Words Can Heal or Hurt

Sermon delivered April 25, 2010

I love you. I forgive you. You are a wonderful person. When you hear these words, they sooth and warm the heart because they have the power to heal. On the other hand, when we say, “I hate you. I will never forgive you. You are a liar”, these words often hurt others, causing them to feel uncomfortable, unloved or angry because these words have the power to destroy.

Jesus heals many times just by saying a word or phrase. For example, today, in the 4th Sunday of Pascha John 5:1-15, Jesus heals the Paralytic by saying, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8). Later in today’s passage, He says, “Sin no more” (Jn. 5:14). Jesus also said this to the Sinful Woman (John 8:11). Numerous times Christ said, “Your faith has made you well” (Mt. 9:22; Mk. 5:34; Mk. 10:52; Lk. 8:48; Lk. 17:19; Lk. 18:42) and “Your sins are forgiven” (Mt. 9:2; Mk. 2:5; Lk. 5:20; Lk. 7:48; See also Luke 13:12). Even the apostles accomplished healing through words only. In today’s epistle (4th Sunday of Pascha; Acts 9:32-42) Peter said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed” (Acts 9:34).

Unfortunately, as much as words have the power to heal, they also have the power to hurt, injure, weaken and destroy. It seems incomprehensible to us that anyone could have been against Jesus. If we saw Him heal and teach today, surely we would sing Jesus’ praises and follow Him wherever He went. We would hope so. However, just as words can build up, they can also tear down. And instead of rejoicing at the paralytic’s healing, some said to him, “It’s the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” (Jn. 5:10).

How many times, after He performed a healing or a miracle, did people, like the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes, criticize Jesus instead of praise Him or praise His healings or praise the people He healed? Sadly, this negative response occurred more often than nott. What effect did this have on others who heard this joyless criticism? Well, it certainly must have been discouraging and hurtful. We forget that it also spread to others, infecting their attitudes to such a level, that it created enough anger in others so that they sought to kill Jesus (Mt. 26:4; Lk. 13:31; Lk. 22:2; Jn. 5:16,18; 7:1).

In reflecting on the power that words can have to injure or heal, I would like us to consider the wisdom and guidance found in the Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers.

St. John Chrysostom: You are a man and yet you spit the venom of a poisonous serpent. You are a man and yet you become like a raging beast. You have been given a mouth not to wound but to heal.

Shepherd of Hermas: Love truth and avoid anger or slander. Let your mouth speak nothing but the truth and uplifting words to each other. In the Lord there is no falsehood. Liars and slanderers would the Lord, they become like thieves who steal from the Lord because they do not return to Him the gift in the same way as they receive it, for they received a Spirit from Him that does not lie.

Proverbs 10:18-19: Whoever hides hatred has lying lips, And whoever spreads slander is a fool. In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise.

Psalm 141:3 : Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips. (Presanctified Liturgy- Psalm verses as we chant “Let my prayer arise…”)

Now, we know that at times we must offer words that seek to guide and correct others. So, the question is, “How do we offer critical words in a manner that will heal and not destroy?” In my pre-marital counseling with couples preparing for marriage in the Orthodox Church, I teach some skills that may be helpful to everyone.

First, we must remember the primary importance of the relationship. Whether we are a spouse, parent, child, parishioner, volunteer, co-worker, or supervisor (and many of us have multiple roles simultaneously), we are in a relationship with someone. When I say relationship, I’m not talking about a romantic one. Jesus’ teaching about loving our neighbor and our enemy should help us remember the importance of the relationship itself. We do not exist as human beings in isolation. Therefore, we must be careful not to isolate ourselves and others through careless, hurtful words.

Second, we should speak assertively. This means using “I” statements and avoid “You” statements. What do I mean? Let’s take a simple example. What’s more effective, “Honey, I would like you to take out the trash” or “Hey you, take out the trash right now”? A more sensitive example could go one of two ways: “I know you had good intentions, but I was hurt when you said this and did that” versus “You are so mean and such a jerk.” Speaking assertively helps us to own or feelings and attitudes without imposing them on others. Therefore, it is easier for the other person to accept and receive what we are trying to say.

Third, the way we experience people and situations is based on our perception. Sometimes, we do not see or hear accurately. Thus, we may respond with hurt or anger to words or actions that were not intended as such. What helps avoid this is to practice reflective/active listening. Here’s an example: someone might say to us, “You are ignorant!” We then quickly retort, “I know a lot more than you do!” Instead of this, reflective listening would simply repeat back to the person, using an “I” statement, what we heard. “What I heard you say is that I am ignorant.” What reflective listening accomplishes is twofold: 1) It confirms that indeed we heard the person accurately, thus allowing us to respond more appropriately; 2) It helps the other person to hear exactly what they said, thus enabling them to confirm that indeed what they said is what they intended. Considering this, the first person might then respond, “No, I didn’t mean to say you were ignorant. I meant to say that sometimes I feel like you ignore me.”

Fourth, when we feel we must offer a criticism it should be balanced with a compliment. In fact, because critical comments are usually so sensitive, many say that we should offer three compliments to every criticism. Offering several compliments before offering a criticism, communicates to the other person that we do indeed see and value their positive characteristics and behaviors. By doing this, we help them be open to the criticism. If we constantly are offering criticisms, and those of us who have children know this well, then people begin to tune us out and not take us seriously.

Fifth and finally, we must seek as best we can to be aware of our inner world. We must be conscious of our thoughts and feelings that constantly run through our heart, mind and soul. This is very important because often how we communicate with others is affected by our inner world. For example, the need to criticize may be driven more by our own thoughts than by another person’s words and actions. If we are self-aware, we can practice discernment better, determining if voicing our criticism is really necessary and will ultimately be more helpful than hurtful.

Date posted: April 30, 2010