The Words of My Mouth
Recently the Holy Spirit convicted me about a conversation I had more than two years ago with a former student. As you can imagine, delayed conviction about this scenario was startling. However, like a bolt of lightning hitting a lamp post, it was an unmistakable call to repentance and reconciliation.
What did I say in this conversation that warranted repentance? Actually, my specific words were not the main reason for the conviction. The topic of the conversation was actually quite meaningless (a mosquito’s ability to enter an apartment above the first floor). However, the Holy Spirit saw fit to correct my heart condition that fueled sarcastic responses within the conversation. I’m not sure the extent to which my sarcasm impacted this student. Surprisingly, though, he remembered the conversation when I brought it up. His remembrance is enough to know that I was right in reconciling with him.
Now, this scenario could easily be dismissed as insignificant. After all, everyone uses sarcasm, especially with teenagers. Most of the time sarcasm is playful and harmless, right? It’s easy to say, “Sarcasm doesn’t really impact my group of friends. They know I’m kidding. We all do it to each other.” Perhaps…but does the use of sarcasm, and by extension, all of our words, lead to building others up? Do our words consistently reflect the thinking of others and putting them above ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4)? Or do our words more often reveal an inward cistern of insecurity, fear, narcissism, or unforgiveness?
While there is no direct command in scripture to avoid sarcasm, I will make the argument that scripture directly targets the collection our words, including sarcasm, and our heart condition that inspires them. I will highlight one passage, but there are dozens more that build into the biblical perspective for our word choices. Ephesians 4:29 says,
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Placed within a chapter emphasizing unity, the immediate context for this passage is a comparison between the former life lived in the flesh and the new life granted by God. Paul builds from this comparison to application, which is where the above verse is located. There are five observations I would like to make from this passage.
First, take note of the phrase “corrupting talk”. Unwholesome, foul, dirty, and abusive are all words used in other translations to describe this idea (NIV, NET, HCSB, KJV, NLT, MSG). The Greek word used for “corrupt” is also used three times in Matthew to describe rotten fruit or putrid fish (Matt. 7:15-20, 12:33, 13:48). Paul purposefully uses strong analogies, drawing upon our sense of smell and understanding of filth, to highlight the severity of our talk. It is safe to say that the meaning of this passage is not narrowly focused on one type of discourse, like culturally defined cuss words. Rather, rotten and putrid talk would also include words connected to crude joking, sexual humor, complaining, gossip, slander, and belittling (2 Cor. 12:20, Eph. 5:4, Col. 3:8, Prov. 11:12, Lev. 19:16, Eph. 4:31, 1 Pet. 2:1). Furthermore, in light of the context of Ephesians chapter 4, it is likely that Paul used the term “corrupt” to indicate the type of talk that would cause division and hurt within a gathering of believers; remember, the chapter’s theme is about unity in the body of Christ. Just imagine if our words contained an actual odor that clearly indicated the heart motive in which we spoke.
Second, corrupting talk “comes out of our mouth,” but these words do not find their origin there. Proverbs 4:23 warns us to take vigilance in guarding our heart, for from it flows springs of life. In the Gospels, Jesus builds on this concept several times to connect that what our mouths speak has its source in the heart (Matt. 12:34, Mk.7:21, Lk. 6:45). Consequently, our words are one way of assessing the condition of our heart.
Third, Paul uses the strong images for corrupt talk to contrast it with the kind of talk that should be flowing from the Christian mouth - words that “build up.” Our words can employ gentleness, or they can crush (Prov. 15:4); they can provide relief (Prov. 25:25), or they can belittle and destroy (Prov. 11:9, 12). Not to be taken lightly, our words have the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21).
Fourth, “as it fits the occasion” implies an awareness and discernment of those we are conversing with. There are no free, or meaningless, words to dispense; we will be held accountable for every careless word we speak (Matt. 12:36-37). Our speech should have a braided cord of grace and wisdom so that we are able to take advantage of opportunities to advance the gospel (Col. 4:6). Spiritual maturity looks like knowing how to assess an occasion and offer appropriate words in the midst of it (1 Thess. 5:14).
Finally, to “give grace” simply means extending benefit to others as the fruit of being concerned for their well-being. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20), representatives of Jesus (Col. 3:17), and proclaimers of God’s excellencies (1 Pet. 2:9-10). If we are not careful, our words could carelessly contradict this mandate of missional living. However, when our talk is girded with gospel intentionality instead of corruption, we will enter opportunities for our words to aid in the extension of God’s grace to those who hear.
If you are like me, proper reflection of your words and heart condition may reveal rotten and putrid aromas. If that’s the case, quickly run to the mercy of Jesus. Rejoice that God’s kindness leads you to the gift of repentance (Rom. 2:4). Ask the Holy Spirit to continually transform your heart such that springs of life would flow out of your mouth with a melody of grace and truth. Then join King David’s prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14).
FOR FURTHER THOUGHT
- Consider the significance of Isaiah 6:1-7. Isaiah was a prophet (meaning he used his mouth to proclaim the very words of God), yet when confronted with the holiness of God, he realized the reality of his uncleanliness, which is connected to his lips/mouth.
- Consider the complexities of the heart and mouth presented in James 3:1-12.
- Conduct a Google search for Bible verses about our words. Scan the lists provided in your search to sample the expansive biblical perspective on our words.
- Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2410). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
- Osborne, G. R. (2017). Ephesians: Verse by Verse. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
- Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.