It’s snowing, getting dark and I am getting pelted. The mean girl of our neighborhood is chasing me home from school, chucking snowballs upside my head. She seeks to hurt me as bad as she does with the mean words she hurls, willy-nilly, on the playground during recess. Her tactic this time is a volley of snowballs—fortified with rocks—and she’s throwing them hard, one after another, dead at me.
I don’t fight back. My parents don’t condone such foolishness. Instead, I run—thinking if I can flee, the bad girl and her two mean buddies will stop laughing and attacking me and just go home. Instead, all three howl each time my attacker lobs another snowball, one finally hitting just above my right eye.
My eyelid swollen and smarting, I run on, sliding and sloshing through snow, dodging the missiles, doing my best to cover the five blocks home, and finally making it.
“What happened!” my mother asks, panicked, as I fall through our front door, trying not to cry.
Such a big, hard question for a reflective little girl. Even in third grade, I know my mother’s question isn’t about my injury. It’s not that bad. Instead, my mother craves order. Life, to her—as a physical education teacher in a nearby inner-city neighborhood—must always be logical, sensible, orderly, and explainable. So what happened?
I struggle for words. “She hates me!” I finally say, wiping at my tears.
“She?” Mama asks. “Who’s she?”
“The bad girl!”
Mama twists her mouth. Tending to my swollen eyelid, she settles me down, offering hot cocoa—waiting patiently as I stir, stir, stir away the hurt before I slurp the last comforting sip. Then Mama grabs on her coat and boots, pointing me back outside. Together, apparently, we will march to the bad girl’s house to settle the score.
A gentle word is that important. The right response can change a life.
That’s what I hope, anyway. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, when the bad girl comes out to her porch, Mama looks her over, then gently pulls the child into her arms and simply asks a question: “What’s wrong, baby? Why’d you do this?”
This tough girl, mean as nails, hears my mother’s clear, soft voice—feels the warm embrace holding her close, granting her love and simple kindness—and instantly starts crying, tears running down like rushing water.
She is melting into the acceptance of a gentle touch, not caring that I, who fled her angry attacks only an hour ago, stand watching, gape-eyed, while she blubbers like a baby. Then Mama, pointing to me, firmly tells the girl, “Patricia isn’t your enemy. In fact, she would be your friend.” I would? Mama looks at me solidly and her eyes firmly answer. Love your enemy.
And that’s how she taught me to handle my third-grade mean-girl problem. Speak a gentle word to your enemy and love her. This transforms an enemy to a friend.
Indeed, it worked. Not overnight. But I ceased to be my schoolmate’s target.
End of story? Sadly, no. Telling it stirs me to take a close, contrasting look at the strife in our world—so much of it ablaze with hating, hurting, hitting words. Thus, our internet is the angernet. Righteous anger is now vicious. Civil discourse is anything but. Whether talking of religion, race, sex, or politics, angry people turn on opponents and scream.
And God’s voice? He seems outshouted. Even Christians fail to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us how to speak, instead letting angry diatribes on TV, radio, and social media set hurtful examples.
What has happened?
I put the question to my husband, not on a cold snowy day, but on a bright summer morning as he carries out a bucket of water to anoint our potted flowers.
He is not a philosopher, more a common-sense guy, not to mention a very good gardener. He sets down the bucket. “What’s happened to people?” he asks. He moistens a mound of pansies. “We forget. Life is for speaking of good.”
I consider that for a minute, finally hearing his core point: We forget. Even God’s people forget—to speak gently to life, to answer hurt with love. Starting with myself. Somewhere along the way, despite my mother’s good example, I forgot the humble wisdom of Proverbs 15:1, that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”
Instead, I confess: I have chastised telemarketers, store clerks, political adversaries, even my husband—allowing disagreements between us to turn sarcastic, mean, and hurtful.
A gentle word? Why did its sweetness elude me? How could such harsh words find a home again in my angry mouth?
We forget. Even God’s people forget—to speak gently to life, to answer hurt with love.
Seeking answers, I looked up the word gentle, discovering its Middle English roots mean “clan, kin, or the family of one’s birth.” Thus for people of Christ, gentle talk should emerge naturally from our relationship with the Lord—indeed, with our rebirth in Him. After all, the Holy Spirit’s voice is “still” and “small” (1 Kings 19:12 KJV).
And me? When peeved, like many believers, I could be agitated, angry, and loud.
For years, I blamed life. As an example, the first time I was called the N-word—by a little white girl barely 5 years old—I was too confounded to react. How should I answer her? With my own hateful words and rebuke? Weary of our nation’s sad racial standoffs, I just shook my head and walked on, deeming her unworthy of even a word. Looking back, I should have said something.
What’s wrong, baby? Why’d you do this?
A gentle word is that important. The right response can change a life. My schoolteacher mother grasped that, understanding the pure glory of asking a gentle question. As she did, who did she sound like? Our Christ.
Who touched me? Do you see anything? Do you want to be healed?
With such questions, Jesus spoke into the crucible of human pain. The result? Immediate healing. Therein lies every believer’s challenge: to answer problems with healing gentleness—sounding not like hate, but like Him. Then, as Jesus said in John 13:35, the world will know us.
I’m telling myself these things today, remembering that while the Bible urges silence in certain times (Eccl. 3:7), other tough times desperately need our replies, but declared in love.
No wonder Mordecai advised Queen Esther to speak up. Knowing of Haman’s plot against the Jews, he pleaded with her to go talk to the king: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14).
David, too, reflected on the power of answering rightly to a hard challenge: “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Psalm 32:3). Promising to “guard my mouth as with a muzzle while the wicked are in my presence,” David discovered his sorrow grew not better but worse when he stayed silent. His remedy? He spoke, not to put down his enemies, but to humbly and gently beseech the Lord: “Make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am” (Psalm 39:1-4).
This is an extraordinary answer to a tough moment. Instead of replying harshly to enemies, David answered God—gently asking for help to understand the vanity of life. The miracle of this ought to stop us for a minute, capture our attention with the sheer marvel of speaking graciously and lowly in tough times because “gracious words are pure” in the Lord’s sight (Prov. 15:26 NIV).
I confess not fully understanding this until a beloved first cousin lost her ability to speak after suffering a stroke. With her good attitude and personality, she communicates now with gestures, vocal sounds, and written notes. But our family still misses her voice, the affirming kindness of its sound, her natural way of expressing hope—even about a trial.
As for me, an introvert still blessed to speak out loud, I challenge myself here to answer life with sweeter words, letting the Holy Spirit deploy my tongue so it sounds like His.
In my sunny front yard, as I sprinkle life-giving water on potted plants, I ponder the deep consequences of answering life’s hard moments so I sound as if I know God. Reflecting on this, I can suddenly again see her: the mean girl.
In my memory, I recall that after my mother’s gentle questioning, my bully turned to good, no longer mistreating me. No, we didn’t become best friends. But over many years, up to middle school when my family moved away, she would wave sometimes on the playground, giving me a smile.
“Hey,” I answered, smiling back.
A gentle word. First it refines the mouth. Then Christ uses it to turn our hurting hearts back to Him.
Photography by Ryan Hayslip