I grew up in a home where I learned at an early age that words matter. I remember times when a prohibited word would slip out of my mouth. I would receive “that look” from my mother, a reprimand, and possibly disciplinary action. My mother tells me that as a young child I heard someone use a word that I wasn’t supposed to say, and I embarrassed the person and my mother, by shouting, “Mommy, that man said a ‘bad bird.’”
We’ve come a long way from those days, a time when there was a place and an expectation for “polite speak.” Now, there is little shock to our systems when we hear crude, vulgar and suggestive language from our sports heroes, our movie and TV stars, and our politicians. It has even become a badge of “being cool” and “relatable” for Christians to use such language at home, at school, and in the workplace.
The power of our words
The apostle Paul has something to say about the words we use. And to his credit, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he doesn’t focus on a list of banned words. While Paul no doubt would cringe at some of the words that come from our mouths in the 21st century, he was more concerned about the tone, the message, the emotion, and the spirit behind the words we use in conversation with one another.
Here’s what he had to say in Ephesians 4:29-30:
Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. And do not make God’s Holy Spirit sad; for the Spirit is God’s mark of ownership on you, a guarantee that the Day will come when God will set you free.
Paul is concerned about civil discourse, something we have lost in our time, but beyond that he is giving wise counsel to those who claim to follow Christ. He knows that our words have a tremendous impact on our testimony. What we say not only affects the person who hears us, it also affects the Holy Spirit who lives in us, as believers. We are instructed not to make the Holy Spirit sad. Our careless, destructive, divisive, critical, inflammatory, obnoxious, and otherwise harmful words impede the very work that the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish in us—preparing us for the day when God will set us free from our earthly travails.
But if it was just us and our destiny that Jesus was concerned about, that would be one thing. The bigger picture is that the Holy Spirit wants our conversation to be “full of grace” and “seasoned with salt,” as Paul tells us in Colossians 4:6 (NIV). Why? So that every word we speak draws people closer to Jesus and into a relationship with him.
Think before you speak
Paul also gives us some constructive ideas regarding the words that we use and the purpose for which we use them: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8 NIV). Perhaps a good place to start is to “think before we speak.” In other words, can our words and conversation in general meet these simple prerequisites:
- Is it true?
- Is it noble?
- Is it right?
- Is it pure?
- Is it lovely?
- Is it admirable?
- Is it excellent?
- Is it praiseworthy?
I often boil this list down to three easy-to-remember categories: Is it true, is it loving, is it helpful? Imagine if we all vetted our language in this way before we spoke! The world would be a very different place.
Jesus, the perfect communicator
If our words are so important, what is a practical way to go about ensuring that they are helpful and not harmful? In the musical, My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, takes lessons from a professor, Henry Higgins, so that she can pass as a lady and be more refined. Is there a Henry Higgins for us?
One of the greatest benefits to engaging with the Bible, especially the Gospels, is the opportunity to read and learn about Jesus, the perfect communicator. As we read the Gospels there are two things we can be sure of about Jesus and these will help us as we evaluate our words. 1) Jesus always loved without measure. And, 2) Jesus always spoke the truth.
I encourage you to begin reading the Gospel of John and take a deeper look at Jesus’s interactions with people. Not only will you learn more about Jesus, you will also begin to learn more about yourself. I find that I tend to imitate the speech patterns, habits, and mannerisms of the people with whom I spend time. When the principal deposit into my life is social media, television or movies, those become the flavor and tenor I use to speak to others. The more time I take in the Scriptures not only gives me wisdom, but it also refines my thoughts and my speech. The more I meditate on God’s Word, the more natural it becomes to speak truth, to be loving and to make sure my words are helpful and destined to build up others.
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