There are many instances in the Bible that speaks about the importance of the words that come from our mouth and warns against verbal sin, which often seems so common and trivial to us that we don’t even feel bad doing it; we often don’t repent for it and more often than not, we aren’t been aware that we’ve sinned by doing it. In this verse especially, Paul doesn’t simply tell us to watch what we say, but more importantly to consider our words as grace and thus speak intentionally in accordance to grace.
Unwholesome talk – While most of us would probably avoid the mainstream vulgarities; we often fail to realize that a huge chunk of the words that leave our mouths are unwholesome. It boils down to a definition of what’s unwholesome. Other translations termed this corrupted, foul, filthy – and in Greek the term used here is only ever used one other time in the New Testament Bible – Matthew 7:17, used to describe a bad or a rotten fruit. While unwholesome may be a much nicer way of putting it, these term general imply similar negative connotations. Perhaps we should think about this conversely to make things clearer. What kinds of talk would you consider wholesome or pure or clean? Words of genuine praise and thanksgiving; perhaps. Constructive criticism. Words of encouragement and of comfort. Words that expresses joy and words that cheer others up without being dirty. Your list may be longer. For now, mine stops here.
In retrospect, consider again what you would consider unwholesome. If its hard, let me give you a suggestion – it is anything that does not fall into what you would consider wholesome. John Piper categorizes language that we should avoid into 4 parts. Taking the name of the Lord in vain [Exo 20:7]. Trivializing that which has immense significance (or terrible realities) – like any swear language or cry that involves terms like hell, holy, death. Reference to sex and the body vulgarly. And lastly any mean-spirited speech, like gossip, accusations, slander, mockery, complaining, cursing. Or it could be just a simple ‘shut up’ or anything that you snap out in anger. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving [Eph 5:4]. Basically, in summary, unwholesome talk is every speech that does not uplift people spiritually.
Only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs – in other translations this may be rendered as for edifying purposes – and this clearly tells us to keep our mouth shut if we don’t have anything beneficial and constructive to say – not literally, but if what you say is of no benefit to those who hear it, then your words are meaningless. It’s one thing to be unable to build others up through your words – nothing bad will happen. But it’s another thing to stumble others through your words. Verbal attacks are often as difficult to handle as physical attacks. Let’s not waste our time talking about rubbish and fool around. Instead, let us bless others with our words.
That it will benefit those who listen – many other versions describe this as that may give grace to those who hear (ESV), which changes the entire perspective of the issue of speaking – it’s based on grace. More specifically, a gracious heart and mind. Most Christians, or even non Christians, have some kind of personal rules that prevents them from cursing or spewing vulgarities. That is good, but not enough. On top of deliberately not saying corrupted things; on top of saying wholesome things, we should also constantly consider if what we say will edify others and glorify God. Often a statement of perfectly pure intentions, a word of praise, an intentionally inspiring speech, may be misunderstood or delivered in a way that causes misunderstanding. The tone and timing that you say it matters a lot as well. This requires sensitivity and grace. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips [Ecc 10:12].
In most parts of the world today there is free speech – likewise for Christians. It’s just that while this freedom of speech means that the world can say whatever they want, whether we like it or not; it also means that as Christians, we are free not to say what the world says. We are free not to repeat the verbal sins of the world. We are free from the shackles of verbal sin, even if it’s so rampant in our society today that they are everywhere. Not saying it is the first step. The next step is to look at speech from a new perspective – the perspective of grace. Say with the intention to bless. Say with the intention to give grace. Say with the intention to benefit others. Say with the clarity of doing so. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone [Col 4:6].
Words govern a huge part of our lives, and they often determine how a relationship between two people will be. James tells us to be slow to speak [James 1:19]- an indication really of how often one can get into trouble simply by speaking. Let us encourage one another and build each other up [1 Thes 5:11], thinking about grace. At the same time, let’s speak with sincerity – it is entirely possible that one gets too harped up on the teachings of the apostles and overdo the teachings, with an overly intentional desire to bless and to encourage, even at the wrong time; and that would simply be seen as flattery or hypocrisy. Let us be genuine and gracious in our speech, even when provoked. After all, why would we want to use the same mouth that we worship God with to sin or to curse?