Power of Speech
Let’s begin with
our words. I don’t think most of us are aware of the impact
that what we say can be used to build up or tear down. The Letter
of James is so insightful about the power of human speech. The
author compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship: a small
member, but able to give direction to a much larger body. Sadly,
the human tongue often loses control. James laments the fact
that it is easier to tame wild animals than to tame the tongue.
He notes that, with our tongues, we bless God, yet at the same
time curse our fellow human beings, who are made in the image
of God. “This need not be so,” he says (James 3:4-10).
any prime-time TV show or talk show. Note the endless put-downs,
insults, snide and sarcastic remarks, name-calling and hostile
outbursts that are exchanged between characters and individuals.
Sarcasm and cynicism
are the premier forms of humor. When they become relentless
and pervasive, they dull our sensitivity. Unconsciously, we
start to imitate what we see because the humor seems so clever
“It’s all in good
fun,” we think. But the objects of our clever speech are not
paid TV stars. They are people with feelings. They may be sensitive
about their appearance, their lack of skills, their poor self-image.
They are hurt. And we have contributed to the erosion of human
dignity that is so characteristic of our age. If words spoken
in fun have the power to hurt, how much more do words spoken
in anger or intended to inflict pain? These are especially destructive
when spoken to spouses, parents, children and friends.
What if we resolved
in the new millennium to use our power of speech to build up,
encourage, affirm, bless rather than tear down, put down, belittle?
St. Paul exhorted the Christians of his time not to indulge
in evil talk, but “only such as is good for needed edification,
that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
What words do
people need to hear? “I really love you. I like the way you
handled that situation. I was proud of you tonight. I’ll stand
by you. I’ll pray for you. I’m really glad you’re part of our
family. Do you need to talk? You look stressed out—can I help?
Thank you for taking care of that.” You get the idea. Such simple
words, but what power they have.
I’m not suggesting
that we never speak the “hard” words. “To speak the truth in
love” can also be healing. Sometimes we may need to tell others
how their behavior annoys or embarrasses us. Otherwise, our
love will be dishonest and sentimental. We want to speak in
a caring, gentle manner, so others can receive our words as
helpful rather than hurtful. That will require prayer on our
We Are the Injured
we need to develop if we wish to focus on healing and reconciliation
in this new millennium has to do with injuries inflicted on
us by others—or by life. Every one of us carries wounds or scars
from the ways life has of hurting us. How will we deal with
Some people go
through life with a burden of low-grade resentment. They never
seem to be able to let go of old slights, hurts, rejections
and misunderstandings. When people replay them over and over,
like picking at scabs, they remain embedded in grudges and negative
This is not to
deny that the wounds were not real or their feelings justified.
Indeed, some people have suffered incredible injuries at the
hands of others whom they trusted. Such betrayals can never
be condoned. Is there any way out of the negative recycling?
The answer comes from the gospel and psychological studies.
The way to healing is through forgiveness.
Indeed, some of
the best-known names in modern medicine—Dean Ornish, Carl Simonton,
Bernie Siegel—are convinced that forgiveness is essential for
physical as well as emotional health. Dr. Joan Borysenko, a
cancer-cell biologist at Harvard University, believes that forgiveness
is the mind’s most powerful healing tool. Once again, Jesus
is shown to be the divine physician when he asks us to forgive
one another as God has forgiven us.
The act of forgiving
injuries can sometimes be the fruit of a rather long process.
We may need to get in touch with the pain, recall the hurtful
incident(s), let feelings of sadness and anger come into awareness
with all their force. But instead of holding on to the negative
feelings, we choose to let them go. We come to realize that
our anger and resentment are self-defeating. They are not affecting
the offender. They are only blocking us from investing our energies
in creative, loving, enjoyable experiences.
Above all, since
forgiveness is ultimately a grace, we will need to pray for
it. And because forgiveness is something that God desires, it
is a grace that God will always grant.
I remember reading
a woman’s account of how devastated she was after her husband
left her for a younger woman. She said, “I prayed aloud one
sleepless night: ‘Father, forgive me. I want to trust and believe
and have faith like a child, but right now I don’t. Please help
me to find life after a failed marriage. And help me really
mean what I am about to say: I want to wish my ex and his new
wife all the best that life has to offer. You know I don’t mean
this now—but I want to.’”
I love that example,
because it shows that forgiveness is a choice, an act of decision
that goes beyond feelings. Even wanting to forgive, praying
for it, is already a movement toward freedom. The emotions will
catch up eventually.
Is it necessary
to tell the other people that we forgive them? Sometimes this
may be very healing, but at other times it may be unwise or
even impossible. The main thing is that we have forgiven in
our own heart. Even if the other persons are dead, we can express
our forgiveness to them in spirit. The important point is that
we become free to move on with our own lives.
We Inflict the Injury
The other need
for reconciliation will arise when we are the ones who have
inflicted injury on others. This calls us to the simple but
deeply human act of apology. Few moments are more beautiful
than when one human being says to another, in all humility and
sincerity, “I’m sorry. I should not have said/done that. Please
seem all too rare in our present-day passion to blame the other
for whatever has gone wrong and in our litigation-happy society,
when any admission of wrongdoing can become grounds for a lawsuit.
All the more reason
for Christians to offer the world an alternative way to heal
and restore broken relationships!
What about the
divisions between racial and religious groups? In his letter
on the third millennium, Pope John Paul laments the painful
wounding of Christian unity over the centuries. Such wounds,
he says, “openly contradict the will of Christ and are a cause
of scandal to the world.” He asks Christians to repent and ask
Christ’s forgiveness for whatever ways we have contributed to
those divisions. Surely we are called to extend that same attitude
to our treatment of people of other races.
It is tempting
to shift responsibility for healing such divisions to those
who have special expertise or are in positions of authority.
It seems too complicated and overwhelming for us. But complexity
and difficulty do not excuse us from our own individual efforts.
If we reflect
on our personal experience, won’t we discover that our own racial
and religious prejudices were reduced most often through meeting,
talking and interacting with people different from ourselves?
African-Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, Protestants and Jews
were no longer labels or categories. They were flesh-and-blood
people with needs, strivings, hopes, worries, successes and
failures very much like our own.
Perhaps we could
take a cue from the Christian men’s movement known as “Promise
Keepers.” One of their vision statements reads: “A Promise Keeper
is committed to reach beyond racial and denominational barriers
to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.” Concretely, it
asks members to be willing to meet with at least one person
of a different race or denomination each month. The underlying
assumption is, if a person takes the time and effort to meet,
talk with and listen to someone not of his or her kind, the
person will be encountered at the core of his/her humanity.
And that experience will do more to heal someone of prejudices
than any sermon on Christian unity.
We certainly need
the theologians and behavioral scientists to work out “macro”
forms of reconciliation. Each of us, however, is called to work
at the “micro” tasks—one day at a time, one person at a time.
I believe St. Paul had in mind the entire Christian community
when he wrote that God has “given us the ministry of reconciliation”
(2 Corinthians 5:18).
As we continue
our lives in the new millennium, can we sense our world longing
for a nonviolent, healing and reconciling approach to human
relationships? Can we know ourselves as agents and instruments
of peace in our time? If so, we will be conscious of the power
of our words. We will use them to bless rather than curse, heal
rather than hurt, forgive rather than nurse a grudge.
With each person
we meet, we will look beyond the surface, beyond the external
qualities that seem to divide us—to the core of each person,
the sacred center where God resides. With Francis of Assisi,
“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen
apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”
O.F.M.Cap., is a retreat director, spiritual director and member
of the Association of Christian Therapists. The author of two
books, The Quest for the Male Soul (Ave Maria Press)
and Catholics and Fundamentalists: Understanding the Difference
(ACTA Publications), he has had numerous articles published
in various publications.