FamilyLife Today®

Breaking the Curse of Words, Part 1

with Tom Elliff | December 29, 2008
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Tom Elliff discusses the pain of verbal warfare and the healing that God alone can bring.

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  • Tom Elliff discusses the pain of verbal warfare and the healing that God alone can bring.

Tom Elliff discusses the pain of verbal warfare and the healing that God alone can bring.

Breaking the Curse of Words, Part 1

With Tom Elliff
December 29, 2008
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Bob: Your words have great power, either for good or for evil.  In fact, there are things you may have said in passing that left a profound mark on someone's soul.  Here is Dr. Tom Elliff.

Tom: A missionary said to me on one occasion, "I'd like to believe that I'm here because God called me to Africa," but he said, "you know, something very interesting happened when I stepped off the airplane onto the tarmac," he said, "I wanted to stick my tongue out across the ocean back toward a little lady in a country church I once pastored, who said, 'Preacher, you don't care anything about missions,'" but he said, "I wonder – am I just trying to prove something to a lady who probably can't remember my name?"

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, December 29th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll spend some time exploring the profound power of our words in relationships on today's program.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Monday edition.  You know, I think most of us fail to realize when we're speaking to friends or co-workers or especially to our spouses, that little things we say, sometimes even without thinking, can get stuck in their head and can stay with them for a lifetime, and it can affect them for good, or it can affect them for ill.

Dennis: You know, it was just – it wasn't too long ago I was talking with a young man, 22 years of age, and I was just reminded of how much unbelief, how much uncertainty and how much young men need a young woman who will believe in them.  And that's what Barbara did for me when I was 22.  She took a young man, and she expressed words of belief, and rather than using words that cursed me, she used words that built me up, and that pointed me in the direction to do what's right.

You know, it was said of Jezebel that she incited her husband to do evil.  And I think we forget sometimes that within our own capability, as we speak words to one another in a marriage relationship and in a family with our children, we have some small, mystical powers of speaking words that can either greatly benefit and greatly encourage and direct a person in the right way, or we can curse a person, we can speak negatively to a person and, in the process, rip and tear away at the very image of God in whom they were created.

Bob: You know, a few weeks ago, Dr. Tom Elliff was here and joined us on FamilyLife Today, and while he was here, I remembered a message that he shared with our staff – oh, this has been several years ago, but it was a message that was really a powerful message about the power of our words for good or for ill.

Tom was the pastor for a number of years of the First Southern Baptist Church in Dell City, Oklahoma – that's outside of Oklahoma City.  Today he is with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Conventions and helps plant missionaries all over the world – helps train and disciple and prepare men and women for work out on the mission field.  He is the author of a number of books, and when he was here just a few weeks ago, we were talking about this message that he shared with our staff, and he told me that he shared this message in a variety of settings all around the world.

And he said he never fails to have somebody come up and talk about just how profoundly their own life has been marked by somebody else's words, something somebody said to them at a point in their life that shaped them for life.  And, you know, as we start to head toward the new year, it may be a good New Year's resolution for us to consider to think and to act more carefully when it comes to how we use our words and to purpose to use them for good and not for ill.

Tom: [from audiotape.]  I'd like to just open my heart for a few moments and talk with you about breaking what I want to call "the curse of words."  Now, words can be used to bless and encourage, but words can also be used to curse.  And I'm not speaking about words that you use as bywords, cursing, but I'm speaking about words which all of us say or which all of us have heard, which have a lingering, negative effect.  We absorb them much like we would absorb passive smoke.  We don't know that it's beginning to do its damage, but these words do their damage.

I recall speaking on this some years ago in a church, and a lady came up to me afterwards, and she said, "You know, my husband has not sung a note of music for over 50 years."  She said, "When he was in the third grade, they were practicing for a Christmas pageant, and the teacher lined everyone up, and she didn't mean to hurt his feelings.  She probably doesn't even remember having said it," but she said, "Let's run through this again, and she called his name, and she said, 'This time I'd rather you not sing, I think you're singing offkey.'" 

Now, you know, if it had been another situation or another person that might have rolled off him like water off a duck's back, but in that moment and with that person who was so significant to him, it lacerated his heart, and he has never sung a note of music since.

A missionary said to me on one occasion, "I'd like to believe that I'm here because God called me to Africa."  But he said, "You know, something very interesting happened when I stepped off of the airplane onto the tarmac."  He said, "I wanted to stick my tongue out across the ocean back toward a little lady in a country church I once pastored who said, 'Preacher, you don't care anything about missions.'"  He said, "I'd like to believe I'm here, I've brought my family here, and we've gone to all this trouble and expense because God called us," but he said, "I wonder, am I just trying to prove something to a lady who probably can't remember my name today" – the curse of words.

A few years ago, I was driving across Eastern Oklahoma.  I don't know why that particular evening I didn't have one of our staff members with me or Jeannie wasn't with me, and I know probably because it was a very long trip, and I wasn't going to get home until after midnight, and I found myself meditating on the sermon subject for the coming Sunday, which was "Thou shalt not bear false witness." 

And I turned over to this passage in James and put the Bible in the car seat beside me and began to read these words, which we're going to be looking at in a few moments, and it occurred to me that in my lifetime there had been five statements, which had had a negative impact.

In the back of my mind, I new that they weren't true, but the aggravating irony of it was that I was fulfilling all of those prophecies.  Some of them began with statements like this – "You will never," or "You can't," or "You're just like."  I remember one, in particular, the only one that I prefer to tell you about this morning, and I overheard – I mentioned passive smoke – I overhead at an airport at a convention, annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I was pastoring a very small church, just out of seminary, and I was standing by some men who were there getting their luggage and these were, in my mind "big boys." 

And I heard one of them turn to the other, a man whom I respected a great deal and didn't even know I was standing there, wouldn't know my name if he had noticed me.  I heard him say to another friend as they talked about a pastor who had a great church but had been struggling.  He said, "Well, you know, if you ever had it and lose it, you never get it again."

Years later, when I came back from Africa and began to wonder, "God, do you want me to pastor, do you want us to go back to the mission field, should I go into evangelism, conference speaking, what do you want me to do?"  I remember the statement, "If you ever had it and lost it, you'd never get it again."  And then I asked this question, "God, is it true – are my best days of ministry behind me?"  And, for several years, I lived in fear that that was true – the curse of words.

Driving back that evening, God showed me how to break the curse of those words.  It ushered me into a time of revival that lingers to this day.  As a matter of fact, when I got home that night, well after midnight, I could hardly speak I was so hoarse from singing at the top of my lungs.  God had set me free.

The next morning at the breakfast table I told our children, "Look, would you make sure that you plan nothing for this evening.  I want everybody here at the table.  I have something I want to share with you."  And that evening, I shared with my family a little bit of my experience, and they were so sober, you know, I mean, or somber, I guess, is the word – they usually were sober.


A little trouble with Jeannie, but the rest of them were okay.


But – I thought, "Well, maybe they don't understand what I'm talking about," and I turned to my daughter immediately to my left – my daughter, Amy – who looked at me and said, "Daddy, I've got one."  I said, "Really?"  She said, "Yes, Daddy, you know, two or three years ago" – now this is a young lady who won Homecoming Queen that year, a beautiful lady who now, with her husband, missionaries in Cambodia.  She said, "Daddy, you know, two or three years ago at a family reunion, I walked into the den, and I don't know who all was there, I don't really remember, but I kicked the table, and a porcelain figurine fell over, and someone said, 'Amy, you're the clumsiest person in the world.'"  She said, "Ever since that moment, when I'm around anyone, I just worry about not breaking anything and keeping my feet under my chair." 

I remember my son, John, saying, "Dad, some of my friends say, 'John, you're of great value to us because you always have a joke.'"  So he said I guess I've always just assumed that my call in life was to keep people laughing.  And then another one of my daughters said, "I was told by a friend one time that the only reason I had any friends at all was because I was the pastor's daughter.  She said, "I've tried to live around that.  I wanted you to be a pastor, but I wasn't sure that I wanted that to be the reason that I had friends.  I wanted to have friends because I had friends," and I looked at my wife, and she said, "Well, you know," she said, "My dad had a little drinking problem when I was growing up," and she said, "I was told that I would never amount to anything."  And she said, "I can distinctly remember those words."

Well, I shared with my family what I'm going to share with you, just in brief, for a few minutes.  When we joined hands around that table and, literally, one at a time, broke the curse of those words and ushered our family into a time of revival.  We talk about it today, and that's been almost 10 years ago, and we'd speak of it today – how God set us free and showed us how to remain in freedom from the curse of words.

Every place I go, I meet people whose hearts have been touched at moments, you know, years and miles away.  And just thinking about those words today can cause their blood pressure to go up or their gall bladder to become overactive, you know, and their adrenalin to flow, and they begin to worry, "Well, am I really fulfilling the curse of those words?"

First of all, I'd like for you to believe in something, and I think you do, and that is the awesome potential of words in our life.  Words can heal but words can also hurt.  And I know you hear a lot about healing words and blessing family members, but let me just talk about words that hurt for a few moments.

Look with me at James, chapter 3.  He says, "Behold, we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn about their whole body.  Words, you see, can exert control over you."  I remember when I was growing up, you know, it was very important to everybody in our family that we eat everything on our plate.  As a matter of fact, I think some of you can remember this, so I want you to help me out, all right?  I want you to complete this statement – "Eat everything on your plate, after all think of" … "all the starving in China."  Now, what do the starving in China have to do with eating everything on your plate?

Well, being a person of great concern, I began to eat for China.


Later on, my mission vision expanded.  I began to eat for several other countries …


About mid-life I took on a global focus in terms of my eating, and it became a problem.  And I thought, you know, "Where did all this start?  Where did this start?"  And you could even remember those words, too – "Eat everything on your plate because people are starving in China."  Now, that doesn't even make sense, to start with.  But, on the other hand, it's a curse of words, it's a curse of words.

Words have the power to exert control.  But the way, words also have the power to establish the course of our life.  Notice he says in verse 4, "Behold also the ships which, though they are so great, and they're driven of fierce winds, yet they are turned about with a very small helm" wherever the captain or the governor wants it to go – with what?  Just a small rudder, you can establish the course of a ship, and with a few words you can establish the course of a life.

Now, positively – you remember Dwight L. Moody once heard a man say that the world has yet to see what God would do with the life of a man who was totally committed to Him.  But it can also affect us negatively. 

I knocked on the door of a home in our community one day, and a young lady met me there at the door, and I invited her to church, and she said, "Never.  I'll never go to church."  And she said, "Because when I was growing up, my mother said, 'You will go to church.  You will always go to church,' and she said I am not going to let my mother run my life."  I said, "Well, she still is, just in reverse, but she still has established the course of your life with her words."

So, you know, you pick up Reader's Digest and read, you know, "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power."  So I think you believe, along with me, in the awesome potential of words in our life. 

Secondly, this morning, I'd like for you to beware of something, and that's the awful problem with words in our life.  I'd like to just read through the verses, which follow here in James, chapter 3, and to suggest some terminology, which these verses describe for us.

First of all, we are told that in the tongue there is iniquity.  Notice verses 5 and 6 – "Even so the tongue is a little member it boasts great things.  Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindles," and the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.  Why is there such iniquity in our tongues?  Because our tongues are tied to a rebellious heart.

The Book of Proverbs tells us that the longer we speak, the more likely it is that we are going to sin.  In fact, it says, "In much speaking there is sin."  Why is that?  Because the longer you talk, the more you begin to dredge out what's in the bottom of your heart.  I usually step onto the bus when our students are going on a long trip, say, a week-long choir tour, something like that, and I remind them, "Now, look, you're going to be together for a long, long time, and you're going to be talking through the night as you drive.  Could I remind you that our tongue is tied to an iniquitous heart?  And if you're not careful, things which you wouldn't think about mentioning the first hour of this trip, you'll start talking about before the night has passed – in the tongue there is a world of iniquity."

By the way, there is another word here, and that's the word "insubordination."  Let's just continue – verse 7 – he says, "For every kind of beast and of birds and of serpents and things in the sea is tamed, and has been tamed of mankind, but the tongue can no man tame."

Bob: We have to break in here.  We've been listening to part 1 of a message from Dr. Tom Elliff where he is illustrating, I think very effectively, how powerful our words can be both to inflict pain in someone else's life or to provide encouragement in someone else's life, and we've got to be careful, we've got to first recognize the power that our tongue has, and then we've got to be aware that our words can actually provide shade and protection for those we love, and we've got to be alert that we don't sin with our tongues.

You know, I think we typically think of sin as being something that we do with our actions, but it is easy to sin with our tongues, and we've got to be on guard against that.

Dennis: You know, I've got a very simple but an encouraging application, and our listeners may not think it's encouraging, but I think it will be.  I want you to take the dinner hour tonight, and instead of turning on the TV or listening to music, instead I want you to visit this concept that Tom has talked about here, about how the curse of words has impacted your life.  And then just go around the table and let each person share.  You may have to kind of share the concept of what Tom has talked about today, but spend some time allowing your children, your spouse, spend some time yourself sharing how the words of someone maybe back when you were in high school, maybe when you were a child growing up, maybe as an adult, maybe it was in your marriage, but just spend some time talking about how words have cast a – well, a negative feeling over you.

And then spend some time closing in prayer about how you, as a family, how you as a person, can break the curse of words in your life.  And, you know, I don't think it's all that difficult, Bob.  I think it's, first of all, naming what it is, and then I think it's turning from believing those words to beginning to believe what Jesus Christ has said about you, and then it's using the strength of a family, where we express love and affirmation and belief and encouragement to one another and cheer one another on.  And, Bob, that's what a family ought to do.  It ought to be involved in breaking the curse of the past and rebuilding the present by using the positive words of love and belief and affirmation and praise.

Bob: You know, I think this is, in part, what the Bible is talking about when it says we are not to be conformed to this world.  You know, we typically think that means don't be conformed to the culture around us, but it can also mean don't be conformed by what the world says about you – whether that was your third-grade teacher or something that your husband or wife may have said that left a scar.  Instead of being conformed by that, you need to be transformed by the renewing of your mind with the washing of the Word of God in your life.  You've got to believe what God says is true rather than what someone else once said about you.

You know, I think maybe the best resource I've come across in years on the subject of the power of our words for good or for ill is a book written by Paul David Tripp called "War of Words," where he really pulls apart different ways that we can use our tongue for good or ways that we can sin with our tongue.  It's a book that we've got in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and I want to encourage our listeners to go to our website,, and you may want to get a book like this as you consider your New Year's resolutions.  For some of us, taming the tongue ought to be something that we are resolved to do in the coming year. 

And I would also encourage husbands and wives to consider getting a copy of the book that you've written, Dennis, called "Building Your Mate's Self-Esteem," because it really is about how we can encourage one another and build one another up in a marriage relationship – what a husband and wife and co to help one another grow in our understanding of what is true about us according to God's Word.

Both of these books, "The War of Words," by Paul David Tripp, and "Building Your Mate's Self-Esteem" by Dennis and Barbara Rainey are on our website,  You can order from the Web, if you'd like, or you can call us at 1-800-FLTODAY – 1-800-358-6329.  That's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  When you contact us, someone on our team will let you know how you can have either or both of these books sent to you.

You know, we have had many of our listeners over the last several weeks contact us, and it's been very encouraging.  Because some of the folks who have either written or who have called to make a year-end donation, some of you have said this is a tough year to do it, but FamilyLife has really had a significant impact in our lives this year, and so we want to support you here at the end of the year.  It's been folks who have been to our Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences, folks who have benefited from the resources and materials we have, and just many of you who listen to our broadcast each day who have gotten in touch with us to say, "We want to support the work of the ministry."  It's been very encouraging, and we appreciate it so much.

We know it is a tough year for folks to make a year-end contribution like this, and so it's very meaningful when we do hear from you.  We are trying to take full advantage of a matching gift that was made available to us earlier this month, and we've got just a couple of days left now to do it.  In order to take full advantage of the $425,000 matching gift, we need to hear from as many listeners as possible who would call or go online at and make a gift of any amount, whether it's $20 or $50 or $100, $500, $1,000, whatever you can do.  Every donation we receive is being matched dollar-for-dollar up to a total of $425,000.

To take full advantage of that, we need to hear from you this week.  In fact, we need to hear from you today.  So if you can go online at or if you can call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation over the phone, we would appreciate it.  Again, we want to say thanks for your support of the ministry, especially in what I know has been a difficult year for many of our listeners and has been a challenging year for us as well.  So thanks again for your contributions to FamilyLife Today.

Now, I hope you can be back with us tomorrow when we're going to hear part 2 of Tom Elliff's message on breaking the curse of words.  This is good stuff for us to be thinking about as we head into a new year, so I hope you can join us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today. 

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow. 


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Episodes in this Series

Resolving Conflict Day 2
Breaking the Curse of Words, Part 2
with Tom Elliff December 30, 2008
Do someone’s harsh words still haunt you?
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