The best and worst part of being a word person is that the things people say to me often stick to me. In contradiction to the old saying, I am not rubber and others are not glue. Instead, I am the glue. Words stick to my heart and soul, sometimes in uncomfortably painful ways.
In our digital age, words are even more permanent than they once were. Everybody now has a platform to publish their words for the world to see. And anybody who spends time on social media has seen the pain caused by unwise words tossed out in the heat of the moment. James once wrote that the tongue is a raging fire; he could say the same thing today about the computer keyboard.
The Bible approaches words from two directions: what to say and what not to say. When my wife and I talk with our kids about their words, we emphasize that every negative statement has a positive counterpart. In other words, the goal isn’t simply to avoid saying the wrong things; it’s to cultivate the art of saying the right things. For the Christian, we do this in partnership with God’s Spirit who lives in us. “No man can tame the tongue,” James tells us. But God can do it if we let Him.
In that regard, let’s hold our words up to the Light of His character. Here are some questions to ask ourselves about our words, before we open our mouths or start typing on Facebook:
1. Are these words helpful? This question is a good starting point. To be clear, helpful words are not always comfortable words. There are times when we can help another person by kindly exhorting or even rebuking him or her. The goal, though, is always to build up rather than to tear down (Eph 4:29).
Often we use words in ways that are merely careless, without considering their impact. We complain, we mouth off, we criticize, or we gossip. I think we talk sometimes simply because we’re afraid of silence. But if our words aren’t going to be helpful, it’s best just to remain quiet.
2. Are these words true? I’ll never forget my junior high classmate who seemed to lie compulsively. Exaggerations and unbelievable stories flowed out of his mouth like water from a spigot. He was so accustomed to lying that I’m not sure he even knew he was doing it anymore. He certainly didn’t seem able to stop.
Most of us lie sometimes, perhaps because we’re trying to save face, or to avoid confrontation, or to get something we want. We lie because we’re looking out for our own interests rather than the interests of others (Phil 2:4). But God never lies, and neither should we. If we are to reflect His perfect character, we need to cultivate truthfulness, even when it hurts.
3. Are these words timed correctly? My wife is a skilled communicator and she often provides helpful feedback for me about my sermons. However, she’s learned over the years that Sunday afternoon is not the ideal time to provide suggestions about my Sunday morning sermon. I’m too tired and sensitive right after I preach; the timing isn’t right, even when the suggestions are helpful.
Proverbs 15:23 says that a “word in season” is good. It’s possible to say the right thing at the wrong time. It takes supernatural wisdom to know whether a person needs to be encouraged, rebuked, or just left alone at any particular moment.
4. Are these words pure? When I was nine or ten years old, I remember one of my baseball teammates saying, “Would you like to hear a dirty joke?” Before I could answer, he said, “A white horse fell into the nasty brown mud!” Fortunately, his “dirty joke” was not as offensive as most of the ones I’ve heard through the years. All too often I’ve heard such jokes from other Christians. To my shame, I’ve occasionally laughed at them or even passed them along to others.
But Ephesians 5:4 cautions us against filthy talk and crude joking. Those types of words are not fitting for men and women who represent the purity of God. Not only that, but impure words are simply a waste of time and energy, when we should be using our words to edify and encourage.
5. Are these words kind and gracious? We all know people who consistently use “truth” as a blunt instrument with which to smack other people in the head. There’s a fine line between being direct and being unkind. Always ask yourself, “How would I want somebody to tell me what I’m about to say? Is the way I’m about to say this consistent with the forgiving and gracious character of Jesus?” If not, rethink your approach. “Speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15).
By holding up our speech to these five questions, we can avoid most of the negative speech that Scripture warns us about: gossip, sarcasm, lying, verbal abuse, dirty jokes, and other inappropriate words.
What’s more, these questions help us speak in a way that is “seasoned with salt,” full of grace and kindness and love (Col 4:6). They help us use our words to reflect the enduring love and purity and perfection of Jesus our Savior.
So how do your words measure up? Are they helpful, true, well-timed, pure, and kind? If not, hold them up to the light and ask for the power of God’s Spirit to speak what is good.
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