I’m in the process of teaching our 15-year old son how to drive. Since this is the third kid for me to teach this particular lesson, I know there’s a lot of important information to cover. There are the basics—which pedal is the gas and which is the brake, how to switch on the wipers and the turning signal and the headlights, and the meaning behind the various traffic signs. There are also nuanced skills, such as how to know that you’re in the center of your lane (new drivers are usually really scared of the series of mailboxes flying past them on their right and incoming cars whizzing by in the opposite lane) and when to start braking (they rarely start as soon as I’d like them to).
But before he ever sat behind the wheel, I told my son one of the most important truths about driving: This car is a weapon. I told him that a driver must take this task very seriously, paying close attention to the other cars and pedestrians around him. In the hands of a careless and distracted driver, this car is like a loaded gun just waiting to kill someone. This may sound severe, but I know it to be true, and I would be a fool to ignore my chance to warn him about life-altering mistakes before they happen.
We often concentrate on the physical dangers of recklessness, but it’s important to warn our children (and remind ourselves) of the perils of something much smaller than a car or even a gun, but deadly in a different way—our words. With a few choices words, we can tear down another person, and the better we know them, the easier it is to dismantle their self-esteem.
In his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum plays with the old adage which claims words can’t hurt us. Instead, he says, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.” In most cases, bones can heal, but it’s much harder to forget the pain inflicted on us by a parent who says we’re too stupid or a spouse who says we’re too fat or a friend who says we’re not wanted. Words can create an inner scar. They can pop back into our thoughts decades later to remind us of our shortfalls. Especially nasty remarks can affect future jobs and relationships. They can be joy-stealers and future-destroyers.
In James 3, we read about the power of the tongue. We see that it’s capable of great things: “We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.” From the inspiring sermons of Dr. King to the sweet “Have a great day!” note your mom put in your lunchbox, words can make the world a better place.
But there’s a dark side to what the tongue can do. “People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth.”
The next time you’re in a car, safely passing other giant boxes made of metal and flame, consider the dangers involved. Then take a moment to reflect on the destructive power of your words. Steer both your car and your mouth as if lives were on the line.