When one begins to realize that we are, all of us, created in Imago Dei (the image of God) one should begin to realize that intrinsic value and worth of each person we come across during our days. There are no others, no strangers, only those who reflect the image of our very Creator. How then should viewing people in this manner change how we would address them? In my job, I come across a lot of different people from different cultures, different socio-economic backgrounds, different religions, different sexual identities. I don't always know where they are coming from or what hurts and wounds they are carrying within them. I have no idea what their concept of God, Christ or Christians are or even if they have any at all. I have no understanding of their own struggles, what they are going through, what their emotional or spiritual state is, or what problems they are facing in their daily lives. So when I encounter them, I have to stop and consider, "What if I am the only form of grace they will encounter or experience that day?" That can be intimidating and overwhelming. But it can also be the truth. I may be the only one who smiles and says a kind word to them.
If only I could see the comments section beneath them or as one of those word bubbles that one sees in comic strips to know how their day has already unfolded. To see the words already spoken to them: by family members or coworkers or friends. Can you imagine what that would be like to get a sense of how they are seeing themselves that day: are they beloved or abused? Have they entered this day with a sense of light and love or are they weighed down under the burden of being viewed as not measuring up, being unloved or unlovable, hurt and damaged.
In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul writes, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you know how to answer everyone" (4:6). Grace in the original Greek is charis and means "grace as a gift of favor or blessing, gratitude, kindness." My words need to be filled with charis, an offering to each person that I am speaking to, as if I am offering a blessing before my very God, whom I claim to worship and adore. Are my words filled with grace? Sometimes. There are times when this is far easier to do with a complete stranger or someone I know in passing than it is with a family member or close friend.
How much easier is it to be kind to someone we do not know who's had a rough day and speaks harshly to us then when it's our spouse? Or to our kids when we are exhausted and they are exhausting us still further? When they people we love are not acting lovingly towards us? When they are not meeting our expectations of how we think they should be? Sometimes I hear myself and shudder that those words came out of my mouth no sooner have they come out of my mouth. I wish I would always stop short of speaking or, if I did let those utterances out, that I would quickly follow them with repentance and apologies, but such is not always the case. If I feel slighted, offended, hurt or wounded, then I might think, "No, I shouldn't have said that, but they shouldn't have . . ." (Fill in the blank).
Growing up, I was taught to repeat Psalm 19:14 each day, "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer." Often I said the words rotely because my mother was making me, with little thought of what they really meant or how I could practice them in my daily life. I didn't consider: is how I am acting towards or reacting from someone else done in a way that is acceptable in the sight of God? Proverbs 18:21 warns us that, "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love to talk will reap the consequences." Whoa, that's harsh but we too often ignore that warning. Do we see what we are saying as having the power of life and death within them?
The year I began middle school was also the year my family moved to a new town in a new state. Being shy and quiet made it difficult for me to fit in within an unfamiliar school and it took me a while to make friends. In this school, I remember there was one boy who wore his Boy Scout uniform practically every day. For some reason, whether it was the continual wearing of his uniform, or the fact that he wore bottle-thick glasses, he became a target for bullies. He was often teased and picked on. Having been on the receiving end of bullying myself, one would think I would have stepped in and spoken up, but I didn't. Like many kids, I remained silent, thankful that, for once, I was not the one they were targeting . . . until the day word went around the school that this boy had taken his own life. Though I had not been one of the boys who had spoken the words of death, I was not one who had attempted to speak the words of life, either. He and I never shared a class together or a lunch period. I never got to know him and I don't know if he had any friends. Still, I never took the time to speak to him and it haunts me to this day. Would simple kindness on my part have changed the outcome?
Lysa Terkeurst writes, "Sometimes it's the words we choose not to say that speak most loudly about our character." When I read that statement, I was convicted not of refraining from saying something mean or cruel, but of not saying something healing and kind. Of not speaking up. What did that say about my character? Certainly that has shaped, in part, how I identify with the marginalized, the bullied, the neglected, the oppressed, the hurting, the broken, the fringe, the outside, the wounded and the friendless. Never again would I let myself be silent in the face of someone else's pain, even standing up to very large, muscular football players when they have intimidated or spread rumors about someone I knew. Not an easy thing to do when I have always been on the shorter, skinnier side of the equation.
Our culture is too filled with words. Many of them are empty and hollow. Words meant to sell us something, convince us of how we fall short unless we buy whatever product they are selling. Happiness, wholeness in a jar, a car or an imagined way of life promised by an ad. Words meant to convince us to think this way, vote this way, or presenting an either/or, with us or against us attitude. Very few follow the words of the Psalmist when he writes, "Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips" (141:3). No, our culture seldom sets a guard over their mouths, but unleash their views freely and without consideration for the life experiences of the person they are speaking or writing or commenting to.
Henri Nouwen wrote, "... the word has the power to create. When God speaks, God creates. When God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3), light is. God speaks light. For God, speaking and creating are the same. It is this creative power of the word we need to reclaim. What we say is very important. When we say, “I love you,” and say it from the heart, we can give another person new life, new hope, new courage. When we say, “I hate you,” we can destroy another person. Let’s watch our words."
Do we, who claim to believe in this God who speaks all things into being, stop to consider this? That our words have the power of life and death, creation or destruction into the lives of others? Do we lift up or tear down? Do we speak harshly to guard ourselves from being hurt by the words of others? We must realize that, as the writer of Proverbs says, "The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (12:18). Are we piercing or healing?
Before I speak, I must ask myself, "Would the person I'm speaking to hear Christ in my words? Would what I am saying and how I am saying this reflect his love, mercy, compassion, kindness, gentleness, peace?" If I cannot say "YES" then I should remain silent. As James wrote, I "should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (1:19). I'm afraid, that I am too often quick to speak and even quicker to anger. How much could we change this world by speaking less and listening more? Of allowing the words of our mouth to sound like holy prayers that offer light and life and love to all that we are speaking to because, ultimately, we are speaking to our Creator.