Today in our study, we’re looking at other scriptures that go along with James’ warnings about the tongue.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:29-32)
Let’s look first at v29 in KJV: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” What the NIV translates as “unwholesome talk,” the King James translates as “corrupt communication.” The underlying Greek word means “rotten.” It was used for decaying flesh, rotten fish or rotten fruit. The meaning is, “Don’t let any putrid words come out of your mouth.” Here are a few examples:
- Vulgarity, obscenity, indecent language.
- Dirty jokes, off-color stories.
- Pornographic language.
- Humor meant to insult or to put someone down.
- Angry outbursts, harsh words.
- Mean-spirited comments.
- Gossip, rumors, false accusations.
- Endless criticism/Condemning others.
- Quick, cutting comments/Cheap shots.
Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Every time you open your mouth either life or death comes out. The Bible speaks of the throat as an “open grave” (Romans 3:13). When there is death on the inside, it will eventually show up in the your words. According to Proverbs 12:18, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” And James 3:5-6 offers this penetrating warning: “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
Ephesians 4:29 offers a Christian alternative: First, we are to speak good words that build up instead of tearing down. Second, we are to speak words that minister grace to those who hear them. And we are to do it all the time and in every circumstance. We are to speak good words that bring grace according to the need of the moment. Here is the teaching of the verse put very simply: Every word … all good … all grace … all the time. “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.” (Prov 15:4)
Paul mentions the sad consequence of our unkind words in verse 30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Did you know that you could grieve the Holy Spirit who lives within you? The word “grieve” comes from a Greek word that signifies deep emotion. You can only grieve a close friend or a loved one. You can’t grieve a stranger you meet on the street. You can irritate a stranger and you can offend a casual acquaintance, but you can only grieve someone very close to you. As usual, Paul’s advice is both practical and profound. We tend to talk a lot about interpersonal problems, as if the greatest issue in life is how we relate to other people. But verse 30 reminds us that our primary relationship is always with God. And it is possible to grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You can make the Spirit weep because of your thoughtless words.
Here’s the reason: The Holy Spirit not only lives in you. He also lives in the Christian brother or sister you just slandered with your lips. Evil speech destroys Christian unity. D. L. Moody commented that he had never known God to bless a church where the Lord’s people were divided. This is a word we need to hear today. We tolerate and sometimes even encourage a thoughtless attitude in the way we speak to each other and about each other. Every time I speak carelessly, I hurt at least three people:
- The Holy Spirit.
Every time I open my mouth, one of two things will happen:
- I build someone up, or
- I tear someone down.
This does not mean that we will never say anything hard or difficult. The warning goes to motive or purpose and must be judged by the context. Proverbs 27:6 reminds us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (KJV). Sometimes true friends “wound” each other in order to bring healing. Just as a doctor must sometimes cut us in surgery in order to remove what is killing us, true friends sometimes say things that aren’t easy to hear. “The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction.” (Prov 16:21)
We grieve the Spirit first by rotten speech (v. 29) and second by rotten attitudes (v. 31). But these two things are not separate. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Whatever is in the heart must eventually come out in the words we say. Whatever is down in the well will come up in the bucket sooner or later. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (v. 31). These words describe a collection of wrong attitudes that corrode the soul from the inside out. They produce a spiritual jaundice that colors all we see. None of us is immune. Taken together, they form a kind of spiritual staircase of ascending evil.
First there is bitterness, a word that means “pointed” or “sharp,” referring to the pain we feel when we think we’ve been mistreated. It speaks to a deep emotional reaction that keeps us from thinking clearly. If we dwell in bitterness long enough, it produces a wounded spirit and a hard heart.
The second step is wrath, a word that originally meant to snort. It has the idea of the nostrils being flared in anger. This is hot-tempered anger that explodes under the slightest provocation. We use the same image when we speak of someone being all steamed up, with smoke coming out his ears.
That leads to anger, the third step. This word speaks of a settled condition of the heart. Did you ever know a person who was angry all the time? They get up angry, they shower angry, they eat breakfast angry, they go to work angry, they come home angry, they watch TV angry, and they go to bed angry. And when they are happy, that makes them angry. Nothing pleases a person like that. Anger leads to jealousy, harsh words, and it can even lead to murder.
Angry people usually express themselves in brawling or clamor, the fourth step. The word means to raise your voice. It includes all forms of physical and verbal intimidation. It has the idea of shouting back and forth during a quarrel. How many arguments could be avoided if we didn’t raise our voices. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Slander is the final step. Paul uses a very strong word to describe this form of evil speaking. It means to make false accusations about someone or to offer vague insinuations that make another person look worse than they really are. We can slander with our words, with a lifted eyebrow, with an unfinished sentence, with a rhetorical question left dangling in the air, or by quoting someone but taking their words and twisting them into something sinister. We can slander through insults, ridicule, cruel jokes, taunts, unkind nicknames, rumors, mocking, belittling, or by passing unfair and hasty judgment. In legal terms this is called “defamation of character.”
Words give us control over others. We all feel better if we can name something. Every word we say impacts our relationships for good or for ill. Once a slanderous word escapes our lips, our relationship is changed forever. It can never be the same again.
This was the particular sin of those who crucified Jesus. They mocked him and lied about him and falsely accused him. As a result of their slander, the Son of God was crucified. When you slander someone, you join with those who crucified our Lord.
Malice, the final word, describes an underlying attitude of ill will. It’s a general dislike of others. Malice can be described as congealed hatred. A malicious person can’t get along with anyone.
What starts in the heart ends up on the lips. What begins with bitterness ends with slander. We think, we feel, and then we speak. What starts as a grievance becomes an outburst of wrath that hardens into anger that expresses itself in clamor and ultimately as slander. Malice marks such a person through and though. And it all starts with personal hurt that becomes bitterness. Stop it at the first and you won’t have to stop it at the last. That’s why Proverbs 4:23 reminds us to “guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.” We are doing Satan’s work when we climb that staircase. Every step is a step for him.
Note that Paul says to get rid of “all” these wrong attitudes: No root of bitterness; No symptoms of wrath; No trace of anger; No echo of clamor; No slime of slander; and No dregs of malice. As long we harbor these things within, the Holy Spirit weeps inside us. “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.” (Prov 15:28)
Those things must go … and be replaced with something much better. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (v. 32). Kindness speaks of gentleness in the face of provocation. It reaches out to the unworthy and withholds punishment even when it is deserved. Kindness is daring and dangerous because some mistake it for weakness. It is “the oil that lubricates the machinery of life.”
Compassionate comes from a word that means “good intestines” because the ancients thought the intestines and the bowels were the seat of the emotions. We mean something similar when we speak of a belly laugh. Compassion says, “I will care for you and I will not shut you out.”
The key to forgiveness is the middle syllable—give. Forgiveness is a gift we give to those who don’t deserve it – this is grace. Note that verse 32 starts with us and ends with God. We are kind, compassionate and forgiving to others because that’s how God has treated us. From God … to us … to others. We do for others what God has done for us. We have been forgiven; we know what it is like. Now do the same for others. We are not left to wonder what it means to forgive those who have hurt us.
You cannot understand God’s love unless you go to the cross. His death became a sacrifice that was a sweet aroma to the Father (Ephesians 5:1-2). Man’s murder became God’s sacrifice. A heinous crime paid an impossible debt. Through the death of an innocent man, we the guilty go free. If we had been there, the stench of death would have overwhelmed us, but the cross smelled good to the Father. The work of salvation was finally done. God asks us to do what he has already done for us. We are not to forgive in order to be forgiven. We forgive because we have been forgiven.