Words are very important to me. My favorite things to do are reading, writing, and having meaningful conversations with people. In my recent reading of the book of Proverbs, I was struck by how much Proverbs has to say about our communication---our listening and speaking.
A verse that I have had sitting on my desk at work for months is:
Ephesians 4:29 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (ESV)
I really like how the NIV says it as well:
Ephesians 4: 29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
I want to look at this verse in a series of blog posts. I want to start with the question: What is “unwholesome” or “corrupting” talk? Sometimes the first thing people tend to think of when we hear the term “unwholesome” talk is swearing. Reducing it to that misses the point of this verse--which is ACTIVELY LOVING those around us with our speech. We are to speak in such away that builds others up and that benefits them. When we speak in an unwholesome or corrupting way, we tear others down and we harm them.
Speech that tears down does not acknowledge and reflect the truth of what God tells us in His Word about what is good and pure. Speech that tears down is not speech that is humbly spoken out of sacrificial love that benefits others. To the contrary, speech that is “unwholesome” and “corrupting” and that tears others down reflects the wickedness of our hearts apart from the redeeming work of Christ.
Romans 1 discusses some of the ways this wickedness manifests in our fallen hearts:
Romans 1:29-32 “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
It is interesting to me how this list of wickedness from Romans 1 can manifest in our speech. Here are some examples:
• Instead of acknowledging God’s truth from His Word, we use our speech to call what is evil “good”. We do the same when we call what is good “evil”. In both instances, we speak from a place of being wise in our own eyes (i.e. what sounds or feels good to us) rather than heeding what God shows us to be true in His Word. Sometimes we do this because we proudly think we know best or because we are showing off. Other times we do this because we hate what God is calling us to or we are deceived, and we only want to justify our pursuit of our own sinful desires. Still other times we do this because we are too lazy to humbly come to God for wisdom in prayer and study of His Word.
• We speak in ways that do not acknowledge the truth of the grace of God for us and others. We condemn, we put down, and we cultivate despair.
• We use our words as weapons in ways that are intended to hurt others. Sometimes we do this because we are envious or covetous of others and we want to degrade them and exalt ourselves. Sometimes we do this because we have been sinned against and we feel justified in using our words to hurt or using our words in careless ways without regard to whether they will hurt others. Sometimes we use our words as weapons to punish others for what they have done to us and we do not trust the justice of our God or grasp the significance of His mercy and grace to us. Sometimes we use our words as weapons in unintended ways because we do not exercise self control or discretion. And sometimes we use our words as weapons out of cruelty and ruthlessness simply because we can.
• We use our speech to attract the praise of men in our proud desire to be worshipped.
• We use our speech to disrespect or to rebel against the authority structures that God has given us. We are all called to submit to someone, and we do not necessarily like that. We want to be our own authority, so we undermine the authority of those in leadership over us with our tongues—either directly to their face or indirectly behind their backs. We do this in ways that are overt and in ways that are passively aggressive.
• We use our tongue in thoughtless, foolish, and careless ways—not giving thought to what is true or to what can harm those who listen. We speak without discretion and self control, not giving thought to the appropriateness, truth or effect of our words. We are particularly vulnerable to this when we are bored and idle. See 1 Timothy 5:13
• We use our tongue in ways that are manipulative and calculated to bring about our own desires and the evil intentions of heart—whether we are aware of our intentions or not.
• We use our speech to deceive and lie when it suits our purposes. Also, instead of confessing and repenting of the sin that lurks in our heart, we speak in ways that are insincere and that reflect our fear of man instead of our fear of God.
• We use our tongue to deliberately incite a reaction, to create drama, or to inflame conflict or we use our tongue carelessly in ways that will produce in drama or conflict.
• We listen to and speak unsavory things about a third party when they are not present for our own entertainment and the entertainment of others. Sometimes these unsavory details are true, or untrue, or half true. Sometimes we “share” or “listen” under the guise of seeking or offering prayer or advice, and yet we fail to exercise discretion in deciding whom we chose to confide or in deciding how and how much divulge, and sometimes we have no real intention to listen to godly counsel in the matter anyway. We gossip, we slander, and we listen to gossip and slander. Again, we are vulnerable to these forms of “entertainment” particularly when our hands are idle and not occupied with the work to which God has called us. See 1 Timothy 5:13
Notice that all of these motives of our speech are about serving our own interests and not about serving the interests of others!!
Here are some more helpful Scriptures on what is ”unwholesome” speech:
“Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day. 2 Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.
3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. 4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.”
Psalm 64:2-4 “Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the throng of evildoers, 3 who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows, 4 shooting from ambush at the blameless, shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
Proverbs 6:23-24 “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, 24 to preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. “
Proverbs 10: 17-21 “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray. 18 The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool. 19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. 20 The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth. 21 The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense.”
Proverbs 12:18-19 “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. 19 Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”
“Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent. 13 Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.”
Proverbs 15:1-2 “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. 2 The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.”
Proverbs 18:2 “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”
Proverbs 18:6-8 “A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. 7 A fool's mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul. 8 The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.”
Proverbs 18:12-14 “Before destruction a man's heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor. 13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. 14 A man's spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”
Proverbs 20 “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. 20 If one curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in utter darkness.”
Jeremiah 9:3-9 "They bend their tongue like a bow; falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, declares the LORD. 4 Let everyone beware of his neighbor, and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver, and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. 5 Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity. 6 Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit, they refuse to know me, declares the LORD. 7 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: “Behold, I will refine them and test them, for what else can I do, because of my people? 8 Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceitfully; with his mouth each speaks peace to his neighbor, but in his heart he plans an ambush for him. 9 Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?"
2 Corinthians12:19-21 “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your up building, beloved. 20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.”
Ephesians 4:31 “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
Colossians 3:5-10 “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
1 Timothy 5:13 “Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.”
1 Timothy 6:2-5 “Teach and urge these things. 3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”
2 Timothy 3:1-7 “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”
Next time, I’d like to look at what it means to “build others up” or “benefit those who listen” in ways that “fit the occasion” or coincide with the needs of others.
Heavenly Father, Thank you that you are a God who speaks to us and that there is Awesome power in your Word. Help us to listen. Help us to learn from your example, Jesus, of redeemed speech. Transform our hearts, because without you, we default to the sinful motives like the ones listed in Romans 1. We humbly come before you knowing that we need you in every way, and asking you to fill us with love for you and others that flows out of us by the Spirit in our thoughts, speech, and actions. In Jesus Name, Amen.