“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
If you were ever a child on a playground, chances are you’ve heard this little jingle. Taught to kids as a way to fend off bullies and maintain their self-esteem, it reminds children that words only have power over us if we let them. No one, no matter how powerful, can control how we feel or what we think of ourselves. And yet even the weakest words from the weakest people often do just that, even to adults.
Likely, it is not “sticks and stones” that cause us the most grief on any given day—things that will objectively hurt us—but rather those little, insignificant, and powerless words that come from our neighbor. How easily we are thrown into fits of anger, frustration, and misery when called something offensive. How quickly our sense of self comes crashing to the ground when told something hurtful. For many of us, what people say and think about us is often the greatest source of strife we face, defining us and bringing us down.
We know the opposite to be true as well. How surprisingly happy, uplifted, and hopeful we feel when given an unexpected compliment. How bolstered our sense of self becomes when we are affirmed by someone we respect. For many of us, what people say and think about us is often the greatest source of assurance we receive, defining us and lifting us up.
Quite contrary to what we tell our children, words do have power over us. And I wonder: should they?
To find the answer, we once again look to Scripture and call ourselves to imitate the one we follow. In the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Passion read each year on Palm Sunday, we find a man bombarded with “words.” Ranging from glorious hymns of praise and thanksgiving for his life and ministry to ruthless shouts of disgust and vitriol for his religious dissent, Jesus is surrounded by others’ opinions of him. Any of us, I can only assume, would have been moved to ecstatic joy to crushing despair in mere hours. And yet Jesus is unwavering: Hearing his name called like a celebrity does not inflate his ego or fill him with pride; and being falsely accused and treated like a common criminal doesn’t cause him to lose hope.
How? He has confidence in who he is, and no one, good or bad, can take that way from him.
But here’s the thing: Jesus’ confidence does not come from within. He is not simply some super guru or courageously-willed survivor who believes he’s able to accomplish anything he sets his mind to. It is not himself that Jesus believes in. No, his confidence comes from God the Father. The reason that Jesus is completely unfazed by what people are saying around him is because he knows who he is and where he comes from: He is the Son of the Father. Who could ever take that away? What could ever challenge that status? What “words” could cause him to think more of less of hmself than he already does? Jesus lives with unbridled confidence in this fact.
And so should we.
In our being created in the image of God and recreated in our baptism, we find ourselves as adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly God. More than anything else, this status found in our relationship to the Father defines everything about us. I’ll say it again: we are adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly God. If this is the case and we truly believe it, what could ever matter more in life than pleasing God? What could ever define our sense of self more than what God thinks of us?
In this season of Lent, as we approach the joy of Easter, we are reminded time and time again how much God loves us and wants to be with us. That which we seek most is right before us. Emboldened by this ultimate truth, may we live with the same confidence that led Jesus to accept the world around him without wavering, saying with true conviction that “words will never hurt me.”