Murder by Mouth

encouragement life life and death tongue words Aug 29, 2023

I've always been fascinated with power of words. I think it began in elementary school and my fascination with Katherine Lee Bates, the author of America, the Beautiful—you know, “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.”  As I read about her, I think it was the first inkling that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I dabbled in poetry while in school. It was sappy stuff about puppies and love, no doubt, but even then, classmates would come to me and ask me how to phrase things, how to communicate an idea. Words just seemed to come easy to me.

In my senior year of high school, I was heavily involved in speech and drama, and I discovered a new power of words. We were rehearsing a scene in a play, and a sweet little gal—not quite as known as me, not quite as popular, maybe, although, to be sure, I wasn't all that and a bag a chips either—this sweet little gal was our prompter. If we stumbled reciting our lines in the play, we were to look to her to provide the start of the line to jog our memory and so the play could continue.

I remember standing on our makeshift stage in drama class, pausing dramatically, and Prompter Gal whispered my next line. I gave her a look, full of condescension and disdain, and said, "When I need a line, missy, I'll ask for one."

Oh, the look on her face! I, a stupid drama geek with no grace, no self-awareness of how such a snide little pecking order put-down would land, and certainly nothing to recommend me as superior to her, had managed with ten words to crush her like a bug.

My teacher, Ms. Brown, took me aside, much kinder to me than I was to my classmate, and gently dressed me down. "Mary Lou, I feel responsible for how you just spoke to your classmate. In my position as teacher, I use a tone to control the classroom. A no-nonsense tone that is indicative of my authority. So you have learned that tone from me. But you, you crushed that poor girl. You don't have the authority to do that. She is your peer, and you treated her like a servant. I'm disappointed in you. I think you owe her an apology."

This was my favorite teacher. She taught me so many amazing things about words and how to write and communicate effectively. And it was my turn to be crushed. The difference was that I crushed my classmate with cruelty. My teacher crushed me with wisdom and kindness.

Proverbs 18: 21 says that Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. If I love to crush people with my words, I will be crushed likewise. If I build people up with my words, I will receive kindness and encouragement.

We don't often think about the power of our words. We kill dreams, we slay hopes, we destroy opportunities with words we drop as casually as breathing. "I don't think much of so-and-so." "Do you really think she's good enough to be in our group?" "I don't know about you, but I just don't trust someone who entertains ______ (fill in the blank with your favorite marginalized people group)." Killer words, Murder by mouth.

Studies show that children who receive a regular onslaught of negative words from parents or caregivers or teachers have smaller brains than children who are encouraged and spoken to positively. The brain will shrink to protect itself from the constant hatefulness. We know plants respond with wilting and dying when exposed to a steady stream of ugliness by tongue. How much more so will a sensitive child shrink in on herself, wilt and die, when told she's worthless or ugly or stupid or unloveable.

Murder by mouth comes in many forms: innuendo, gossip, criticism, complaining, cursing, hate speech, discouragement, disrespect, and disdain.

Life giving lips show up in blessings, encouragement, compliments, prayers, affirmations, honor, respect, and loving kindness.

Are you killing someone softly with your words? Or are they bringing life to people? Are you offering up life or death to that bedraggled waitress who served you imperfectly. To that child who accidentally spilled tea on the carpet. To that spouse that you've told "a hundred times" to be better or do differently. Life or death to yourself, when you mess up or don't measure up? Your words have power.

Speak life!  "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Speak life and see how hearts and minds are changed by the power of your words.


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