One of the most important themes in the Bible is that of words. God’s words are important as they create the world, bring life, and mete out justice. But not far behind are dozens upon dozens of verses that speak to our words. Here we see that God is not only concerned with words we use in the midst of worship or ministry. Everyday works are just as important. So, what kind of words come out of our mouth? Of course, I’m thinking about more than four-letter words and their kin (though that’s included). I’m asking: What is your language marked by? What attitudes are evident by your words? When you speak, do people want to listen?
In Ephesians 4, Paul says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (4:29). The word ‘corrupting’ there is as important as it is descriptive. It’s only used a handful of other times in the New Testament. One is in Luke 6, where Jesus uses the word to refer to bad or rotting fruit (6:43). Another place is Matthew 13, where Jesus is again speaking, this time of putrid fish (13:48). Thinking about these two examples—at least initially—reveals odors that wouldn’t be marketed as scented candles, or something you would want to see served on your plate, either at a gourmet restaurant or ever your own home. In fact, the imagery is repulsive. It speaks of death and decay. It’s imagery of things we would inherently reject or throw out. In fact, in Matthew 13, that is exactly what the men who gather the fish do—remove bad, already dead, and rotting fish from the good and throw them out. They’re good for nothing but garbage.
This is the same imagery that Paul applies to speech. He says there is a kind of speech that is of the moral category equivalent to rotting fruit and fish. There is a way of speaking that reveals a condition we might call spiritual halitosis. A person speaks and rose petals curl up and fall off. Surely no one wants such speech, but how do we know if we have it? Looking to the surrounding verses, Paul gives us some help in diagnosing spiritual halitosis. Such speech is marked by five corrupting effects.
1. Corruption that Dishonors
In verses 22-24, Paul says tells the Ephesians: “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24). When our speech falls into the category of the corrupt talk that Paul is talking about it dishonors Christ. He is the new self–the new man–that we are to putting on. He is the pattern of God’s new humanity that we are being changed and renewed into. When our speech is fundamentally out of step with the pattern of godliness we see in Christ, it dishonors Christ. It shows we aren’t seeking to put to death our old pattern of life in favor of a new, more glorious pattern in him. It says sin is more desirable than Christ. What could be more dishonoring than that?
2. Corruption that Degrades
Here, I think Paul has in mind what we would typically call profanity or vulgar speech. We see this just a few verses later in 5:4, where he says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (5:4). Part of this is just common sense, right? I mean, maybe it’s just me, but when you have people talking about the things of God one minute and using profanity the next, it doesn’t seem right. So, whenever I hear someone like Bono talking about Jesus and how he is great and he loves him, then drops F-bomb in the very next sentence, it’s like nails on the chalkboard. “One of these things is not like the other!” But it doesn’t need to be that dramatic. Just like the Roman culture of Paul’s day that saw profane and crude to part of everyday life (sometimes even part of pagan worship), so it is with us today. You can hardly go anywhere and not hear conversations littered with degrading topics and vocabulary. Sadly this is even sometimes true of God’s people. When something doesn’t go right or we get mad, what’s the first thing we reference? Poop. Think about all the words and euphemisms we have for poop. Why in the world, as God’s people, to go walking around talking about fecal matter all the time? Maybe I’m a prude, but I just can’t see Jesus looking up and seeing the Pharisees coming over the hill to make trouble, and saying, ‘Oh, poop. Here they come again.’ And let be clear—my goal is not to come up with a list of naughty words that shouldn’t be said. This isn’t a George Carline act. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Though on one level the specific words we use are important (I don’t think it’s okay to just use any word that we want). Nevertheless, the question that’s more fundamental is this: ‘How is our thinking and therefore our language being shaped by society’s words rather than God’s words?’ Does our speech reek of sin’s corruption or give off the sweet aroma of God’s grace?
3. Corruption that Demeans
If we want to talk about a naughty list, before we ever get to profanity, we should probably have words like idiot, fool, and stupid. Why? Because they demean the people we’re talking about in ways that cause us to think of them as inferior to us. It reveals that we are holding them in contempt—the very thing that Jesus himself warns against in Matthew 5. Again, the point isn’t necessarily the specific words we use (though, I do think there are some things you should never say). The point, though, is the intention and mindset behind it. Does our attitude, and therefore our speech live up to Paul’s admonition in verse 32? “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (4:32). Or verses 26 and 27? “Be angry and do not sin . . . give no opportunity to the devil” (4:26-27). Do you use words that tear down and demean? Such speech is out of step with God’s will for your life and the pattern of Christ he is seeking to mold you into.
4. Corruption that Deceives
In verse 25, we’re told that, “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph 4:25). Since Paul identifies the neighbor here as being part of one body, he has in mind Christians speaking to other Christians. Do you lie? Do you deceive? Sadly, lying is one of the ways we most commonly avoid feeling shame when we’re around each other. We forget to do something we promised to do (usually, praying for someone!). And when asked about it, we lie. We say we did it when we didn’t, or make up some reason or fudge some fact to make it seem reasonable that we didn’t do what we said we would. Other times, we lie about our spiritual life. We don’t what other people to know the depth of our struggles lest they think less of us. But Paul says all of that is corrupting to the body of Christ. Since Christ is the Truth, it’s inherently against his purposes. But more than that, it doesn’t serve us well and actually makes it harder for us grow in godliness. Deceit distances us from God, causing us to more closely resemble Satan than our heavenly Father.
5. Corruption that Divides
Listen verse 31: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (4:31). The picture is of a people who feels wronged in some way, clamoring about in anger and wrath because of bitterness in their heart. Such feelings lead them to use words that hurt and may even be lies. Slander often goes with gossip, both of which are listed often in sins to avoid. Why? Because they divide the body of Christ. Paul wants God’s people to give up language that punches holes in the unity of the church and fellowship of God’s people. Anything that would threaten to divide us should be thrown out like last week’s garbage. In fact, this is the criteria for our speech, isn’t it? Paul says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (4:29). If what we say doesn’t actively build up the body of Christ, then it shouldn’t come out of our mouths.
Does, this describe your speech? This is the question we have to ask. When we think about what we say and why we say it, have we been overcome with a case of spiritual halitosis? If so, what can we do about it? If not us, but someone we know, then how can we help them? This is what I’ll address in my next post.