Sentinels of Speech

by Pastor John Kim

Thumper: He doesn’t walk very good, does he?
Mrs. Rabbit: Thumper!
Thumper: Yes, mama?
Mrs. Rabbit: What did your father tell you this morning?
Thumper: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that there are many people around us that don’t say very nice things. For some people it is second nature to be sarcastic, biting, contradictory, joking, cutting, or just plain unhelpful. Some are quick to speak and take advantage of someone, whether it be when someone mispronounces a word, uses wrong grammar, or misuses a word. While it is easy to notice this in others, do we take a look at our own lives to consider what comes out of our own mouths?

I still remember a time when I was a youth pastor and held a staff meeting one weekend. We had what was called “brutal honesty” times and it was to give staff members the opportunity to share without fearing repercussions. One staff member shared how she felt that the majority of the staff, especially the guys, were constantly sarcastic and joking and upon reflection, it was true. The atmosphere at church tended to be comfortable with a joking attitude and while it might not have been malicious, there was definitely a sense where the sarcastic tone dominated the interactions. It was sobering to realize that there were those who were hurt by such words.

Now some will say, “Can’t people just take a joke?” Maybe some can but this kind of question might reveal something deeper. Is there consideration for how our words either edify or tear someone down? Does our speech reflect the kind of words and consideration that would honor Christ?

Ephesians 4:29 has long been a verse where it stands guard over my mouth. It presents some very simple and straightforward thoughts that have helped me from saying things that would not have been very helpful. I think it’s when we give thought even to the little things, the quips, the remarks, the retorts, the reactionary words that are often careless – it is when we care enough to glorify God with our speech in all things that we can see our words as a ministry.

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

If we were to setup four guards at the point of our mouth and have them determine what is allowed to come out, these four sentinels would serve us well:

Guard #1: Nothing Unwholesome

The idea here is something that is bad, rotten, worthless, harmful. The verse starts off with a pretty comprehensive coverage – “let no unwholesome word.” In other words, every word that comes out cannot be allowed to pass by if characterized in this way. Sometimes we think that certain words or phrases are harmless if they are just said in a joking manner. But this does not take into account a deeper consideration. The question is whether what is being said wholesome or not. Will it contribute to the health of the one who hears it? Will it bring blessing and increase toward godliness? Someone might say, “But can’t we just kid around once in awhile?” What is revealed through questions like these is a blindness to one’s own selfishness and lack of consideration toward others. Is it okay to speak in whatever way I wish without regard for those who hear it? We should only be aware that the words are not only for the person they are directed toward but those around who will hear it as well. What kind of testimony do you bear witness to when you open your mouth around others?

Guard #2: Only Edifying

The principle of edification is one that needs to be taken seriously as we have the opportunity to either build up someone or tear them down. There really can’t be wasted words when it comes to how we communicate with each other. There are again many who want to insist on looking for exceptions to joke around or speak nonsense while at the same time lacking in being deliberate to edify others with their words. There are some that would even want to justify pointing out the faults of others by saying they have the right to say what needs to be said. But it is not always helpful.

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all
things edify. (1 Corinthians 10:23)

It is a challenge but if one gives careful biblical consideration to what is said, the heart of one who truly loves others will desire the edification of others by carefully thinking how one can build up another person’s life by the words you choose to use. Not only can words be edifying, but they can minister healing to someone’s soul!

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24)

Guard #3: Timely

“According to the need of the moment” means that there needs to be a sense of discernment that gives consideration to not only addressing a need but also seeking to be timely in the manner in which things are spoken. Timing is key for so many things and the words we speak can be a blessing or a curse in the timing of when they are spoken. Even if there is truth spoken, truth spoken in love gives consideration to the timing of how someone will receive it. Too many people insist on speaking what they want to share without Philippians 2:3-4 in mind:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one
another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4)

The timeliness of speaking the truth in love reflects the application of this truth, that you are willing to consider someone else’s interests before your own. How many conflicts could have been avoided or trouble averted if people just gave this particular sentinel to guard what came out of one’s mount? While we obviously cannot avoid all conflicts, there seems to be many times where people unnecessarily cause trouble by lacking this consideration.

He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent. Proverbs (17:27–28)

To exercise restraint and even keep silent show knowledge and wisdom. You can speak too soon and show how foolish you are.

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 29:20)

Guard #4: Gracious

Our words should be like gifts. The presentation of the right words is like setting the table with just the right dish to serve. The fact that grace is the operating principle also keeps in mind that these words are not just being given because the person deserves such word but even when the person doesn’t deserve such gifts.

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. (Proverbs 25:11)

James writes how the tongue is such a small part of the body and yet it boasts great things, capable of setting fire and stirring up a world of iniquity. It is no surprise that so many conflicts stem from how we talk to each other. But we also have the great opportunity to bring blessing through our words and we can minister the truth in love by setting a guard over our mouths so that what comes out truly honors God and communicates the love of Christ to His glory.