The Sticks and Stones Fallacy

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Many of us heard these words spoken repeatedly on the playground as children. While it is a well meant sentiment intended to build resilience in the face of brutal verbal bullying, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Such a statement is logically unsound, implying that only physical acts have consequences; however, words do have the power to move us to action. In history’s very first recorded words, God spoke light into existence. In His omnipotence, He could have chosen to snap His fingers or illuminate the world with a silent thought, but He spoke, indicating the importance He places on the spoken word. While we don’t possess the creative ability of God, our spoken or written words have the capacity to inspire chaos or calm. Consider Proverbs 15:1 which tells us that “A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.” As much as we would like to think otherwise, words do have consequences.

Words are a currency that once spent, cannot be refunded. Many times I have wished it were so, but it’s impossible to snatch them out of midair once they leave my mouth. They are instantly etched on the heart and inscribed on the mind of the recipient. My grandfather had the following statement scribbled on the inside cover of one of his Bibles: “I’ve regretted often the things I’ve said…but I’ve never regretted my silence.” He was a wise man. Words can be wielded with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel when spoken by a friend for healing, or with the carelessness of a machete when employed by an enemy for harm. Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb: sweet to the taste and health to the body.” Technology further weaponizes words in online culture as we celebrate mic drops, revel in putting others on blast, and encourage the lobbing of truth bombs. WE OFTEN FEEL THE NEED TO GO INTO ALL CAPS MODE TO FURTHER EMPHASIZE A POINT. Given the arsenal at our disposal, it’s more important than ever to remember the power of words. My words matter, our words matter, and most importantly, God’s Word matters.

My Words Matter

Research reveals that women speak between 10,000 and 20,000 words per day. If I allow myself a very generous eight hours of sleep per night, that means I speak an average of 625 words per hour that I am awake. As I engage in conversation with my daily allowance of words, my main goal should be to point others to Christ. While the name of Jesus doesn’t necessarily come up in every conversation, my words are certainly an outward manifestation of Christ’s work in me. We are admonished in Colossians 4:6 to, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” Just as salt enhances the flavor of the food it seasons, my words should enhance the flavor of a life lived by grace through faith. Only then am I able to gently and respectfully give an answer for the hope that is in me (I Peter 3:15). Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias reminds us that behind every question is a questioner. Only when I have taken the time to listen to the person on the other side of the conversation can I chose words that adequately address the doubt, pain, or fear behind her questions. My words matter as I speak life to those divinely placed in my path each day.

Our Words Matter

With the advent of social media, we say things to each other online that we would never say face to face. We quickly tap out words on a keyboard, add a clever emoji or GIF, and press send before considering the impact on the person at the other end of the digital pipeline. Many times we are more interested in being witty or right than we are in being kind. Arguments escalate at gigahertz speed, and we forget that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Colossians 3:16 provides a different approach as we are encouraged to “Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” As we consider that the living Word, Christ Himself, dwells among us, we become more aware of how we speak to each other, online or in person, and are inclined to treat each other with greater deference. We then understand that we can charitably seek clarity without insisting upon complete agreement in all things. The words we share between us matter because they are the outward demonstration of the emotions and thoughts we have settled in our hearts and minds.

His Word Matters

John 1:1 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus, the Word wrapped in flesh, was with the Father when He spoke the world into existence. As the breath of God moved each inspired stroke of the pen, His earthly messengers inscribed this very Word throughout the pages of scripture. This Living Word then came to earth, lived sinlessly among us, died an excruciating death, and was resurrected on the third day. For us, the Living Word leaps off the pages of God’s written Word and embraces us with the truth of the gospel. As beneficiaries of God’s grace, the light of the gospel safely guides us through the dark valleys of this world, and serves as “a lamp for our feet and a light for our paths.” (Psalm 119:105) God’s Word, the gospel, matters most of all because it is the “power of God for salvation.” (Romans 1:16)

If words are so important to our Heavenly Father, shouldn’t we be more careful about how we use them in our daily interactions? We should select our words with precision, and consider their potential for both building up and tearing down. Just as a skilled sculptor chips away at the marble to reveal the masterpiece hidden within, our words have the power to bring the best in each other to the surface or to dredge up the less desirable attributes in our fellow image bearers. Keeping this in mind, let’s choose our words wisely, speak to each other kindly, and follow the light of God’s Word daily.

A Tale of Two Worldviews

In my former life as a high school English teacher, I enjoyed reading the Charles Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities, with my students. It is a work of literature rich with symbolism, allegory, and contrast, beginning with the famous line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” I believe that sentiment to be true today. We live in the best of times in terms of the wealth of information available to us. Anything we want to know more about is literally at our fingertips as we press a button and open up the World Wide Web. But this also puts us at serious risk of stumbling upon unhealthy and often dangerous information shared through the lenses of questionable worldviews. 

If young people unwittingly consume this information before being taught to think critically about it, they are susceptible to skepticism and doubt, wondering which truth claim they now believe will later be debunked by some new revelation. C.S. Lewis says in The Abolition of Man, “The best defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.” So what sentiments and values are we imparting to our children as we prepare them to interact with people whose worldviews may be different from their own?

I attended two graduation ceremonies this Spring, the first at a public high school and the second at a private Christian university. The high school commencement highlighted the theme of self-helpism, a philosophy that claims that we have within ourselves all we need to succeed in life. The salutatorian claimed that, ”We are makers of our own success.” The school board member who conferred the degrees encouraged the graduates to ”Embrace being the captain of your own ship.” While I understand the encouragement toward personal responsibility, this struck me as a very self-centered philosophy.

By contrast, the speaker at the second ceremony advised the graduates to demonstrate three qualities as they entered their chosen vocation: objectivity, humility, and civility. Cultivating these qualities leads to the acknowledgement that there is an objective source of truth against which we measure our accomplishments. It also leads to the realization that we can only be truly successful when we put others before ourselves and treat them with kindness. Examining these two worldviews through the lens of scripture reveals how to most effectively engage the culture around us and point others to Christ.

Worldview #1:  Self-helpism 

Self-helpism (making our own success) is an empty philosophy cloaked within the false promise of self-confidence. It casts a broad net under the banner of “the power of positive thinking” through books, podcasts, blogs, and celebrity personalities. The message sounds appealing and often reels us in unaware of the consequences of adopting this worldview. Self-helpism ultimately promotes insecurity by placing the responsibility for success or failure squarely upon the individual’s shoulders. Self-proclaimed success is fertile ground for pride, while failure whittles away at self-worth. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible never claims that “God helps those who help themselves.” God’s Word instead says that His power is perfected in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9.) A Biblical worldview promotes confidence when we teach our children that their strength comes from God, and that their success is not dependent on them after all. It removes the burden from them and places it on Him. 

Worldview #2:  Biblical Objectivity, Humility, and Civility

Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If this is true, then there is only one source of objective truth. It is this source of truth by which we are to define success. By contrast, if we believe that we are makers of our own success and captains of our own ships, then objective truth loses its significance. We need no outside measure of truth, and are tempted to subjectively define truth in whatever way best suits us at the moment. We remake truth in our own image to fit our own purposes; however, when my truth doesn’t line up with your truth, we stand at odds with each other for lack of an objective standard. This naturally lends itself to chaos and conflict, while the acknowledgment of an objective source of truth points us in the same direction and leads to harmony.

Philippians 2:3 instructs us to, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.” This is not a philosophy conducive with being the captain of my own ship. Any captain worth his salt puts the needs of his passengers and fellow travelers above his own. If we are to humbly travel through life, we must look around us and notice ways to build others up, rather than focusing on ways to make our own success. A self-centered attitude turns our focus inward and away from those traveling alongside us. This leads to a tunnel vision that blinds us to ways to follow the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Paul says in Colossians 3:12, “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…” If we view ourselves as being makers of our own success, we tend toward an “end justifies the means” mentality, and civility is the farthest thing from our minds. After all, it’s a dog eat dog world out there, so we’d better look out for number one to ensure success. On the contrary, if we clothe ourselves with kindness, we recognize that true success is achieved by demonstrating love as we interact with others. Ordinary and consistent acts of grace point our fellow travelers to Christ, which is the ultimate goal in all we do during our journey through this earthly existence.

Looking to the Horizon

As our children embark on the journey of a new school year, will they be lighthouses built on a solid foundation of truth or battleships ready to plow down everyone in their paths? As we encourage them to engage the culture through Biblical objectivity, humility, and civility, the focus shifts away from them, and toward the one who has gifted them with all they need to succeed in life. God becomes the maker of their success and the captain of their ship. The one who spoke the oceans into existence is more than capable of guiding them through both the stormy seas and quiet waters of life. He sees every yesterday and every tomorrow as if it were today, and needs no compass to assist Him in guiding His children through the course of their lives. He only needs willing passengers who place their complete confidence in Him.