An e-publication of Living Hope Presbyterian Church
Eph 4:29 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.
In the last few weeks there have been two incidents of a person making a comment that has created a firestorm of criticism. First there was Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame who made a few comments in an interview pointing out the sin of homosexuality. The second example is Justine Sacco’s last tweet before deleting her Twitter account. You may not have heard of Justine. She was the head of communications at a British corporation. Just before Justine caught a flight leaving for vacation, she tweeted the following to her 500 or so followers, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Words. The Bible tells us the words we use and why we use them are important. In the verse above, Paul gives us a prohibition, a command, and a purpose concerning words.
Paul begins with a prohibition – a negative. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths”. He forbids (“Let” has the force of an imperative) words that are “corrupting”. The word used here literally means “rotten”, or in this case, “rotting”. Those who ingest rotting food will soon be very sick. It goes into one’s system and poisons him. The sense here seems to be that the words themselves are corrupting to the hearer. As one commentator remarked such words work to inflame the sinful lusts and passions of the hearer. Thus Paul is saying do not use words that would be destructive to your listeners. Do not use words, that once heard, will spiritually poison or tear down the one who hears. (see also verse 31)
Instead Paul commands us to employ the positive influence of words; use words “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion”. The two ideas here are using words for edification or encouragement and doing so appropriately. The second part of the equation qualifies the first. As another commentator wrote, “Seasonably edifying; according as the occasion and present needs of the hearers require, now censure, at another time consolation.” Thus edification is not always “positive.” Edifying words, given to fit the moment, may include a rebuke of another’s sin.
And what is the goal for our words? “That [they] may give grace to those who hear.” It is important that Christians not unnecessarily offend with their tongues, pen, or keyboards. In other words, loving kindness is the aim in all our words. As Paul states in verse 32, “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” However, as stated mentioned above, loving someone may mean the communication of difficult words. Words that the hearer needs may not be what the hearer will immediately appreciate. However, it would be most unkind not to speak a gracious rebuke to a believer caught in sin, not to correct an serious doctrinal error, or not to warn a sheep away from a spiritual wolf.
Phil Robertson appropriately rebuked the sin homosexuality. Though some Christians criticized him for the indelicacy in which he stated it, even many non-Christians defended his right to state what he believed. One of the reasons for the backlash against his harshest critics was due to the eloquently simple and wise way in what he said. He let the Bible condemn the act, while leaving the actors to the determination of God. And he stated clearly that he loved everyone.
However, I think we all understand the racial and sensitivity issues raised in Justine Sacco’s tweet message. Regardless of any contextual accuracy in what she said, I did not witness anyone rushing to her defense. Why? The reaction, or lack thereof, came in part because she based her joke on the backs of those suffering from a deadly disease. Even if a disease is almost always traced to the consequences of some act of sexual sin or illicit drug use, joking about human suffering is not a way to gain sympathy for the author. Within hours her tweet was seen and criticized by tens of thousands. When her flight landed in South Africa twelve hours later, she learned of the media firestorm she had created and that she had already been terminated by her company.
A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit. (Prov 15:4)
Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold Is a wise reprover to a listening ear. (Prov 25:11-12)