‘Words have a magical power. They can either bring the greatest happiness, or the deepest despair’, said Sigmund Freud.

Winston Churchill was good with words and he was famous for his wartime speeches. But he also had a reputation for being quick-witted in his responses to people.

For example, Lady Astor once said to Churchill: “Winston, if I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee.” To which Winston swiftly replied: “Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it.”

Churchill also made this critical observation about his successor as Prime Minister, Clement Attlee: “Mr Attlee is a very modest man. Indeed, he has a lot to be modest about.”

Do you remember the popular rhyme many of us may have learned as children ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me’?

Most of us have discovered that the rhyme doesn’t hold true; we can do a great deal of harm to someone with the words we say to them; and many of us have known the hurt caused by the barbed comments of others towards us.

Recently, while standing near the front of the queue at a supermarket, I got talking to the security person controlling how and when people entered the store.

With frustration in his eyes, he told me some of the verbal abuse he’d received in recent weeks from impatient customers whom he refused to allow to jump the queue – most of the insults he’d received are unprintable! How sad.

The American author Jerry Bridges has written a book with the intriguing title, ‘Respectable Sins’.

He writes in its first pages that it’s a book written specifically for Christians who are too preoccupied with the ‘big’ sins they see in others, to address the more subtle sins that they themselves are in the habit of committing.

Bridges says when he told friends the title of his book, most replied ‘oh, you mean like gossip’, confirming his thought that careless and hurtful talk is widespread, even among those who claim to be godly.

The Bible has quite a lot to say about the things we say about, or to, others. In Matthew chapter 12, Jesus warns the religious leaders of his day that each person ‘will give an account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken’.

The Apostle James, a brother of Jesus, says in his New Testament letter that a big part of our problem is the false notion that, left to ourselves, we can keep our speech under control. He warns us in James 3:7 & 8: “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.”

In other words, you and I need the God-given help promised through the Holy Spirit, to enable us to be careful and wise with our speech.

Jerry Bridges writes of the questions we should ask ourselves before we speak: ‘Is it kind? Is it needful?’; and he points to one particular Bible verse of instruction, Ephesians 4:29, that has been his benchmark in regards to controlling his tongue: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I came across an anonymous poem a while ago. It’s entitled “Unsaid”:

If all that we say in a single day

with never a word left out

were written each night in clear black and white,

it would make strange reading, no doubt

And then just suppose before our eyes would close,

we had to read the whole letter through

then wouldn’t we sigh and wouldn’t we try

a great deal less talking to do

And I more than half think that many a kink

would be smoother in life’s tangled thread

if half that I say in a single day

Were to be left forever unsaid.