The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.
— Proverbs 18:21

We can all think of a conversation that was formative in shaping us. Maybe it was the teacher who saw something special in us and called it out. Or possibly it was the boss who encouraged you after you tanked that super important meeting.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned scenarios typically aren’t the stories we remember. The stories that resonate are the ones where the words spoken took life rather than gave it. The coach who humiliated you because you missed a play. Or maybe it was the insecure parent who criticized you at every opportunity. Those are the stories we can’t forget. The Bible tells us that there is power in the words we use:

The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.
— Proverbs 18:21

Someone who doesn’t know my story may assume that my rise to the title Dr. J was smooth sailing, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Growing up, I struggled academically. It was so bad that I had teachers, speech therapists and tutors. It truly was a team effort every year to move on. I survived middle school and endured high school, but then came my first semester of college. The big leagues.

I was told, “You need to get off to a good start in college. Your first semester sets the tone for your academic career.”

Good start. Got it. There was one problem though. I didn’t have a good start, I had a terrible start! Entering college, I made two wrong assumptions:
1. I assumed the minimal effort I applied in high school would net the same results in college.
2. I assumed that my professors would understand and be gracious when I missed class because I was leading our college golf team to illustrious conference championships.

Neither assumption was correct, and my academic start was in trouble. How bad, you ask? When midterms came out that semester, I was the proud owner of a 1.7 GPA! Not the start I wanted. No one was predicting academic success for me and I wondered if I was cut out for college.

While home on Christmas break, I went to watch my old high school basketball team. I just wanted to be somewhere familiar, somewhere that didn’t remind me of college. While at the game, I ran into my old English teacher, Mrs. Swicke. I should probably say “former” English teacher, as she most likely wouldn’t like the adjective “old”.

Mrs. Swicke and I talked a little, and she inevitably asked how college was going. I don’t know why I opened up and told her my story, but I shared with her about my grades and my poor performance my first semester. During our talk, she never seemed shocked or scared, she just listened. When I finished talking, she just looked at me and said, “You will be fine. I know you, and you don’t really start trying until you have to.”

And then she walked away. Probably not the best motivational speech, but it worked. Her words gave me new life. Her words helped me believe that, when I applied myself, I was cut out for college.

That next semester, I returned confident of my ability all because of one short sentence from an old, I mean former, teacher.

I have often wondered where I would have been without the encouraging words of Mrs. Swicke. The truth is that I will never know. She took away the possibility of failure by being an encourager. Such simple words of encouragement had a profound impact on my life. To this day, she has no idea what her words meant to me that night.

The tongue has power to bring death and life.