Have you ever said something you regretted? Who hasn’t The old saying, “sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you” just isn’t true. Words do hurt, badly.
Ephesians chapter 4 has very practical things to say about our words. Paul focuses on the believer’s speech in terms of its truth, its tone, and its motivation.
The bible emphasizes that certain words must be cut from our vocabulary as followers of Christ: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouths…” Ephesians 4:29a (NKJV). Corrupt is literally what is rotten, putrid or worthless. Applied to language and relationships, it points to words that spoil relationships, poison another’s influence, or corrupt another’s character.
How often do we verbally poison those to whom we would not think of giving a toxic substance? Consider the poison of negativity, in the forms of sarcasm or complaining. How subtly parents poison their children’s confidence and imaginations by being negative or critical. How effectively employers spoil employees’ creativity by meeting every new idea with, “That won’t work here!”
But probably the most common form of evil talk is trading gossip. When our words soil someone else’s reputation or worth, or when our stories attract attention to others’ failures and weaknesses, we’re slandering a person made in the image of God. We’ve stooped to new level of low.
But no matter what form bad mouthing takes, Paul makes it clear that God’s children are meant for better things. He then spells out four characteristics of a Christ follower’s words:
The defining feature of a believer’s words is that they are good words. Only conversation that has the quality of goodness is appropriate for God’s children. Here’s a useful test to apply before we speak: Is what I’m about to say truly good? As an old Quaker used to say, “Never break the silence unless you can improve on it.” My mom used to say, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Here’s how to speak good words:
- Be Constructive “…only what is useful for building up…” Ephesians 4:29 b (NRSV)
According to Paul, our words as believers are not only good, they are good for something:
“good for building up,” or “good for improvement.”
Each of us knows instantly when someone’s comments are constructive or not. Often it depends not so much on what is said as the way it is spoken.
- Be Appropriate “…as fits the occasion…” Ephesians 4:29 c (ESV)
It is possible to offer good words, even constructive words, which are not helpful for the needs of the moment.
Knowing just what to say, and just how to say it, is never easy, but is our goal. As today’s gospel on legs, God’s voice to our generation, we must recognize how crucial the timing of our words. A word of thanks at the right time is better than after the fact. Standing up for a friend who is being put down is better at the time than a week later.
In relationships the issue is never to communicate or not to communicate, but always what kind of communication to offer. Something is going to be heard, and it may be false and distorted inferences. What is needed most in difficult circumstances such as loss is not talk but a warm touch. An appropriate hug or touch can be powerful to those who are afraid or brokenhearted. In some situations the most eloquent words are not words at all, but rather the simple power of your presence.
- Be Gracious “…that it may give grace to those who hear. “ Ephesians 4:29 d (ESV)
Grace is the unearned favor of God. Words that “impart grace to those who hear,” are words that are concerned not with what others deserve or have a right to, but with what others need. Grace-talk takes many forms. The category of gracious words has less to do with vocabulary lists than with attitudes of the heart.
In America we have a lawyer for every 350 people which makes us the most litigious society on earth. In such an atmosphere gracious words may seem like the language of wimps.
But grace-talk is not the language of wimps, but of winners. The notion that in relationships victory goes to those who demand their rights, is not true.
The human personality, as Sidney Harris has pointed out, it is not an apple that has to be polished, but a banana that has to be peeled. And the reason we remain so far from one another, the reason we neither communicate nor interact in any real way, is that most of us spend our lives in polishing rather than peeling. We shine the surface: appearance, clothes, manners, charisma. Our focus is on selling the package, not the product. It takes courage and strength to love, to risk, to be vulnerable to the peeling process of authentic self-disclosure and discovery. In today’s culture, the wimp is the relational Scrooge who is too afraid to risk.
That is why perhaps the greatest form of grace-talk we may practice today is the simple phrase, “Will you forgive me?” Built into this almost miraculous formula is grace as a gift of forgiveness that is beyond our human capabilities, plus an awareness of the shared ground for all forgiving: the undeserved forgiveness we have received.
Gracious words are concerned with words as gifts, not payments. Grace-talk is the Christian’s way of spreading around God’s undeserved gift of forgiveness.
Instead of using our words to damage our words can bring light and truth to the dark world around us. As believers, we can create a counter-revolution with words that are good, that are constructive, that are appropriate and timely, and that bring unearned joy to the hearers.
Source: Adapted from an article in Discipleship Journal, by JERRY HARVILL who teaches speech communication at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.