Imagine going to a barbecue at a friend’s house and saying, “Whoa, fire!” Now picture yelling those same words in a crowded movie theater. Chances are, you’ll get two very different responses!
That’s because language is contextual. In certain cultures around the world, it’s considered a compliment to call another person overweight. The implication is that he or she is successful, wealthy, and therefore, well-fed. Not so in the US! Similarly, words that are offensive in other countries may not be offensive in America, and vice versa. Context isn’t limited solely to culture, either. It involves age, social settings, and a person’s own convictions.
Recognizing that language is nuanced, how do we practice godly speech as Christians? For starters we have to acknowledge three basic principles:
The tongue is powerful. There is no gray area here. The Bible unequivocally teaches that though small, the tongue is formidable and difficult to tame (James 3:5-8). Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” It doesn’t get more serious than that!
Words are amoral. Like many things in life (money, time, possessions) words themselves are morally neutral. How we use them determines whether they’re helpful or damaging. Is cursing always sin? No, I don’t think it is. There’s a difference between using an expletive jokingly among friends who won’t be offended, and screaming an expletive at your spouse in the heat of an argument.
Romans 14:13 urges Christians not to pass judgment on one another, nor put a stumbling block in the way of a brother. In this sense, we must know our audience. People have different degrees of sensitivity to language, just as they do to alcohol. If in doubt, don’t say anything that could cause someone to feel uncomfortable or “stumbled” by you.
Speech is an overflow of the heart. People sometimes say, “I’m going to speak from the heart for a moment,” but the truth is, we always speak from the heart. Matthew 12:34 says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Unfortunately, our hearts are polluted with sin. If godly speech begins with a godly heart, our only hope is Jesus! We must repent of sin continually, and ask Christ to create in us a clean heart (Psalm 51:10).
With these principles in mind, here are three goals for growth in godly speech:
Goal #1: Listen
Any counselor will tell you that the key to good communication isn’t talking. It’s listening. Talking comes easily because our sinful hearts are quick to defend ourselves, to argue, to demand to be heard. But listening is a skill, and it’s worth our investment. In the words of James, “Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19).
Goal #2: Consider Others
Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” In other translations, the word “count” means to “value” or “consider.” The only way we can consider others before ourselves is by cultivating gospel humility, which always leads to better communication.
Goal #3: Whenever possible, build others up.
Finally, Ephesians 4:29 teaches, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up.” For more specific tools on how to build others up, checkout Pastor Grant’s article.
Christian, may your words provide peace to those who are restless. May they offer hope to those in despair. May they be filled with love for those who need it the most. Death and life are in the power of the tongue.