in motion the separation of God and man and every sin that followed.)

Studies now show that negative words and verbal abuse not only cause emotional scars but can also cause physical trauma to the brain. Exposure to harmful words—teasing, bullying, ridicule, judgment, etc.—in early childhood and adolescence inhibits the development of connecting fibers between the right and left brain that allow for proper communication between the two hemispheres. This particularly hinders understanding morality, as both hemispheres are required to understand not just an action but the reasoning behind it. These individuals are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation, and drug abuse. Moreover, the exposure did not have to be directed at them! Bearing witness to such verbal abuse can be just as traumatic.

There is good reason the Bible counsels countless times against the dangers of thoughtless words. Solomon tells us in Proverbs that the tongue has power over life and death (18:21), perverseness in it breaks the spirit (15:4), the words of the reckless pierce like swords (12:18) and the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin (13:3). Matthew 12:36 tells us we are accountable for every careless word we speak. James 1:26 reads, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Stronger warnings could not be given!

Yet hope remains. The same power that can crush a man’s spirit and bring the strong to tears can be used just as powerfully to build up as break down. Kind words spoken in love can have even more lasting effects. Solomon also wrote, in Proverbs 16:24, “Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the body.” Words of concern brought Naaman to his healing, and words of faith healed the bleeding woman and the centurion’s son. Words of forgiveness reconciled the families of Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers, and words of praise soothed Saul’s troubled mind and brought joy to the Israelite’s as they fled Egypt.

Mother Theresa once said, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” Some of the most powerful sentences in existence are less than five words long: “I love you.” “I believe in you.” “You are not alone.” “You can do this.” How do you feel reading these words, saying them aloud, hearing them said to you? Imagine how your life might change if that feeling never faded, never left your heart? We all have the power to create that inspiring feeling inside ourselves and those we meet every day.

It starts with awareness. Start by minding your mouth, become more observant of what you say. Is it mostly negative or positive? Try keeping a tally on a notepad or paper bracelet. Use red ticks for negatives and blue for positives. Challenge yourself to make the blue outnumber the red. Remember that words spoken to yourself count, both positive and negative. You should love and encourage yourself too. The more you practice positivity, the easier it will come. Challenge yourself further by creating a “word well.” Make a personal list of positivity, little catchphrases that bring joy and encouragement. These can be single words like “awesome” or “fantastic,” phrases like “God is good” or “Have an amazing day,” or small inspiring quotes and poetry. Write them down on individual scraps of paper; fold them up and toss them into an empty tissue box. Every day pull one paper from the well and read it aloud. Tape it to calendar and spend the day sharing it with everyone you meet. Make it your Facebook status, your telephone greeting, your personal motto of the day. Your joy will make others joyful and your smile may stretch across a city before it’s through.

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