No Neutral Speech
Let no unwholesome word proceed out of your mouth, but only such a word that is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear. [Ephesians 4:29]
In January 1932, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and within seven years had plunged the world into the most horrible war yet, killing 100 million people. One of the most powerful tools Hitler used to bring such death was his public speeches in which he preached an intense nationalism, Aryan supremacy, and anti-Semitism. By late May 1940, the Nazis had overrun Belgium and the Netherlands and were well on their way to conquering France as well. At that time England had had enough of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies and appointed Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. By late June, less than one month after taking office, Churchill gave three of his most famous speeches – his blood, toil, tears, and sweat speech, his we will fight on the beaches speech, and his finest hour speech. The last paragraph of this June 18, 1940 speech says,
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
I have always marvelled at how the words of these powerful men were used, on the one hand to bring destruction and on the other hand to bring courage and resolve. Paul, in the verse mentioned above, is calling the Ephesian believers to realise their speech is never neutral. It either builds up or tears down. Literally in the Greek text, for the sake of emphasis Paul says, ‘Putrid words out of your mouth yourself put them away.’ By putrid words Paul does not necessarily mean profane, vile, lascivious words. He takes that up in Ephesians 5:4. He means any words which are harmful. A hunter coming upon a deer that has died from natural causes will not take that deer home, gut it, and eat it. It is not that this is merely distasteful, unwise, or unpleasant. It is downright harmful. Putrefaction has set in on the deer. Death is in the carcass. Sewage seeping into the local swimming pool is not merely unpleasant or distasteful. It is unhealthy for all who swim in it. Proverbs 18:6 says that a fool’s lips bring strife and his mouth brings destruction. Harmful, putrid words are anything you say which is not edifying, anything which does not build up, inspire, bring grace to those who hear.
Instead Paul is commanding these Ephesian believers continuously to speak words which edify (a construction term from which we get our word edifice). Note he says we are to speak only words which edify. There is no room for putrid or harmful words. Proverbs 25:11 says, ‘Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken at the right time.’ Proverbs 16:24 says that pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Am I speaking rhetorically when I say that words are never neutral, that they always build up or tear down? I think not. When I say to a man in the locker room at my fitness centre, ‘How did the Red Sox do last night?’ I am engaging him in conversation in order to be civil. I could just ignore him. When a husband says to his wife, ‘What’s for dinner?’ he could be saying this in a sarcastic way (maybe she never cooks) or he could be saying it with expectancy because she is such a good cook.
Think for a moment about your speech to your spouse, children, parents, friends, neighbours? Understand this – your speech reveals the condition of your heart. In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus said, ‘From the heart come evil desires and adulteries, thievery, murders, and fornications.’ Paul said that the mouth speaks that which fills the heart. Your acerbic, biting, caustic, demeaning speech does not edify. It tears down, and it reveals a heart that is not right with God. I am not saying you are not a Christian. I am simply saying that you are not walking with Christ, that you are allowing your flesh to rule your heart and mouth.
There are certain things you must never say. You must never, as a believer, say to God, ‘You have deserted me. You will not provide for me.’ You must never say to your spouse, ‘I hate you. I want a divorce. I should have never married you.’ You must never say to your children, ‘You will not amount to anything. You are a loser.’ Why not? Because these words tear down others. They do not build up. What do your words reveal about your heart?
Second, you are to use your speech to serve God and people. God’s desire always is the salvation and sanctification of his people. He loves to redeem people, to draw them to himself, to deliver them from sinful bondage, from broken relationships. The marvellous thing is that God uses people to accomplish his purposes. He speaks to people through his written word and his living word (Christ), but he also ministers to people through the words and acts of his people. So when you speak putrid, harmful words which tear down then you are standing in the way of what God wants to do with that person.
You need to consider the person God has before you at any given moment. You ought to consider the needs of that person. You should be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). You should make your words few before God (Ecclesiastes 5:2). As England faced the perilous possibility of Nazi invasion Churchill fortified the British people with the need to fight and never give up, never to surrender. At the time nothing had changed concerning the British situation. They were terribly behind in production of war materiel, but his words encouraged, inspired, and motivated the people to hold on regardless.
So consider the person before you. Does he need a word of comfort, direction, encouragement, forgiveness, hope, love, perseverance, rebuke, warning, wisdom? And it is not enough to say the right words. You must also say the right words at the right time and in the right tone. A mother who yells at her son for being irresponsible as he walks out the door for school, may be saying the right thing, but at the wrong time and with the wrong tone. A husband entering into a serious conversation about money or health issues, as his wife crawls into bed at midnight probably is not choosing the best time. Edifying speech always come down to a heart issue. How is your heart toward God? Your speech is never neutral. Consider your words and heart.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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