"Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear."
Ephesians 4:29 NASB
"Watch your mouth!" If you’ve ever been reprimanded for saying something rude or inappropriate, you’ve certainly heard this phrase before, especially as the subordinate in a superior-subordinate relationship, such as parent-to-child, teacher-to-student, coach-to-athlete, and etc. This phrase serves not only as a rebuke for something we’ve said, but also as a warning to carefully scrutinize our words before we say them! We tend to speak without thinking first and repeat what we hear without considering the ramifications of our reckless speech! The Word of God is full of revelation regarding our speech, particularly its power: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit" (cf. Proverbs 18:21); "But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison" (cf. James 3:9). When we grasp the fact that our words can profoundly affect ourselves and others, we will exercise more wisdom in using them responsibly!
In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul instructs the saints at Ephesus to exercise caution and wisdom in their speech as part of their overall Christian conduct:
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth. This word "unwholesome" in the Greek language means "rotten, i.e. worthless". The Amplified Bible also offers a series of synonyms for "unwholesome" in context: "foul", "profane", and "vulgar". When we contemplate foul, profane, and or vulgar words, our minds immediately rush to "curse" or "cuss" words. And while those do apply, there are plenty of other words that are equally as profane, even if they are not considered "curse words". The apostle Paul's charge to not allow any unwholesome word to proceed from one’s mouth can be a difficult one to obey, not solely because we live in fallen human flesh, but especially because we hear unwholesome words everywhere, particularly on television, in movies, music, and everyday conversations.
Nevertheless, we can be more intentional about actively obeying this command by guarding our intake; the temptation to speak in unwholesome ways will only continue to increase the more we subject our ears to unwholesome language. Moreover, we must think intently about what we are going to say before we say it! In the epistle carrying his name, James instructs his audience saying, “...everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (cf. James 1:19). If we exercise patience in our speech as opposed to always rushing to speak, we can more carefully scrutinize our words in our minds before we release them from our mouths.
But only such a word as is good for edification. While unwholesome words should not proceed from our mouths, words that are good for edification should! This word “edification” in the Greek language means “architecture, i.e. a structure” or “confirmation”. Essentially, edification is the act of building up something or someone! If no one else in the world is building up others through their speech, the saints of God should be doing so, for fellow believers and non-believers! Consider your conversations with other people: are you encouraging or belittling a fellow image-bearer of God? Do you call them by their name or out of their name? Do you still build them up when they are in not in your immediate presence?
A well-constructed building stands tall and erect! We must regularly assess whether our words help to build others up to stand tall and upright or leaning towards the ground. Edifying someone with our words does not mean that we should avoid telling them the truth, especially if that truth would be conducive for their overall growth and maturity! Even if the harshness of the truth temporarily wounds the individual, it is more profitable to build someone up in truth rather than deceit.
According to the need of the moment. Here, James’ principle of being “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” is further applied! When we converse with someone, we often listen to respond instead of listening to comprehend. Some individuals you converse with may not be necessarily looking for a verbal response from you as much as they desire your comforting presence. But if they do desire your response, you must be able to discern the moment and furthermore, the need of the moment. As believers and followers of Jesus Christ, we discern through the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth (cf. John 16:13). Therefore, ask the Holy Spirit what the occasion requires!
If the moment requires correction, speak words in accordance with sound correction. If the moment requires encouragement through exhortation, speak words in accordance with sound encouragement. If the moment requires guidance and instruction, speak words in accordance with guidance and instruction. If the moment requires all of these and more, speak words in accordance with all of them! When we rely on and yield to the Holy Spirit, He will navigate us as we navigate our conversations with others and give us the necessary words for that individual or group of individuals in that moment. God meets needs both spoken and unspoken, and He can use us to do so!
So that it will give grace to those that hear. Grace is a manifold term, but in this context, grace denotes goodness, lovingkindness, favor, and blessing! In every interaction, our speech should be seasoned with grace! We simply do not know all the circumstances that an individual may be experiencing at a particular moment or season in time. Our gracious speech may encourage someone to continue to persevere in the midst of tribulation or to forgive someone who wounded them. In contrast, our cruel and merciless words may incite wrath, frustration, or discouragement! The objective is to bless others in our interactions with them, not curse them.
The apostle Paul reiterates this idea in his epistle to the saints at Colossae when he says “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (cf. Colossians 4:6). If we are Christ’s ambassadors, then our conduct should reflect the conduct of Christ, including our speech! And considering that grace and truth were both fully realized through Jesus Christ, our speech should be seasoned with that same grace as well! Let our lives match our verbal confession of faith, and let our verbal confession of faith be exemplified through our lives!