When I was 16 years old I had a camp counsellor who sat me down, along with my friends, and had a conversation with us about our speech. We tended to be sarcastic with each other and she quoted Ephesians 4:29 to us.
“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.”
At the time I’m pretty sure I thought I knew better and that our joking was not “unwholesome”. As the years progressed, however, I learned that our words are incredibly powerful and negative words, even in jest, can hurt. I have often gone back to this verse and realized how wise my counsellor had been then. However, the Lord just opened my ears a bit more today.
I attended Passion 2012 in Atlanta Georgia a couple weeks ago. It’s an incredible conference with some incredible speakers. But one of the most impactful sessions didn’t have any speaker at all… just God. The second day they took the main session to simply read all of Ephesians. The whole book. No commentary, though the readers were some of the most learned and wise teachers I have ever known. Beth Moore, Louie Giglio, John Piper, and Francis Chan read chapters and let the Spirit speak. The greatest rabbi was speaking that day and as they read through chapter 4 my mind stopped on this verse that had been quoted to me 20 years ago and the thought came to mind, ‘what exactly does unwholesome mean?’ So my first day home after the conference I got my bible and started to look at it.
The word “unwholesome” comes from the greek word “sapros” which means, ‘rotten, over-ripe, over-done, a vegetable or food that is of poor quality, unfit for use, putrid.’
The other times that word is used in the New Testament is when Jesus is talking about a good tree that can not bear bad fruit, and that a bad tree can not bear good fruit. “Bad” is the same word, “sapros”.
How many of my words are over-ripe, unfit for use, putrid? I have spoken so many times out of hurts, or anger or just being inconsiderate. I have even tried at times to use the excuse of speaking truth in love, when I have offended someone by my words. Which of course can be true, especially as the word “benefit” means, “intrinsically good, whether it be seen to be or not.” But how often is it just an excuse to say what I want? Can I truly say that every time I “speak truth in love”, I am trying to “build up” the person I am speaking to? Even that word, “building up” in this verse, challenges my motives, it means to become a “suitable dwelling place for God.” Is that what I am trying to do for the other person? I must confess that more often than not my words are simply putrid.
So what does that say of my heart? If a good tree can’t produce bad fruit, how can I produce words that are over-ripe? I know the Lord, His Spirit lives within me, my fruit should be intrinsically good. I think therein lies the key. It’s not that the fruit was bad, it’s that it is no longer good… I have thrown out so many pieces of fruit that have gone bad in our fridge because they weren’t eaten when they should have been. They weren’t ‘bad’ when we bought them, but over time they have gone bad. Time. The words that I speak need to be timely. They need to be spoken when the Spirit tells me to speak, not when I want to speak. Not too early, nor too late. That’s a fine balance and a challenge that I’m not sure how to find exactly, except to be so close to my God that I can hear what He is saying.
My heart needs to be in the place that what I let come out of my mouth is to see others become a more suitable place for God to dwell. Oh that I could learn that lesson. To take not only my thoughts but my words captive!