When our children were growing up, one of the things Mary and I tried to teach them was unselfish consideration for other people. But I have to admit, I thought very little about how selfish and inconsiderate our conversations may have sounded. It did not occur to me that I should be teaching them how to communicate with unselfish consideration for others and then modeling it before them, probably because I had never learned much about it myself.
Judging from what I hear, I suspect that there are others who have not learned a great deal about considerate communication either. Some of us have a tendency to interrupt while others are talking, dominate conversations with stories about ourselves, show little interest in what others are saying, get impatient and irritated when they disagree with us, say sarcastic things that offend or belittle, or commit any number of other conversational blunders that demonstrate a gross lack of consideration.
We may have little appreciation for the power of our words. “Who am I?” we ask. “Just a little old nobody. It doesn’t matter what I say. My words don’t affect anybody.” But they do! They affect everyone we speak to—absolutely everyone. They have the power to help and heal, or the power to hurt and destroy. “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” wrote King Solomon (Proverbs 12:18). Some professing Christians swing verbal swords, piercing the souls of other people, inflicting emotional wounds on their spouses, their children, their neighbors, store clerks, telephone operators, or anyone else who gets in their way.
As we have seen, the Apostle Paul penned an extended passage on the use of words (Ephesians 4:25-32). And in one verse he summed up a number of good communication principles: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Paul established two categories of communication in that verse: unwholesome words and edifying words. The first, he says, should be eliminated entirely from our verbal repertoire. There is no room for even a trace of it. We are to weed it all out, then replace it with the second. Obeying this command could vastly improve our ability to get along with each other. But we need to know what kinds of words each category includes. Let’s explore them—first the unwholesome or destructive words, then the edifying or constructive words.
The word unwholesome means “decayed, rotten or diseased.” It is used of rotten or degenerate fruit (Matthew 7:17-18), and rotten or degenerate fish (Matthew 13:48). Unwholesome things are putrid, offensive, useless, worthless or unprofitable—fit for nothing but the trash heap. But worse, when we put a rotten apple in a barrel with good apples, it corrupts the whole lot. It is not only useless, but injurious and harmful. It affects others adversely.
Paul seems to be using the word in this sense of damaging others, because he contrasts unwholesome words with edifying words—words that build up, strengthen and heal. Unwholesome words do just the opposite. They tear down, destroy, offend and hurt. What kind of words did Paul put in this category? The context reveals some. Lying words can injure (v. 25). Bitter words can injure (v. 31). Angry words can injure (v. 31). Malicious, gossiping words can injure (v. 31). All these are discussed in other chapters. What other kinds of words injure people and relationships? Let’s think about a few.
Cutting Words. Solomon spoke of words that pierce like a sword (Proverbs 12:18). They sound like cutting words. David had a problem with people whose tongues cut him. He mentions it several times in the Psalms. For example, he says his former friend Ahithophel, who turned against him, spoke words that were like drawn swords (Psalm 55:21). He spoke of people with swords in their lips and tongues (Psalm 57:4, 59:7, 64:3). We’ve all known folks who have been endowed with sharp tongues. They have the gift of sarcasm. They are masters of the cut, the chop, the put down. They have razor-sharp minds that shoot out razor-sharp words quicker than most people can keep up with them. They may do it to be funny, but they fail to think about how much it hurts the victim. Their verbal assaults smack of the foolish talking or jesting which Paul condemned in Ephesians 5:4.
Some husbands and wives take advantage of social gatherings to cut down their spouses. Rather than lovingly confront in private and talk issues through where they can explore what one another is thinking and feeling, they find it easier to drop little razor blades into the conversation when their spouses cannot fight back. One sharp-tongued husband said, “Dottie doesn’t sleep too late. She gets up in time to watch the afternoon soaps on TV.” But Dottie was not to be outdone: “Max always remembers my birthday—three months later.” And a few more wounds have been inflicted that will arouse antagonism, lead to retaliation, and further decay the relationship. Destructive words! “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”
Nagging words. The book of Proverbs says quite a bit about nagging and its effect. “It is better to live in a corner of a roof, than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Proverbs 21:9). “It is better to live in a desert land, than with a contentious and vexing woman” (Proverbs 21:19). “A constant dripping on a day of steady rain and a contentious woman are alike” (Proverbs 27:15).
There is a difference between nagging and reminding. A reminder is friendly and free from impatience or irritation. But nagging is a repeated, critical request marked by exasperation and anger. It is exactly what Solomon labeled “contentious.” A nag has a tendency to scold, lay blame, make insinuations or accusations that strike at a person’s self-esteem. “When are you ever going to paint the house? Don’t you care what people think?” That is an attempt to create guilt. “Don’t you know any better than to slurp your soup? You eat like an animal.” That is an attempt to shame.
I don’t know why Solomon only picked on the wives. Maybe it was because he had so many of them. But men can be just as guilty. “I wish you’d lose some weight. I’m ashamed to be seen in public with you.” Those words are critical, humiliating and insulting. They hurt and destroy. “I’ve told you a hundred times that I don’t like my coffee this strong.” There is that note of humiliation again. The idea is, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you understand English? Or can’t you remember one simple request? Or can’t you do anything right?”
Nagging words like that are destructive. They irritate, just like the continual drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet. They hurt by making other people feel badly. Such words heap guilt on people, cause them to think less of themselves, chipping away at their self-esteem. Those people probably will strike back in some way in an attempt to restore that injured self-esteem. The result is usually further rotting of the relationship. It isn’t necessary to make people feel badly. When we ask someone to do something, and if they agree to do it but fail, we can remind them lovingly and kindly without communicating disgust, frustration or humiliation. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”
Exaggerated words. There is a ramification of the falsehood we discussed in the last chapter which should be mentioned here in connection with words that destroy relationships, and that is exaggerated generalizations that take the form of absolute statements. I’m referring to words like always and never. “You never take me out to eat.” “You always greet me with a gripe of some kind when I come home from work …” “All you ever think about is ________” (fill in the blank: food, sex, new clothes, etc.). Absolute statements are seldom true and they tend to arouse antagonism in us. They hurt us, so instead of trying to discover what the real problem is that prompted the statement, we focus on proving the statement wrong, and so repairing our injured self-esteem.
When a wife says, “You never take me out to eat,” her husband may reply, “Why of course I do. I remember taking you out just six weeks ago. You don’t remember anything. And besides that, you don’t appreciate anything I do for you.” And the fight is on. The foolish thing is that they are fighting about a false issue. The issue is not when they went out to eat last. It is probably that she is feeling neglected or overworked. He needs to be more sensitive to her needs. But if she would try to identify her feelings and her desires, then express them directly, lovingly and honestly instead of making absolute statements that accuse, there is a good possibility that the relationship would be strengthened rather than strained. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”
Vengeful words. Peter identified some unwholesome words that injure relationships. “To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9). We normally respond to angry accusations with angry accusations. We answer put-downs with put-downs, and sarcasm with sarcasm. That is our human nature.
“You never listen to me,” she charges.
“That’s because you never say anything that’s worth listening to,” he responds.
We usually live by the adage, “When hurt, strike back and hurt in return.” And it does nothing but intensify our conflicts, until they reach the stage of one couple who stood before a judge seeking a divorce.
“Will you please tell the court what passed between you and your wife during the argument that led to this court action?”
“I will,” said the husband. “It was a rolling pin, six plates, and a frying pan.”
Peter suggests that we not return evil for evil or insult for insult. We have a new nature, a supernatural nature which is capable of responding just as the Lord Jesus Himself responded. “And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). By consciously depending on His power, not only can we hold back the vengeful words, but we can speak words that will calm the angry accuser, heal the hurts that have been experienced and strengthen the relationship.
We have seen some words that destroy relationships; now let us look at some that heal and strengthen them—constructive words. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Here in this one verse are some powerful biblical principles that can solve many of our communication problems. If we use them to govern our words, we shall find our relationships improving overnight. Ask yourself, “Do my words edify—do they build the people in my life rather than put them down?” “Are these words what they need at this particular time?” “Will these words minister grace to them—will they benefit them in some way?”
If a wife says to her husband, “You never listen to me,” she surely doesn’t need to hear, “You never say anything worth listening to.” The first statement is false, but two falsehoods do not produce truth. The second falsehood will do more to hurt and destroy than the first did. What does she need at that moment? Words that build! Here are a few.
Gentle words. We mentioned gentle words when we discussed how to deal with the faults of others (chapter 3). But their importance demands some further emphasis. Solomon wrote, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). The word gentle implies words that are tender, delicate and mild. Paul said much the same thing: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). The same tongue that stirs up strife also can communicate kindness, tender-heartedness and forgiveness when it is controlled by the Holy Spirit. Gentle words can soothe and quiet the atmosphere after foolish words have been uttered. When passions rage, accusations are made or unkindnesses hurled, try gentle words. Purposely speak in calm, quiet, kind tones, and choose words that are non-threatening and non-retaliatory. It will be like pouring cold water on burning coals. It takes two to fight. If one decides there is a better way and refuses to retaliate, there will be no fight.
Understanding words. If we are only to speak words that build others up according to their needs, then we obviously must understand those needs. That may require some prayerful thought before we open our mouths. Many of us would rather spew out the first thing that comes to our minds when we are issued an invitation to fight. Solomon has some choice observations about that:
“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20). “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).
Part of that prayerful thought will be an effort to determine exactly what the other person is feeling and trying to communicate to us. They may be saying it rather poorly, but there is probably some need behind it. “You never listen to me” translates into something like, “I don’t think you are listening to me attentatively enough to make me feel loved and understood. And I’m hurting because of it.”
It is unfortunate that we cannot phrase things more carefully and simply say what we feel and what we want, instead of accusing, criticizing, manipulating, exaggerating, belittling, nagging or judging motives. But we all have the problem to some degree, and that should help us try to be more patient with others when they are not communicating properly, and help us try to grasp what is behind their words. Then we can respond with understanding words rather than vengeful words. An understanding response might be, “You may be right. I probably don’t listen to you as carefully as I should. And I can understand why that bothers you. It would bother me, too. I really want to do better. Can you suggest some ideas that would help me improve in this area.”
Do you see what you have done? You have assured her that you understand why she is disturbed. You have given her an opportunity to say more about it, which she probably wanted to do and needed to do. You have let her know you are interested in making the changes in your life that will bring her greater happiness. And you have focused on a solution, getting the discussion out of the fruitless realm of blame. That kind of answer will help build her up, meet her needs and benefit her. It is kind, tender-hearted and forgiving. And what has it cost you besides giving up a clever, smart-alecky remark that wasn’t true in the first place? Understanding words build up and encourage.
Appreciative words. The Apostle Paul himself gave us an example of words that edify and benefit. In many of his letters he included words of commendation and appreciation. For example, to the Philippians he wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5). To the Thessalonians he wrote, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). Neither the Philippians nor the Thessalonians were perfect, but Paul praised them before he dealt with their problems. There isn’t one of us who is so confident and self-assured that he does not need a word of praise periodically. Without it, we become overwhelmed with self-doubts and are incapable of functioning at peak efficiency.
Some of us seem to think that people will get proud if we compliment them too frequently. Quite the contrary! People often become boastful when they are starved for appreciation. A sincere compliment will encourage them to do even better.
Alan McGinnis relates a study of a second grade class in Wisconsin. The children were getting harder to control, standing up and roaming around the room instead of doing their work. Two psychologists spent several days in the back of the room observing. They found that seven times in every twenty-minute period the teacher said, “Sit down!” But the roaming continued. They suggested that she increase her commands, and she did, to 27.5 times in twenty minutes. The walking around increased fifty percent. Then they suggested instead that she eliminate the commands entirely and quietly compliment the children who were staying in their seats doing their work. The roaming around decreased thirty-three percent from what it was originally.7
Psychologists tell us that, generally speaking, we need at least four positive statements to balance one word of criticism. Delinquent children report getting approximately one to one. Most of us are the same way. We enjoy cooperating with those who show us appreciation and we resist those who criticize us. It would make a significant improvement in the way we get along with the people we live with and work with if we looked for the positive things in their lives and expressed our appreciation. A husband can say, “That was a great meal. Thanks for the time and effort you put into it.” A Sunday school superintendent may say to a teacher, “Thanks for your faithfulness to the class. I always know that you’re going to be here unless you’ve notified me ahead of time.” Statements like that communicate an important message. They say, “I care about you. You’re important to me. I value you highly.” They are constructive words that encourage and build.
This is not the false flattery which some people use to get their own way or obtain some favor in return. The Scripture warns about that: “A flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). But it encourages people when we sincerely commend the praiseworthy things we see in them. Train yourself to look for them in the people around you—the checkout clerk at the grocery store, the difficult neighbor, the usher at church, your spouse, your children, your parents, your employees, your boss—everyone!
Let’s take the Word of God seriously and begin to weigh our words. Weed out those that damage people and cause relationships to decay. Replace them with words that build up, meet needs, and minister gracious benefit to people’s lives. We will be the beneficiaries in the end as we experience the joy of harmonious relationships.