If you watch the news, I’m sure you’ve seen it happen. A reporter will be presenting live or conducting an interview when suddenly, they have to cut away and apologize to the viewers. Why? Because someone used a word that has been deemed inappropriate for the broadcast.
In the United States, government law prohibits “obscene, indecent, and profane content” from being broadcast on radio and TV. That sounds like a reasonable rule, but who actually gets to define what qualifies as vulgar? Each person has a different standard of vocabulary that they find offensive, and each generation develops a new tolerance (or intolerance) for particular language and terms.
When it comes to vocabulary standards for followers of Jesus Christ, our guidelines must be established by something higher than government policy. Scripture sets that standard for loving others with our words:
“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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:29-30, ESV).
It’s vital to notice that the Apostle Paul doesn’t define “corrupting” talk by giving us a list of forbidden words. Instead, “corrupting talk” is first and foremost a matter of the intention of the heart.
Of course, this does not mean we are free to use any vocabulary whenever and however we wish. For example, we should not say, “God d*** you” or “Go to h***” because that evokes the name of a holy God to speak eternal condemnation over someone. Likewise, using graphic or sexually explicit language could bring to mind sinful thoughts or desires and cause others to stumble.
So how do you love your neighbor with your vocabulary? Well, the key is getting beyond and below the specific vocabulary! Here are some gospel principles from Ephesians 4:
“Only such as is good for building up.” Your motivation for communication should not be you, but the loving consideration of another person. May God help us to stop and think of the person we’re speaking to as a human being, made in the image of God, and in need of love, mercy, and redemption—just like us!
“As fits the occasion.” Before you speak, consider the moment you’re in. Situation, location, and timing matter. If you truly want to love your neighbor, you will pay attention to the circumstances and speak with awareness. Rattling off what feels good to you because you can is selfish. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
“That it may give grace to those who hear.” Grace is the goal. But biblical grace does not mean cultural niceness, being permissive or passive, or avoiding difficulty. Grace is the transforming power of Jesus Christ. The goal of your words is to be part of the transforming work that God is doing at that moment.
To achieve this holy standard of communication, we ourselves need rescuing, transforming, and empowering grace. Our toxic talk is never caused by the person we’re talking to; it’s always caused by us.
I must confess: I like to talk more than I like to listen. I am not always sensitive to the situation. I have flashes when I let anger and selfish ambition shape my words.
We have a problem. It’s harming us, our unity, our ability to grow together, and our witness. But there is help for the taking in the powerful grace of Jesus!
Paul David Tripp
1. Consider a recent conversation (or digital interaction) that left you hurting. Did you feel wounded because the other person was stinging and unbiblical in their communication? Or, did you dislike the experience because your sin was exposed?
2. Reflect on a recent interchange that ended poorly because you rushed in without considering the principles of Ephesians 4:29. Did you overlook the motivation of your heart? Did you fail to consider the details of the moment? Do you need to seek forgiveness for something that you said or the way in which it was communicated?
3. Is there a difficult conversation that you need to have with someone else? Why are you avoiding or postponing the discussion? How can you prepare your heart to keep grace as the goal?
4. What needs to happen in your heart so that you can ask better questions, pay genuine attention to their answers, listen more, and speak less? Be specific; identify a relationship where you can ask the Holy Spirit to help you put these principles into practice.
5. How can you apply these gospel principles from Ephesians 4:29-30 in the context of evangelistic communication? Again, be specific; identify a relationship with a non-believer and ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom as you share the Good News of Christ!