"Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear." (Eph 4:29)
A few definitions are in order...
unwholesome: Gr. sapros - rotten, putrified, worn out, worthless, corrupt and unfit for use. Jesus uses this word in Luke 6:43 to describe the kind of fruit that cannot come from a good tree and the kind of tree that cannot produce good fruit.
edification: Gr. oikodomay - the act of building up, metaphorically edifying, the act of promoting another's growth as a Christian.
good: Gr. agathos - of good constitution or nature, useful, pleasant, upright, honorable, beneficial.
So we have unwholesome, rotten, putrified words that are useless, and on the other hand we have words that are beneficial, grace-imparting, needed for the moment, upright, useful for promoting someone's growth in Christ, and honorable. I picture the difference like the difference between a rotting carcass on the side of the road, leaking bodily fluids, filling the air with a horrible aroma, giving place for maggots to feast... and a well-thought-out, healthy, nourishing meal. I picture the difference to be like the difference between the flailing butchery of a madman and the skillful practice of a physician. The first has no use at best, and at worst brings harm. The second is something needed, something of benefit, something that has real use for good. It is something that, even if it stops us for a moment, points us upward to Christ.
Now, let me begin by stating the two biggest ways I personally fall short of this. There are basically two kinds of unwholesome speech that find their way onto my tongue frequently.
1. The kind that you spew forth out of your mouth but justify, somehow, as being right and in accordance with truth and godliness. This happens, often, when I am talking with someone about something or someone else (that should have been my first clue to stop). Since these people are so wrong, then I almost feel justified (since I am so concerned with the truth) in saying all kinds of things about them, condemning them, and focusing intensely upon every negative aspect I can find. It turns out that my concern is not really the truth but in putting my name forth as one who has the answer, and showing how miserably others don't. My audience is not God, my audience is men.
2. The kind that trickles out in casual conversation, especially with unbelievers, so as to sound "unbound" and "real" and "cool". We don't want to come across as being stuffy prudes, and we want to relate to our friends -even unbelievers- so we let it relax a bit sometimes and things come out of our mouths that are just plain ugly. I find this slipping out all over the place. It slips out once, we feel bad for it, but it comes out that much easier next time. We want to be funny, we want to make people laugh, but often it is through words that are utterly useless and rotten to the taste. The reason why anyone laughs is either because they pity us and don't want to hurt us, or, more likely, because they are sinners like us who strangely like the taste of that which is putrid and full of stench.
Notice that neither of these types of things are beneficial, good, useful, grace-imparting, or useful in the growth of anybody in Christ. There are a few things, I believe, that make our words unwholesome:
1. The content of our speech
This is the obvious one. Foul words, gossip, picking on someone who is unaware of it -these things are clearly unwholesome. I used to do this much as an unbeliever -and I still fall into it even now. Maybe someone walks into McDonalds where I am having lunch with some others. The person is grossly overweight and maybe is dressed funny. So I will point and giggle and make a comment to draw the attention of others. I wish someone would look me in the eye when I do that and say, "What is the point of this? Would you say this in the presence of Christ?
I think we try to beat around the glaring error in ourselves by saying things like, "I'm just having a little fun." I think this is because we know, inside, that what we are doing is wrong.
2. The way we convey it
The basic content can be good, but the way we convey it may be bad. It may put a spin on the content that taints our words as with poison. One way we do this is with sarcasm. Sarcasm can be an effective tool, and a humorous one, for conveying things to others, but it is often used maliciously. We us it to insult others, especially those who are not present to defend themselves. We do it often without even thinking about it.
We were in Target a few weeks ago, browsing the book section, and I saw copies of "Purpose Driven Life". I picked up a copy and ran over to my wife and said, "Ooooh. Look! Don't you want a copy?" She just rolled her eyes. This seems like a pretty harmless example, but when I think about it -there was absolutely nothing useful in what I said. And certainly there was nothing edifying for the moment, and nothing that would impart grace to others.
3. The intent bedhind it
The others really flow from this one. As Jesus noted, the foul things that flow from the mouth stem from a foul heart. We know the intent of our hearts, even when we try to mask it to ourselves and others. We know when we are saying something with absolutely no redeeming value, that is not meant to be constructive, beneficial, or fill a need, but only to be gossip, to tear down someone else, to build ourselves up, to be useless and petty. We know, but we can't help ourselves. We just have to say it. Maybe its because we live for the reaction, we want the laugh, or we want to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others. Whatever the reason, if our intent is not to say something useful and beneficial, then perhaps we would do well to just listen. :)
What about reproving others? Paul says in 2 Tim 2 that we are to not be quarrelsome but should reprove those in error so that God might grant them repentance. To this I answer, "What about it?" Is reproving others something that is unwholesome? If we are reproving and it is unwholesome, then we aren't reproving as the apostle instructs. We are puffing ourselves up in tearing down someone else. Is reproving not something that edifies in some way? This is the hard one, because reproving (gently) shines light upon a flaw in someone else. Can you edify and expose error at the same time? I believe you can. I think it has to do with that one word: love. Correcting someone in love is definintely seeking to promote their growth in Christ. And correcting someone who is deceiving others builds up the body of Christ because it is protecting them from things that would confuse or lead them astray.
But does this mean we are to speak in this way all the time? That seems a little far fetched. No, it's not. We aren't Christians just on Sundays. We are born-again believers. We have a new nature, and we are told over and over again to cast off the old nature, which so comfortably slips back in under our noses. We are told to put on the new self. This is the context that leads up to Paul's statement about not letting unwholesome speech come forth. One of the ways in which we show this is through our speech. Restrain those sinful passions, and bite your tongue!
This is much in line with the command in Romans 6 to resist the passions of the flesh. Notice that Paul says "let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth..." I cannot make my sinful passions go away, I cannot make my heart perfect -only God can, and He is working in us to conform us to Christ as we speak, but by the Spirit of God in me, by the new nature that I have been given, by faith in Christ who has bought me as His own, I will resist the inclinations of the flesh. We will fall and fail, but if the Spirit of God is in us there shall be a battle. The new man shall not let these things continue to pass without a fight, and the Spirit leads us to overcome them (Romans 8). The question is, of course... "Do we?"
I was thinking about this, and I saw these words in a whole new light. I saw not just words on a page about how I am to behave. I saw the Lord Jesus Himself speaking to me, telling me to speak wholesomely to others, to impart grace, to build up others in Christ, to be loving, and to let my chaste speech be a light to unbelievers. Suddenly things were a bit different, for there is no one I want to please more than the Lord Jesus. I was not failing the "Christian standard", some nebulous and ill-defined norm for what Christian behavior should look like, I was personally failing my Lord. When I think about the things I have said, even yesterday, I picture the Lord listening in. My skin crawls! He does not just hear my words and the way they are said, He hears my heart and knows the blackness that issues forth from it with every evil motive, every self-righteous ploy to seem concerned about truth when really I am concerned with my own glory. It is a Living Lord we serve.
May this be the visible thorn in all of our sides, humbling us and reminding us of how grossly and constantly we fall short -that the knowledge of this might be a reminder to us that brings forth grace of speech and understading and compassion to others and a desire to build up others. And let this knowledge not discourage us but keep us vigilant against the evil passions that are excited within us, because Christ Jesus has taken away the curse, has rendered perfect righteousness unto God, and has covered us in His blood. We are bought unto Him and from the old things. Praise God.