I'm a sufferer of words. When James calls the tongue a fire, I know what in the hell—phrasing intentional—he's talking about. I think many, many of us do. The fire may go out, but it smolders, sometimes for years and years, the smoke of its torment promising "forever."
When I was in high school, already well neurotic from my own pronounced innate insecurities and already well battered by careless words from childhood onward, I remember being informed about a survey held by girls in the youth group at a sleepover. Apparently they were assembling in their imaginations "the perfect boy" using the composite parts of the boys in the youth group. I don't remember whose parts were all highlighted but this adolescent Frankenhottie supposedly had my friend Kyle's chest and my friend Nicky's legs. (Who knew girls cared about legs?) It had other boys' eyes and arms and lips and hair—I recall hair being important—and who knows what else. The person telling me about this exercise then informed me that this imaginary object of desire had my personality.
I know this was meant to be seen as a compliment. But honestly. You know what "he/she has a good personality" is code for. What this news said to this skinny, insecure, pimply-faced kid was this: "There is not a single physical part of you that is attractive. You are entirely ugly."
Words sting. And bruise. I have trouble to this day remembering encouragement given to me, even though I know I receive it regularly. I even started an email folder called Pick-Me-Ups that I can store kind words in, a place to revisit when I'm being stupid and forgetful to show myself, "See? People say nice things too." It's not them; it's me.
But I don't think this problem is all that rare. You likely suffer from it too. I can list quite easily the words that still haunt:
"Stuttering wimp." – female classmate on the playground, 5th grade
"Meet me after school, bolio." – a bully at the school I attended in the 6th grade, where white students were a distinct minority. (Bolio is Spanish for a kind of white bread, used as slang for basically "white boy.")
"You know that people can minister through writing too, right?" – a ministerial superior who treated me with passive aggression at some points and caustic third degree interrogation at others, at this point unsubtly suggesting I wasn't cut out for "real" ministry.
"You weren't the first choice." – person in the green room at a speaking engagement ten minutes before I was set to kick off the event
"Misogynist; advocate of rape culture." – the Interwebs
There are more. Some are too painful to share publicly. Some are too profane. Some are water under the bridge and forgiveness in these instances means not reminding people who may be reading of the pain caused. Some are just none of your business. But there's lots more, lots worse. And I'm sure for you too.
Some of the painful things said to us are malicious and some are not. Some are true things, some half-true, some not-at-all true. But they all hurt in their own ways, don't they? And the devil does one thing with these words: he turns them into fear and shame. The devil can turn even constructive criticism into a false accusation.
I know the words of the gospel. The problem is that too often the words of the accuser(s) are on video and the gospel is on audio. And so, like my friend Ray says to do, I stare at the glory of God until I see it. I am weak. If I hear anything long enough I will start to believe it. This works for gospel words too. So I stop listening to myself and start talking to myself, preaching to myself. I am not who They say I am; I am who God says I am, and I don't have to be an Osteen fanboy to say that and think that. I just have to be a Christian.
Let them come with their words, then. Let the devil come with his barrage of lies, even his truths-turned-lies. I rebuke him. I confound him. I throw Romans 8 at his sniveling little face. I've got a pretty good arm for such things, high schools girls' judgment notwithstanding.
He comes with his wounding, haunting words, and I stand behind my advocate Christ the Lord. He gives me more words, better words, words more permanent than life:
"I will give you rest." – Matthew 11:28
"You are the apple of my eye." – from Zechariah 2:8
"I take pleasure in you." – from Psalm 147:11
"You are more than a conqueror." – from Romans 8:37
"I am not ashamed to call you my brother." – from Hebrews 2:11
"I rejoice over you." – from Zephaniah 3:17
"Hell will not prevail against you." – from Matthew 16:18
The words like this don't stop. They go on and on. The Word is full to brimming with good news for me, and the Spirit hammers them into my heart. The words of fear and shame cut deep, but Christ's blood speaks a better word (Hebrews 12:24).
Be careful little ears what you hear.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.