Ephesians 4:29

‘Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth,
but only what is good for building others up as the need may be,
that it may give grace to those who hear.’
(Ephesians 4:29)

Before this verse, the apostle Paul had urged ‘the saints’(Ephesians 1:1) who he was writing to (meaning Christians generally) to ‘walk worthily of the calling with which you were called’(Ephesians 4:1). Our lives as Christians should be consistent with who we’ve become in ‘Christ’(Ephesians 4:20ff.), cleansed from all that’s ‘corrupt… renewed… in the likeness of God’(Ephesians 4:22-24). We’re to be ‘imitators of God, as beloved children’(Ephesians 5:1), bearing the family likeness, and as heirs of the ‘Kingdom’(Ephesians 5:5) its fitting representatives, ‘ambassadors on behalf of Christ’(2 Corinthians 5:20). What we say (and don’t say) are an important part of that, so we mustn’t let ‘corrupt speech proceed out of’ our mouths, but ‘only what is good’.

It’s useful to note the source of ‘corrupt speech’. It comes from this wider underlying corruption that we’re to get rid of, such as ‘bitterness, wrath, anger… malice’(Ephesians 4:31, cf. 26), etc., which fuels ‘slander’(Ephesians 4:31), ‘filthiness… foolish talking’(Ephesians 5:4) and other forms of unhelpful verbiage. James recognized this link too, when he wrote that we should be ‘slow to speak… slow to anger; for… anger… doesn’t produce… righteousness’(James 1:19-20). He goes on to explain that the tongue is like a difficult to control ‘fire’(James 3:6), ignited by corrupt forces that ‘war’(James 4:1) within us. Like Paul, James’ emphasis is that this ‘ought not to be… Does a spring send out from the same opening fresh and bitter water?’(James 3:10-11). As Jesus put it, ‘each tree is known by its own fruit… The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out that which is good, and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings out that which is evil, for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks’(Luke 6:44-45).

So we must watch our hearts ‘with all diligence’(Proverbs 4:23), putting away ‘corrupt lips’(Proverbs 4:24), and speak ‘worthily’(Ephesians 4:1), as befits the representatives of Him who ‘dwells’(Romans 8:9, cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16) within us, ‘tender hearted’(Ephesians 4:32) and kind. Behaving otherwise is to give space within our souls ‘to the devil’(Ephesians 4:27), which obviously ‘defiles’(James 3:6), and would ‘grieve the Holy Spirit of God’(Ephesians 4:30).

Moreover, it would corrupt and defile those around us too. As Paul warned the Corinthians, ‘“Evil companionships corrupt”’(1 Corinthians 15:33), which works both ways. We mustn’t be the bad influence, rather the voice for good. That should be our focus, saying ‘only what is good for building others up… that it may give grace to those who hear’, or read, with our increasingly text based interactions and communications.

However, first it’s helpful to pause, literally. James recommends a ‘bridle’(James 1:26) for our tongues, like ‘we put bits into… horses’ mouths… that they may obey us’(James 3:3). We’re to regain control, so that composed and calm we can be ‘swift to hear’(James 1:19), assessing things appropriately first. Then we can consider what ‘the need may be’, as Paul puts it. Many proverbs advise similar, like ‘he who restrains his lips does wisely’(Proverbs 10:19), ‘Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him’(Proverbs 29:20) and ‘The heart of the righteous weighs answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes out evil’(Proverbs 15:28). Even good words in the wrong place can be a problem: ‘He who blesses his neighbour with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse by him’(Proverbs 27:14)!

Nevertheless, having paused, and having weighed what’s appropriate, we can try out the proverb ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver’(Proverbs 25:11). So we mustn’t remain unduly quiet – there’s ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’(Ecclesiastes 3:7). We’re to seek out such opportunities to bring words of gold, silver and ‘light’(Psalm 119:105, cf. John 1:14, John 8:12, Matthew 5:14). Our presence should light up our spaces in a godly way, bringing this ‘grace to those who hear’, like the ‘gracious words’(Luke 4:22) of Jesus.

That might literally involve sharing the gospel ‘of Christ… with grace’(Colossians 4:3-6), and always being ‘ready to give an answer… with humility’(1 Peter 3:15). However, this passage seems primarily to be about what’s ‘good for building… up’ fellow Christians, like ‘speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’(Ephesians 5:19), and speaking the ‘truth in love’(Ephesians 4:15), to build up ‘the body’(Ephesians 4:16) of Christ. For this we have ‘Every Scripture…’(2 Timothy 3:16ff.).

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