“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Eph 4:29)
Many people these days seem quite unaware that becoming a Christian requires a complete change of life. Lady Gaga is a case in point. In a recent interview she was asked about her religious convictions. She said that she was a good Catholic but saw nothing inconsistent with claiming to be a Christian and her support for alternative sexual lifestyles.
The apostle Paul thinks otherwise. In his letter to the Ephesians he tells believers that “with regard to your former way of life, you must put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires and be made new in the attitude of your minds” (4:22, 23). When Paul says that we must ‘put off’ our old self, he uses a word which is normally associated with the taking off of our clothes. To ‘take off’ or remove one’s clothes is always a deliberate decision. Of course, we remove our clothes for various reasons but one obvious reason is when they become stained or dirty.
I remember a conversation I had many years ago with a local funeral director. He told me he had just bought a new suit. However it came into contact with some human remains and he couldn’t get rid of the smell. His wife told him to dry clean the suit a couple of times but it made no difference. The suit had to be thrown out.
Paul makes the same point about our old manner of life. We need to throw it out as deliberately as we would throw out stained and soiled clothes. However, in its place we need to adopt the dress code of the new life in Christ. One aspect of this new life which we must ‘put on’ is the way we communicate with others. Paul says a great deal about our communication in this section of his letter to the Ephesians. Obviously, in his mind, the way we speak to one another is of the uttermost importance. This is so because our ability to speak is the most significant gift that God has given us. God speaks and we, being made in his image, speak as well. It is therefore important that the way we speak is consistent with God’s plans and purposes for us.
First, Paul tells us that we must do away with unwholesome speech. The word ‘unwholesome’ (sapros) means rotten or worthless. It was often used by the Greeks to describe fruit that could no longer be eaten. Paul reminds us that there is such a thing as rotten or useless speech. This kind of speech includes coarse language, swearing, off-coloured jokes, innuendo and double entendre. Paul says that this kind of language is unseemly for Christians.
On the contrary, one distinctive of Christian speech is that it ‘builds others up according to their needs’. This means that our words should encourage people to be full of faith, love and godliness. Our comments should be strengthening and refreshing. Do your words pass this test? Unfortunately, it seems to be a custom in Australia that we prefer to tear people down or humiliate them. We call it “cutting down tall poppies.” It sometimes happens at 21st birthdays or wedding speeches. However, it shouldn’t happen at Christian functions. We should ‘build others up according to their needs.’
Paul emphasises the point by reminding us that our speech should “benefit those who listen.” Does your speech help to bring out the best in others or honour the occasion? That’s the question.