A catering manager was discussing a baby-christening party with a young couple. She told the mother of the baby, “You look like you’ve lost most of your pregnancy weight.”
“Thanks,” came the clenched-teeth reply. “We adopted” (Reader’s Digest [June, 2005], p. 67). File that away in your memory as what never to say!
Try as we may, we all have erred with our tongues! James 3:2 says, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” While we may never achieve perfect control over our tongues, I’m convinced that if husbands and wives would consistently apply Ephesians 4:29, we would rarely see divorce. If parents practiced this verse toward their children, we would see few children from Christian homes rebel against their parents. If we applied it towards one another in the church, we would see few churches split over personality conflicts or minor doctrinal issues. In short, Ephesians 4:29 is a verse that would bring radical change in all of our relationships if we would apply it conscientiously: “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, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
As we’ve seen (4:22-24), Paul has taught us that believers will put off the old way of life, be renewed in their minds, and put on the new way of life, which is consistent with being a new creature in Christ. Then he goes from preaching to meddling by getting very specific: Put off falsehood and speak truth (4:25). Put on righteous anger, being careful not to let it spill over into sinful anger, which would give Satan a foothold in your life (4:26-27). Stop stealing and instead, work hard and give to those in need (4:28). Now, he says that Christians must transform their talk.
Transformed talk is implicit in truthful speech, in righteous anger, and in not stealing, since stealing usually involves lying. Paul will also deal with our speech in 4:31 (bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander) and in 5:3-4 (impure speech, coarse jokes). So our talk is a major area where the gospel will make a huge difference. Just as you can often tell where someone is from by his accent, so people should be able to tell that you’re a Christian by your transformed talk. Paul is saying that…
Rather than using your words to tear down others, use them to build up others.
We will follow Paul’s outline by first looking at the problem and then at the solution.
I do not advise it, but if you turn on any TV show on any night of the week, you will not have to watch very long before you hear examples of speech that tears down others. Most of the “humor” on TV sitcoms comes from husbands and wives, parents and children, or coworkers putting each other down! But, that is a characteristic of the old life, not of our new life in Christ. If you want God to transform your speech in line with our text, you should not be watching, much less laughing at, shows where the “humor” comes from the people putting each other down.
The Greek word translated “unwholesome” means rotten, useless, or unprofitable. It is used (Matt. 7:17-18) to refer to rotten fruit. It is also used of rotten fish (Matt. 13:48). John Piper (http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByScripture/3/562_Make_Your_Mouth_a_Means_of_Grace/) observes that such rotten speech, like rotten fruit and rotten fish, will not nourish anyone. It contaminates. It will make you sick. And, it smells bad and creates an unpleasant atmosphere for anyone who gets near it. So Paul tells us to get rid of it like rotten fruit or fish.
We could probably come up with more, but here are twelve examples of rotten speech:
Often this is done for so-called “humor,” but it does not honor God or build up others. 1 Peter 3:9 says that we should not return insult for insult, but give a blessing instead.
This is not usually as caustic as name-calling, but it still tends to tear down others by lumping them with a negative group. Labels may be useful in identifying where a person is at on an issue, but they become harmful when we use them too quickly to write off someone because of some association. So be careful!
Godly people in the Bible occasionally use sarcasm, ridicule, and mockery against those who are leading people astray. Elijah, for example, mocked the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27). Jesus ridiculed the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and legalism (Matt. 23). But my experience is that using sarcasm is like righteous anger. It must be carefully controlled or it spills over into sin. I would advise you never to use sarcasm or ridicule as a couple toward each other or with your children. Never mock something that a person cannot change, such as a physical feature or a family background issue.
Blaming others came in with the fall, and it is a major element in ungodly speech. Often it is coupled with exaggeration, such as, “you always,” or “you never.”
Those in the world gripe and complain about everything, as you know if you have served in the military. But Christians are to do all things without grumbling or complaining (Phil. 2:14), because all complaints are ultimately directed at God, who sovereignly ordains our circumstances. Rather than griping about the difficult people in your life, thank God for them (1 Thess. 5:18).
If your words are not aimed at helping or healing, but only at venting your spleen, you are sinning. Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Such words are only trying to dominate or control the other person through fear and intimidation. Parents, of course, sometimes must warn a child of impending consequences if his behavior doesn’t change. But it should be done calmly with careful thought, not in the heat of anger. The aim should be to help your child grow in godliness, not to get revenge or to intimidate.
As husbands and wives, when you disagree about something, your aim should never be to win the argument, but rather to promote godliness in your marriage. You’ve got to judge your pride and allow Jesus Christ truly to be Lord of your tongue.
We’ve already looked at this (4:25). Using manipulative speech to get your way is a form of deception.
Often, gossip and slander spread partial truths mixed with falsehood to make the other person look bad. Sometimes gossip and slander may be true, but the one you’re telling has no need to know the information. Sometimes it is done under the cover, “I wanted you to know so you could pray.” Often the one spreading gossip is feeding his pride by being in the know.
We are not to take the Lord’s name in vain. This includes using shortened forms of the Lord’s name, such as (I would not even say it, but I often hear Christians say it), “O Jeez!” The same applies to the frequently used expression, “O my God!”
Paul specifically hits this (5:3-4). It includes all dirty jokes and using words for sex, which ought to be sacred, as swear words.
We could probably come up with more examples of rotten speech, but that list should give you enough to work on!
Paul says that we should use “only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need [the translators added, of the moment], so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Five things:
Unbelievers may learn how to communicate civilly, but Paul is talking here about the transformation that stems from putting on the new man, “which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (4:24). If you teach an unbeliever how to communicate in a nice way, you’re just putting a tuxedo on a pig. You haven’t changed his nature, which is prone to pride and self-seeking. So his nice speech is really just a tool to get his way or to manipulate people for his own goals. But the Christian uses godly speech to glorify his Savior. It is a completely new motive stemming from the new birth.
The deeds of the flesh include (Gal. 5:20-21a) “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying….” Jesus said (Matt. 15:19), “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” He also said (Matt. 12:34), “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” So evil speech is rooted in an evil heart, which is why genuine conversion is the foundation for transformed talk.
But, I have even found Christians who do not judge their sin on the thought level, and so their evil thoughts escalate into evil words and often into evil actions. For example, a couple is having conflict in their marriage. He digs in his heels, and she clams up in anger. He storms out the door in the morning and throughout the day thinks, “That woman is so difficult to live with!” All day long he runs her down in his thoughts. Meanwhile, she does the same: “That man is so insensitive to my feelings!” She cries her eyes out and maybe calls up her friend and commiserates about how difficult it is to live with such a monster.
It’s a no-brainer: after both of them have spent the day thinking such sinful thoughts about each other, they aren’t going to have a wonderful evening together when he gets home from work! Their mouths will speak out of the sinful overflow of their hearts.
The solution is, judge your evil thoughts! Examine your own sins and shortcomings and ask God and your mate to forgive you. Take the log out of your own eye. Then, thank God throughout the day for your mate and pray for him or her to be a godly person. Think about how you can speak in such a way that will build up your mate. William Penn said, “If you think twice before you speak once, you will speak twice the better for it. Better to say nothing than not to the purpose. And to speak pertinently, consider both what is fit, and when it is fit, to speak” (Leadership [Summer, 1986], p. 75, old English updated).
In Paul’s words, “what is good for edification.” Use words that will help the other person to grow in godliness. You can think of more, but here are nine examples of wholesome words:
Paul writes (1 Thess. 5:11), “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.” Too often, parents only criticize or correct their kids. Instead, catch your kids doing something right and praise them for it! Encourage them in areas where they are doing well. Do the same with your mate.
This is related to encouragement and praise, and it must come from the heart (not as flattery or manipulation). If you are thinking rightly about your mate or children or co-workers, express it verbally. Tell them how much you appreciate all that they are doing. They won’t know it if you don’t put it into words.
Say often, “I love you.” Say it to your mate, to your children, and to your parents. Someone has said, “If we knew that the world would end in ten minutes, everyone would be on the phone telling someone else, ‘I love you.’”
“Love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4). This is often expressed not only by words, but also by facial expression and body language. Sometimes you should say, “That’s okay, you’re doing fine.” Impatience communicates pride on your part, because you’re really saying, “If you’d just get it together like me, things would be okay!”
“Love is … kind” (1 Cor. 13:4). You should especially be kind when someone has done something dumb or has failed. It is tempting to ridicule the person, but at that moment, godly words of kindness are needed. You can say something like, “You know, I’ve done the same thing many times. It’s okay.”
The fruit of the Spirit includes gentleness (Gal. 5:23). The Greek word does not imply weakness, but rather strength under control. The gentle person is under the control of the Spirit, who is pictured as a gentle dove. Gentleness means thinking about how the other person feels and how your words will make him feel.
I’m not talking about preaching or using Scripture to berate the other person, but rather, using Scripture as God has taught you. This is probably the most edifying kind of speech, because God’s Word is given to build us up in the faith. You can say, “A verse that God used in my life when I was discouraged was, …”
Sometimes we must use our words to correct someone who is thinking or acting wrongly. Never just lash out, even if the person is in the wrong. Rather, always pray and think about how to speak in the most effective manner, with the aim of helping the person to grow in Christ. Every pastor and every Christian should know and practice 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.”
Sometimes, you may not know what to say, but you can always say, “I don’t have the answer to this problem, but God does. Let’s ask for His wisdom and help.”
So, to build up others, you must be a new creature in Christ. You must first have wholesome words in your thoughts, the kinds of words that we have just seen some examples of.
Paul says that you must use words of edification, “according to the need.” This implies that you are sensitive enough to understand what the person’s real needs are. If you don’t understand the person’s needs, even well intentioned words can often hurt more than they heal. So, how do you find out the person’s needs?
We’ve all had the frustrating experience of trying to talk to someone who wasn’t really listening. Perhaps the person offered a pat solution to your problem, but it was useless advice because you felt that he didn’t really hear what your need was.
You’ve got to listen to discern what the other person’s needs are. This is especially true when the other person is upset with you or criticizes you unfairly. You’ll be tempted to reciprocate by tearing into him. But, whether the other person’s comments are accurate or not, that person has a need and your words can either be like sword thrusts or like a scalpel that brings healing (Prov. 12:18). Coupled with listening well is…
Proverbs 18:13 states, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” To listen well, you’ve got to ask clarifying questions so that you really understand the other person. You can ask, “Are you saying, …” and repeat back what you hear the person saying to find out if you’re hearing correctly.
This is part of listening well, because much of communication is non-verbal. You can say, “I can see that you’re really upset. I’d like to understand what is wrong and help if I can.” But you won’t build up the other person unless you are sensitive to his needs.
Paul says, “so that it will give grace to those who hear.” If you are at odds with anyone, perhaps because he or she has wronged you, you’ll be inclined to think, “But this person doesn’t deserve words that build him up! He deserves to be put down!” But, grace is undeserved favor! Grace extends to others what God has extended to you. It also extends to others what you need in return from others, because you often fall short or fail them. So, although it may be true that the other person does not deserve kind words that build him up, give him such words anyway!
When God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus, John (1:14) says, “and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus is full of grace and truth! As those who have put on the new man, created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph. 4:24), we should make sure that our words and actions are full of grace and truth. When Marla and I were raising our children, I used to say to her, “If we have to err in relating to our kids, let’s err on the side of grace, not of being overly strict.” I said that because God saved me by His grace alone, not because of anything I deserved. His grace is the main thing that motivates me to holy living. So use your words to give grace—God’s grace that you have experienced—to others.
There is a story in the Jewish Talmud about a king who sent two jesters on an errand. He instructed them, “Foolish Simon, go and bring me back the best thing in the world. And you, Silly John, go and find for me the worst thing in the world.”
Both clowns were back in short order, each carrying a package. Simon bowed low and grinned. “Behold, Sire, the best thing in the world.” His package contained a tongue.
John snickered and quickly unwrapped his bundle. “The worst thing in the world, Sire.” Another tongue! (Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], # 6387, p. 1422.)
An unknown poet wrote (ibid., #6380, p. 1421):
A careless word may kindle strife.
A cruel word may wreck a life.
A bitter word may hate instill;
A brutal word may smite and kill.
A gracious word may smooth the way;
A joyous word may light the day.
A timely word may lessen stress;
A loving word may heal and bless.
Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Paul says (Eph. 4:29), “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, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” Rather than using words to tear down others, as a new creature in Christ, use your words to build up others.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation