Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear and vivid and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet of that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?

-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Most of us can remember a time (or a few hundred) when words definitely hurt more than sticks and stones. Even after 15 years, I can still remember one particular instance of “cruel” words quite clearly and vividly.

Let me set the scene: I was in first grade, standing outside during free-time in P. E. class—the site of almost all of my childhood woes as a scrawny, insecure, and painfully unathletic seven-year-old—and I was trying to figure out what sporty-ish activity I could do without embarrassing myself. Unfortunately, as I was standing there awkwardly holding a hula hoop and contemplating how to avoid another case of public P. E. humiliation, I sealed my fate. (Yes, I am being dramatic, but to seven-year-old me, I am seriously downplaying the horror of the moment).

One of my bullies, a confident, snarky, and athletic girl named Alyssa, caught me. Ushering over her side-kicks (translation: a couple of first grade girls), Alyssa pointed at me, laughed, and said something along the lines of: “Sarah, you’re such a chicken. You won’t even try to hula hoop. You never try anything because you’re afraid of everything! I bet you’re not even good, but you won’t even try.” And then she taunted me by continuously calling me “chicken.” She may have even squawked and flapped her stupid chicken-wing-arms. It’s possible the tale got embellished over time. In any case, I offered no rebuttal, and only pathetically proved her accusation by standing there staring at the ground, even more scared to try to hula hoop now that she was ready to tear me apart, feather by feather, when she saw I couldn’t do it. My life was OVER.

Fast forward a few weeks—my life, to my surprise, had kept going—and I was now the first grade hula hoop champion. Thanks to the “mere words” of another insecure first grader, I worked my scrawny ass off to prove that I was no chicken and, in fact, very good at hula hooping, thank you very much.

The icing on the cake came when this same girl who called me a “chicken” on the playground saw my mom at school and in her sweetest, most smiley voice greeted her with a “Hi, Mrs. Woodard.” I was furious. She would have my mom believe she was some cute, innocent friend of mine! Fortunately, I remember my mom’s words to me afterwards just as vividly and clearly: “I know a brown-noser when I see one.” And on that triumphant day of 2004, I learned what a “brown-noser” was. Thanks for that, mom.

Silly stories aside, I doubt I have to convince almost anyone that the effect words can have on us is anything but “mere.” Words can shape us—sometimes in devastating ways and sometimes in beautiful ways. Oscar Wilde was right. Words can be “terrible” or “cruel” and words can be “magical” or “sweet.”

I easily could have opened with a much different story. Just a few weeks ago, at a socially-distanced outdoor worship gathering, I saw some close family friends who went out of their way to talk to me, comfort me about my uncertain future and remind me of my talents and, more importantly, my loving community behind me. They literally showered me with encouragement and affirmation for five minutes until my anxiety turned to joy and relief. I left the gathering grateful, and smiling. Or, the time when one of my professors whose writing I deeply admire told me she wanted to help me be a writer that would be “remembered and quoted” because she cared about me and believed in me. These positive experiences with words shaped me at least as much as any negative experiences I’ve had.

Words can restore and give life just as they can warp and disfigure. Whether we like to admit it or not, all of us who have the ability to use language have not only been the victims of cruel words; we have also been the perpetrators. I could have opened with one of many stories of my using harsh words to mar someone else. They are, sadly, not lacking. 

According to the late author Toni Morrison, we can choose which of these paths to take with language. That is, we can use our words to hurt or to heal. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she delivered an incredibly poignant and eloquent speech which you should definitely give a listen if you get the chance.

In the speech, she told a story of a group of children who confront an old Black woman—“blind but wise”—and ask her to tell them if the bird in their hands is living or dead. After a long silence, the old woman tells the children: “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands.” As Morrison, the narrator, informs us herself, the bird in the speech is a metaphor for language. So when the old woman tells the children the bird’s life is “in their hands,” Morrison is also telling us, the larger audience outside the story, that it is our responsibility whether our language is “dead or alive.” 

According to Morrison’s speech, language can either be alive—“generative,” surging “toward knowledge,” attempting “to limn the actual, imagined, and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers”—or it can be dead. Dead language excludes and oppresses, it is “content to admire its own paralysis,” “drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities,” and hides “its racist plunder in its literary cheek.” Wrapped up in Morrison’s idea of language as a “living thing” is an ethical sensibility: in order to keep language “alive,” we must use it humanely. Words are powerful, and we can use them to bless or to curse.

If human words have power, God’s words are almost magical. God brought the entire world to life by His very words. He spoke us into being. What He proclaims is true simply because He said it. But the most powerful word God ever delivered to us was also His biggest blessing: the Word, Jesus, who “became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Talk about living language! Jesus as Logos literally embodied the language of the Godhead, declaring unrighteous sinners alive by His speech. While no human being before or since can say the same, Jesus offers us salvation from our selfish, dead language and into Himself, the Word of life, again and again. Our words do indeed become “mere” in the face of the Word.

Gracefully, Jesus speaks a better word than anything we might mutter. He is able to bind up the wounds left by the cruel words we endure, and forgive us for those that escape our own lips. No human words have the final say over us, anyway. Only the Word has the final say, and the language He speaks is Mercy and Love.