Stop. Look. Listen: Do Our Words Pierce or Do They Bring Healing?

Stop. Look. Listen: Do Our Words Pierce or Do They Bring Healing?
Written by: Pete McClanathan

(Author’s Note: This discussion is next in line in the What Am I Worshipping series, an exploration of what the Word of God has to say about our behavior and speech. Though we find wisdom that can speak to  our responsibilities as we face the troubling dialogue in our nation and even our church, that alone was not the purpose of this article)

We live in times that can feel difficult. And often they are. No argument there.

Difficult times and difficult people can press us emotionally. Fear, pain, regret, anger...they all can lead us to places that in calmer situations we might not recognize in ourselves.

Difficulties can assault our sense of life’s order. They challenge long held patterns of belief and expectation. When things are not going on around us in ways that we’ve come to expect and value, we can lose our moorings if we are not careful. The inevitable questions of what is happening, why is God allowing it, who is responsible, and what needs to be done about it can sweep even “mature” Christians into reactions that we may have thought were beneath us or behind us.

We can quickly default to once familiar manners of thinking, speaking, and acting. Habits that are unhelpful to ourselves and others, are offensive to the Lord, and weaken His purposes in us.

In reality the Bible tells us that all times and situations carry their own difficulties, ones that can challenge our hearts and actions. But there may be opportunity in such times. Pain, frustration, fear, and confusion can reveal the hidden nature of our beliefs and priorities in unexpected ways. If we are willing to hear.

I’ve held a deep love of railroads my whole life. In the 1950’s and 60’s (and before), when rail lines were more numerous, many road crossings were not protected by gates or flashing lights, especially in areas of lighter travel. In place of electronic warnings these crossings were protected by a trackside sign in the form of an X. On the sign was painted three words: Stop, Look, Listen.

As I was writing this article, it occurred to me how easily those warnings apply to our words and conduct. Walk with me down this track.


We are in the habit of reacting emotionally to people and situations. Anger, outrage, despair,  retaliation, criticism, can arise in us in an instant. Or they can smolder within us in the form of resentment, bitterness, unforgiveness, self-pity, and all of the related poisons. And in each case we can become carried away in the swirl of emotions surrounding us. Seldom do we even think to look for the healthy and God-honoring responses.

Unless we stop. Stopping does not come naturally or easily. It is an intentional habit that requires cultivation through study and practice.

We have sound biblical instruction in 2 Cor. 19:3-5:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”

We can take several truths from this passage:

  1. The sinful nature has programmed us to conduct and assert ourselves in ways that enhance our own sense of value and importance. So our natural reaction is to oppose anything and anyone that poses a threat to this self-driven need.
  2. The activity of the Holy Spirit carries power to transform us from these patterns, but it must be sought.
  1. It is sought by the intentional and ongoing practice of measuring our words and actions by the Word of God and the Lordship of Christ. 

Essentially we are warned in every situation to Stop, lest we be carried away by the emotions of the flesh. And as we stop, new opportunities are presented:


The Bible speaks to every need and every situation:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  (Heb. 4:12-13).
So as we stop, what ought we to look for?
Certain questions can lead us in our search:

What is really going on in this conversation or situation? Conclusions usually come to us quickly, driven largely by emotion and shallow thinking. Almost always they  are wrong or incomplete in important ways.  And this habit of reaction causes us to bypass the critical questions if we are not intentionally careful.

What do my reactions and impulses reveal about what I am worshipping within this situation and this moment? The Bible states clearly that our speech and behavior are driven by the desires and fears of our heart when it tells us, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).  We also know from scripture that the heart is deceitful and wicked and cannot be known (Jer. 17:9). Desires and fears, pockets of pride and self-righteousness, and beliefs of entitlement can travel through our thoughts in well-disguised forms. Reactions in word or deed, arising quickly out of difficult situations, can expose the poisons hidden in our hearts if we have the courage to look honestly.

How can I please and honor God in this moment and this situation? Scripture is clear on this matter. Col. 3:17 tells us, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…” 1 Cor. 10:31 instructs that “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” We easily overlook that the word  “all” includes everything, even day to day speech and behavior. And particularly how we deal with interpersonal difficulty and conflict.

How can I demonstrate grace and love? This may be the hardest question. We carry strong tendencies to find fault in others and to excuse ourselves. or believe our thinking is pure enough to justify a critical spirit or a harsh word from us.

Yet we are told clearly that this approach will neither glorify God nor serve others. Prov. 12:18 declares, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (NIV). We should not take casually the terms used, reckless and wise. One or the other will be revealed in our speech.  And note the term “sword”. How destructive negative or accusatory words, even “polite” criticism, can be.


As we ponder and apply these truths, we gain a new understanding that biblically our lives in the body of Christ are not our own. Each of us has a purpose far removed from advancement and protection of our self-driven desires and opinions. A large part of that purpose is found in Eph. 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only what is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  

Neither ought we neglect the words of James: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not promote the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19). There is a great difference between being “right” and being “righteous”.  

The next article will come quickly, and we will work there on applying these thoughts to real-life experiences. For now, we point out that these principles do not apply themselves naturally and often not easily. Like the railroad crossing, there is no barrier to force us to stop, looK, and listen. The temptation can be great to neglect, even knowingly disregard  biblical warnings in favor of what we may believe is important or necessary. And we can pay a serious price for ourselves and others.

In the summer of 1964, a classmate of mine was killed along with five family members when their vehicle was driven into a railroad crossing at the exact time that a freight train reached the crossing.  The car was struck broadside and dragged 400 feet before the train was able to stop.
The crossing was in a rural area and had no gates or flashing flights. But it did have the standard X sign directing drivers to stop, look, listen. Obviously the warnings were not heeded by the driver. I suspect many or most drivers do or have done the same.

What would prompt such dangerous action? There are many so-called excuses that in the end proved of no value. Perhaps they were in a hurry. Or lifelong driving habits may have caused the driver to disregard the warnings and not appreciate the danger. Perhaps the tall cornfields blocked the view of the train from a distance. Or maybe the driver saw the train and believed he could beat it to the crossing.

There are sobering parallels between these actions and our responses to the Bible’s warnings. We may feel too busy, or too upset, to Stop. We can believe that the warnings do not apply to us. We may assume that because the dangers may not be obvious they are not there, so we fail to Look. We may yield to entrenched habits of reacting and not bother to Listen to and follow God’s word.

But when a hidden train strikes our lives, the results can be painfully devastating. Relationships can be broken for long lengths of time or forever by reckless words, judgmental attitudes, and unforgiveness. Family members can become alienated from one another by a critical spirit, prideful separation, or verbal accusations. Trust is easily broken and difficult to restore. Pastors and church leaders can become discouraged and unsure of themselves. The body of Christ can become confused and fractured, and its mission  hampered. Regret, guilt,  and loneliness become prices we pay for our attitudes, words, and conduct.

This is serious business. We’ll see how serious it can be as we walk further.

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