“Why do you have to be so stupid?”
“I wish I never married you!”
“I wish you never were born.”
“Why are you always so annoying?”
How often do you say something and wish you could take your words back? How often do you wish you could delete something you said like you can delete words with the backspace or delete key? And how often do you wish you could erase something you shared like you can delete a Facebook post or Tweet?
Sometimes I say stupid and harmful things. On occasion, my tone is too harsh with my kids. Other times I’m not gentle in my pastoral counsel. And other times I try to one-up my wife.
I KNOW I’m not alone on this one. 12 years of pastoral marriage ministry has provided more than enough evidence of this universal problem.
We all have challenges with the ways we communicate. Whether it’s what we say or how we say it, our words often harm relationships instead of growing them.
I finally found the one question I need to ask myself before a word comes out of my mouth. Whether I’m talking with my wife or kids, providing counsel in a meeting, or teaching from the stage, this one question will largely determine the outcome or effect of the words I use.
I believe it can transform the way you communicate as well.
What is this magic question?
Will what I’m about to say tear someone down or build them up?
Ephesians 4:29 provides the basis for this foundational question. In the middle of a powerful section on communication and the words we use, Paul writes:
“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.”
Genius. Will my words build the listener up according to their needs or is it going to tear them down?
Here are three brief observations from this verse:
1. Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth.
What does “unwholesome” talk mean? The ESV uses the word “corrupting” whereas the NLT calls it “foul or abusive language.” The same word is used a few other times in the New Testament. In Luke 6:43 it refers to rotten or bad fruit and in Matthew 13:48 it refers to rotten or putrid fish.
The word pictures help me see that sometimes the words that come out of our mouths are rotten, putrid, and foul. Let the smell of rotten fish stick with you. Sometimes our words have that same effect.
A few questions about your talk:
- Are you cussing or using inappropriate language? For years, this was one of my lingering sins. I cussed like a sailor the first 25 years of my life, and some of my inappropriate and crass language continued for years. It wasn’t until a few years ago when a friend called me out on this that I stopped cussing.
- Are your words rotten to the hearer? For example, many of us use the word “gay” in an unwholesome way. Many of us use/have used the phrase, “That’s so gay!” Or we call someone’s behavior “gay.” Not helpful to anyone. It’s honestly juvenile and like rotten fish. I’ve had to repent of my rotten word choices in the past. Can we commit to not using the word “gay” to mock someone’s behavior?
- Do you gossip about others behind their back to tear them down? If so, it’s like rotten fish coming out of your mouth.
2. Speak only what is helpful for building others up.
We have a great opportunity to use our words to help others and to build them up. Our words can edify (instruct or improve) and encourage others. So much of life and our world seeks to destroy. We feel beat down and discouraged by life and by relationships. As followers of Christ, we can speak words that will strengthen others.
For extra study, look up a few verses that can help you see the impact of your words: James 3:3-12, Proverbs 12:18, 18:21
Are you going to use your words to build people up, or will use them like much of the world does—to tear others down?
3. Use your words “according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
What we say can help others with their needs and can benefit them in many ways. Another way to say “benefit” is that it “gives grace” to those who listen. When we want to grow in our relationship with Christ, we need grace from others instead of put-downs.
Does what I’m about to say help the other person and give grace or does it prevent growth and bring harm?
This doesn’t mean we always simply need to be so nice to everyone else. Be kind and gentle in your words and tone (see Romans 2:4, Galatians 5:22-23), but sometimes our words will wound others. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” When you lovingly wound a friend, you speak according to their needs, so you ultimately build them up.
Countless times in my life friends have lovingly wounded me with their words. In the moment it might not feel like they’re building me up, but in the long run, their words are spoken according to my needs to benefit me.
The book Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate, by Jerry Bridges has consistently challenged me to think through my “sins of the tongue.” Bridges address sins such as slander, gossip, and sarcasm. He’s helped me grow in this area, and I’m thankful for his insightful commentary on the sins of the tongue.
Memorize Ephesians 4:29 and think of the impact of your words. Does what you say tear others down or build them up?
Asking yourself this one question can transform the way you communicate. Will what I’m about to say tear someone down or build them up?
This post originally appeared on ScottKedersha.com and was republished with permission.
Scott Kedersha is the director of premarital and newly married ministries at Watermark Community Church in Dallas, TX. He’s a loyal husband and father to four boys.