Leadership Wisdom – Using Words to Imprison and Kill

By Uli Chi

March 24, 2023

Scripture — Matthew 5:21-22 (NRSV)

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.


Jesus’ stark warning should stop us in our tracks. Using the most vivid metaphors available, Jesus warns us against the deadly folly of uninhibited and undisciplined anger and speech.


Words matter. Despite the sentiments of the children’s rhyme Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, we have all seen the damaging effects of verbal bullying. I remember the first time a “friend” called me out with an Asian racial slur. I was in middle school over a half-century ago. But I remember it as if it was yesterday. Words can cut deep. And they can both form and deform a life.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as murderers. But Jesus challenges us to see the effect, not only of our actions, but of our attitudes and words. And our words sometimes reveal (and betray) what lurks beneath. Take for example the modern phrase character assassination. Without the necessity of physical violence, we can destroy another person with words. With the advent of social media, we see this done regularly and with seeming impunity by political, business and religious leaders. This is how things get done in the world. Our side must win whatever the cost in human life and reputation.

Jesus’ stark warning should stop us in our tracks. Using the most vivid metaphors available, Jesus warns us against the deadly folly of uninhibited and undisciplined anger and speech.

Wildfire burning in the Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, United States, in 2020.

Wildfire burning in the Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, United States, in 2020. Public domain.

Likely drawing on Jesus’ own teaching, the Apostle James challenges us to tame our tongues (and by implication our written words). James describes their widespread destructive potential: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3:5b, NIV). With great irony and particular relevance for our moment in history, he notes the incongruity of claiming to be followers of Jesus and speaking careless and murderous violence in the public square. To quote James directly: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:9-10, NIV).

Words can imprison and kill. That’s Jesus blunt warning. In our “say anything” culture, that warning is prescient for the Church today. We who follow “the Word made flesh” should of all people be careful with what we say and how we say it. No doubt that was difficult two millennia ago when James wrote his epistle. It is even more difficult now, when words have been turned into commodities to be bought and sold to gain celebrity status and build media platforms.

And words can imprison and kill not only our intended victims but ourselves. That too is Jesus’ point. When we lash out in anger at others, we dehumanize not only them but ourselves. We become, in Jesus’ words, “subject to judgment.” Words are not just words. They carry weight that has to be borne both by the recipient and by the speaker. As Marilyn McEntyre wisely wrote, “Caring for language is a moral issue” (Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies).

We need to recover thoughtful and careful speech in all our communications as leaders. Words can imprison and kill. But they can also set free and bring life. We will talk more about the latter in tomorrow’s reflection.


Think about situations where you’ve seen people use words to damage others’ reputations. How did those words affect their intended targets? How did that experience affect others, including the author of the words?


Review this last month for situations that made you angry. How did you respond? What might it look like to speak the truth in love even when you are angry? Note the words you used and what you might want to do differently next time.


Lord Jesus Christ,

We know that you got angry when faced with arrogance, injustice, and indifference. But we also know that you deeply loved the people who made you angry. Help us to learn how to discipline our speech and our writing so that we can communicate the truth in love, even when we are angry.

We ask in your name,

Artwork: Kaibab National Forest Fire (2020) – Wildfire – Wikipedia

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: What Is Righteousness? (Matthew 5:17-48).

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Uli Chi

Board Member, Senior Fellow, Affiliate Professor

Dr. Uli Chi’s career is a testament to his unique approach to leadership. He has navigated the realms of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, the theological academy, and the local church, gleaning a wealth of wisdom from each. As an award-winning technological entrepreneur, h...

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