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Only Say The Word: The Healing Power Of Human Speech

Matthew 8:5-13

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from one of our members, Captain Bob Porter. This is what the letter said: “Dr. Edington, I have often wondered how you conduct your selection of sermon topics and the research associated with them. However you do it, I would be thrilled if you would consider Matthew 8:5-13. I would like to hear your interpretation through faith on this special passage. Over the years of my military service I found that this specific passage was especially interesting to me personally. While I am certainly not a biblical scholar, I think it is the only one in which Jesus is said to have been astonished by an act of another. Additionally, I think it is a great story of faith from an unlikely candidate. A non-Jew, Roman officer, with high social standing, and great power, yields to Christ’s greatness, not for personal gain, but to secure health and a full life for another. More importantly, this officer, who would have had much blood on his hands, is not condemned or rebuked by Jesus, but is praised for his great faith. What a blessing to know that despite our deeds, what Christ most desires is our faith. And to receive the blessings of his forgiveness we need only to recognize his authority, granted by God the Father. With great respect, Bob Porter.”

Well, I did what the letter suggested. I dove into this great story from Matthew 8. In a moment, I will share with you what I found, but first listen to the way Matthew tells the story: (Read Matthew 8:5-13.)

In one of the Peanuts comic strips, Charlie Brown receives a surprise phone call from a secret admirer. She says: “Charlie Brown, this is your secret admirer. I want you to know that I think you are charming, dashing, and wonderful. I am leaving for camp this afternoon and while I am there, I will be thinking of you every minute. I will miss you, Charlie Brown, and I will look forward to seeing your handsome face when I return. I love you!” Then she hangs up. And Charlie Brown, the perennial loser, stands there by the phone stunned, with this incredible grin splitting his face. “Who was that?” asks Linus. Still grinning broadly, Charlie Brown says: “I don’t know but I think it was the right number!”

The message is clear. Words are powerful. The right words, spoken at the right time by the right person have the amazing ability to lift us, to inspire us, to motivate us, to affirm us, to invigorate us, and, yes, even to heal us. In his book, The Healing Heart, Norman Cousins relates a true story which makes the point dramatically. A man was in the hospital, desperately ill, and growing weaker and weaker by the day from a severe heart problem. One morning, he overheard his doctor tell the attending staff that this patient had a “third-sound-gallop” in his heart. Now, as I understand it, a “third-sound-gallop” is a sign that the heart muscle is straining and usually failing. Strangely enough, however, this man suddenly began to improve. Eventually he made a complete recovery. His doctor, amazed at his incredible recovery, asked him later if he could explain this remarkable turn-around. The man replied: “Doctor, I know exactly what happened and I know exactly when it happened. I was sure the end was near. However, that Thursday morning when you and your staff came to examine me everything changed. You listened to my heart and you said to all those standing about my bed that my heart had a “wholesome gallop.” I know you doctors talk straight to each other. So when I overheard you tell your colleagues that my heart had a “wholesome gallop,” I figured I was not going to die. For the first time my spirits were lifted, and that’s when I turned the corner!” Isn’t that amazing? The astonishing power of words to bring healing!

That’s what this story in Matthew 8 is all about. A Roman centurion came to Jesus with a most unusual request. He said: “Lord, my servant is gravely ill. I’m so worried about him. He is paralyzed and in great distress. He needs your help. Only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

Now Bob Porter is exactly right. This is the only time Jesus is noted as being “amazed” at the actions of another. Why was He amazed at this centurion? For one thing, He was amazed at the centurion’s concern for his servant. Most masters treated their slaves with contempt in those days. But this centurion was different. He obviously loved this servant like a member of his family. And I think Jesus was amazed that this soldier who possessed great power and who was accustomed to being in charge and in command was willing to humble himself before Jesus, not for personal gain but for the benefit of someone else. Most of all, I think Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith. He said: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but if You will just say the word, my servant will be healed.” Here was a man who knew that his own sins and shortcomings rendered him undeserving of special favor, but he also knew that the grace of Jesus Christ is given not to those who are deserving but those who are faithful, not to those who behave, but to those who believe. Jesus was so moved by this man and his faith that He “said the word.” He said: “Go, let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed. End of story.

But not end of message. I want you to zero in with me on the healing power of words. “Only say the word and healing will come.” Of course, we know that Jesus could speak words of healing, but what we may not so readily recognize is that to a lesser degree, so can we! Our words can bring healing to broken hearts and wholeness to grieving spirits. Let me be specific…

We can speak the healing words of empathy.

Empathy is a great word, but it is an even greater spirit. Let me define it like this: “Sympathy” means to feel sorry for somebody; “Empathy” means to feel sorry with somebody. It’s to feel their hurt, to experience their pain, to walk in their shoes.

I love the story about the little girl who was late coming home from school one day. Her mother asked what had taken her so long. The little girl said: “My friend, Nancy, was sad because her puppy died today, and I stayed to help.” The mother asked: “And how did you help?” The little girl replied: “I helped her cry.” That is precisely what empathy is. It’s helping people cry, sharing their pain, hurting with them, holding their hands as they walk through the hard valleys of life.Jesus was a master at that. He could tune in to the heartache of another instantly. He could feel the deep loneliness of Zacchaeus when he saw him perched up in the sycamore tree. He could sense the desperation in the cries of Blind Bartimaeus. He could recognize the significance of that timid touch on the hem of His garment and He could feel the pain of that woman who had been so sick so long. Jesus could feel and share the pain of others, and because of that He always knew the right word, the empathetic words to say to bring healing.

A number of years ago in a mental hospital outside Boston, a little girl known as “Little Annie” was locked in a dungeon. She had been declared hopelessly insane and so she was consigned to this miserable place which received little light and even less hope. But in that hospital was an elderly nurse who felt that there was hope for all God’s children so she decided to try and help “Little Annie.” She began spending her lunch hour just outside the door to “Little Annie’s” cage. She would talk and tell stories to “Little Annie”, but no response was forthcoming. The girl gave no indication she was even aware of the nurse’s presence. One day, the nurse brought some brownies to the dungeon and left them just outside the bars but within reach. “Little Annie” didn’t even look, but when the nurse returned the next day, the brownies were gone. From that time forward, the nurse would leave some treat each day. In turn, Annie began to speak to her. They became friends. The doctors noticed an amazing improvement in “Little Annie”. They took her out of the dungeon and began to work with her. In time, this “hopeless case” became completely well. The doctors then told her she could leave the hospital. She said “No.” She wanted to stay and help others. Later on, however, she did leave but it was only to help another little girl who was locked in a different kind of prison and who was having a hard time. Annie went to help this little girl who had also been written off as a hopeless case. By the way, the name of the troubled little girl Annie went to help was Helen Keller. “Little Annie’s” real name was Anne Sullivan. “Only say the words of empathy and healing will come.”

And we can speak the healing words of love.

It has been documented time and again that love promotes healing. Of course, love is the spirit of Jesus Christ and it’s that spirit of love that we need as Christian people. For the reality is that when our words are words of love, they bring great blessing to the lives of others.

Those of you who are ardent football fans will remember the Super Bowl a couple of years ago when the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills by a single point. You will remember that Buffalo almost won the game in the final seconds. With four seconds on the clock the Bills’ kicker, Scott Norwood, attempted a field goal from 47 yards out. The ball was high enough and long enough but it was wide by just a few feet. The Bills lost the game. Scott Norwood felt horrible. He felt that he had lost the game for his team and for all the fans back home. The next day, the Buffalo team returned to their city and more than 25,000 people turned out to welcome them. They cheered the coach. They cheered the team. But most of all they cheered Scott Norwood. The crowd chanted: “We love Scott! We love Scott!” Finally, in a moment charged with deep emotion, Scott Norwood stepped to the microphone. In a voice breaking with pain, he said: “I’ve got to tell you that I am struggling with this right now, but I know I’m going to make it because I have never felt more loved than I do at this moment.” Those chants of love were a healing force to Scott Norwood’s life.

Just about one year ago now, my mother died after an incredibly long and tragic battle against Alzheimer’s Disease. When we returned from the funeral, I sat down and went through the mail. There were so many cards and notes and letters and telegrams from you expressing your love for me and my family. One of those notes I will never forget. It was only five words long, but it said it all. “Caring, I share your sorrow.” That’s all it said. “Caring, I share your sorrow.” But those words touched me deeply. They became words of love which God used to heal my grief. “Only say the words of love, and healing will come!”

Then we can speak the healing words of encouragement.

Let me challenge you this week to find a way to speak a word of encouragement to someone in the circle of your acquaintance. A letter, a note, a phone call doesn’t cost much—just a few cents and a little time—but what an impact a word of encouragement from you will make in another person’s life!

Rod Wilmoth is a minister in Omaha, Nebraska. This last year he was delivering a series of lectures during Lent at a church in East Texas. The pastor of that East Texas church has a son named Dolph (short for Rudolph). Dolph is in his mid-twenties but he lives at home with his parents because he was born with Down’s Syndrome. Dolph is a joy to his family and to his church. He has a job in a fast food restaurant which he handles quite well. He also sets up the rooms at the church for Sunday School each week. Well, during the lecture series, each evening after Dr. Wilmoth’s presentations they had a question and answer session. One night, Dolph raised his hand and asked: “Dr. Wilmoth, do you think if Jesus saw me that He would see someone who is not normal? Would He see someone with Down’s Syndrome?” A great hush fell over the hall. But I want you to hear the word Rod Wilmoth spoke to Dolph. He said: “Dolph, I believe that Jesus would see what I see. When I look at you, Dolph, I do not see someone who has Down’s Syndrome. I see a wonderful delightful child of God.” And I want you to hear what Dolph said in response. With his face beaming, Dolph said: “I know what you mean, Dr. Wilmoth, because when I receive communion and see the hands of my Dad giving me the bread, I look up and I do not see my Dad. Instead, I see the face of Jesus.”

Let me ask you something. Has anyone ever looked at you like that? Has anyone ever sensed the presence of Christ in you like that? When, in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we speak words of encouragement, people may well see in us the face of Jesus. “Only say the words of encouragement, and the healing will come.”


One day, a Roman centurion laid aside his power and authority and took up his faith and said to Jesus: “Lord, if you will only say the word, then my servant will be healed.” Write that upon your hearts and live it in your lives. Say the words of empathy and love and encouragement. For if we will only say the words, then God will bring the healing…

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