“No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I think I was in third grade when I first began incorporating cuss words into my vocabulary. I thought I was pretty cool stuff. Of course, I did it where I thought no adults could hear me, but that’s what made it so risky and cool. A few years later, as I started really making engaging with the Scriptures a regular part of my routine, I came across this verse and fairly well quit cussing entirely. My legalistic self was quite proud of what I had accomplished (especially as that feeling allowed me to ignore any manner of other sins because at least I didn’t cuss like those other sinners did). Maybe you’ve struggled with the word choices you make on a regular basis, maybe not. But either way, I think what Paul is pointing us to here goes beyond a selection of words a particular culture has identified as taboo. Let’s talk this morning about communicating in ways that honor God.
Did you ever fire off that old retort to an insult, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? What utter nonsense. Words are powerful things. Words have shaped careers, landed fortunes, and felled empires. Jesus’ brother James said, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body.” In other words, if you can just control your mouth, there is nothing outside of your power. That challenge is more than anyone has managed. As James says just a bit later, “…the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Yikes!
I suspect you have been hurt by someone else’s words before. Probably even recently. On the same token, I suspect you’ve hurt someone else with your words before. Probably even recently. It is so easy to just let something slip without thinking. And sometimes you can see when the rhetorical blow makes contact. You can see the victim’s spirit deflating right before your eyes. One of the things our boys grow tired of hearing us preach to them is that if their words aren’t helpful or kind, they shouldn’t even leave their mouths. We aim for the same, but fall short far more often than either of us would be comfortable admitting out loud.
Too often we think about regulating our speech in a way that honors God strictly in terms of our not using a collection of words our culture has identified as “cuss words.” These words are generally crass ways to refer to parts of the body, bodily functions, or sexual acts. The other most common curse in English at least is an invitation for God to condemn someone or something to Hell. And the truth is, those are pretty ugly words, especially when used in the context of describing another person or something they’ve done in such terms. Yet eliminating a certain set of words from our vocabulary (at least, our external vocabulary) is only a small part the task of making sure our speech honors God.
For starters, if we quit saying certain words out loud, but still shout them in our heads, we will quickly find ourselves in the “whitewashed tomb” category. We may have on a screen of righteousness by virtue of our not saying certain words out loud, but if they’re still rumbling around in our head and heart, our lack of usage is a lie. Jesus knows what’s going on in our head and heart. That’s why He said on more than one occasion that what’s on the inside counts at least as much as what’s on the outside and maybe more. Besides, if we’re shouting them on the inside, eventually those shouts are going to leak out. When the dam is under pressure long enough, eventually it springs a leak. A total collapse isn’t far behind at that point.
This all points to the second problem with thinking we can just regulate our words and be on good footing before God. Words come from our mouth which is fed by our heart which is informed by our mind. In other words, the real problem isn’t ever the actual words we choose (although those certainly can and do cause enormous problems), but the state of heart and mind that resulted in those words being a thought given expression in the first place. Unrighteousness always begins on the inside. Righteousness does too.
Our goal should never be to simply choose and use better words. Our goal should be for all of our words to be liberally seasoned with grace so that they build up the people around us and impart grace to those who hear them. Whenever someone comes away from a conversation with us, they should be in a better state than when the conversation began. And just because I know some of you are already firing up the objection, no, this doesn’t mean we can’t ever have hard conversations with other people. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever get angry or even merely irritated. It means that we have so submitted ourselves to Christ that even when we are angry or hurt or frustrated our words nonetheless still build up the people around us.
Jesus spoke hard truths to the Pharisees, but He also unfailingly pointed them toward truth. When He made a description of someone’s character that wasn’t particularly flattering, it was always rooted in truth and was never hyperbolic for the sake of scoring a rhetorical point against them. You can deliver hard news in a way that nonetheless leaves the person in a better place than they were before hearing it. Indeed, we must do this. Paul’s command here was clear: “No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.”
The only way this is going to happen though, is for that foul language to not exist as a thought in your heart and mind in the first place. And the only way that is going to happen is when you have fully submitted your heart and mind to Christ. As for how to do that…one step at a time. Start by training yourself in the discipline of gratitude. With His help, learn to engage with the world around you only and ever through a lens of gratitude. When you are grateful for things and people – or even merely grateful in things because there are some things for which you simply aren’t going to be grateful in the moment – your words – both in person and in print – will reflect that. Work next on the discipline of celebrating the people around you when they experience successes of various sorts. If you’re celebrating them, you won’t be envious of them, something that will be reflected in your words. Next, work on patience and humility. When you are able to comfortably operate on someone else’s schedule, and you willingly recognize that you are never the most important person in the room, your words will reflect that. Layer love over all of that, and you’ll be well on your way to falling in line with Paul’s command and becoming the kind of person everyone wants to have around. You’ll be well on your way to becoming the kind of person whose words honor God.