God used words to create this universe. He spoke, and it came to pass. He created us with the ability to use words to communicate with each other and with Him. But then the fall happened.
The first communications breakdown preceded the first sin. Eve told Satan that God had forbidden eating or touching the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:2-3), when God had only forbidden eating it (Genesis 2:17). We don’t know whether Eve exaggerated to Satan or whether Adam exaggerated God’s command to keep Eve far from the tree. But either way, they ate the fruit.
Ever since, sin has impacted our ability to communicate. But even so, for the next nearly two thousand years, all humans shared one language. It may have been Hebrew, for many names from this era have Hebrew roots and meanings. Adam means man, Abel means breath, Seth means compensation, and Noah means rest.
But then Babel happened. Mankind was gathering in defiance of God’s command to fill the earth. So God confused their language, “that they may not understand one another’s speech,” and “from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:1-9).
We have language barriers as judgment for sin; they have hindered communication ever since. But they are not impenetrable. God could have made it as impossible for us to learn Chinese as to communicate with whales. (Whales communicate in tones too deep for human vocal chords to reproduce, and with such volume that they can be heard miles away. We could no more match their tones than they could match ours!) Instead, He left it possible to learn other languages because He knew He would one day call us to spread the Gospel across language barriers.
A little over two thousand years later, Jesus stepped from eternity into time. John 1 refers to Him as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14a). God did not just stop with sending us commandments chiseled in stone; He became the message.
Jesus died for our sins and rose on the third day. Before He returned to Heaven, He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). That power came on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came upon the believers, and they began to speak in other languages. Jews from the nations into which they had been dispersed heard the Gospel proclaimed in their own languages.
This is, in a striking sense, the mirror image of Babel. At Babel, men used words to defy God; here, at Pentecost, to honor Him. At Babel, after the confusion, their words sounded like nonsensical gibberish to their comrades; here, they were speaking in complete, known languages that bystanders understood.
At Eden, God gave us the ability to communicate with any other man. At Babel, He took it away—partially, with a barrier that could be breached with years of study and effort. At Pentecost, He showed that He is still sovereign over the curse upon our languages and still has the power to suspend the confusion of Babel. This is a glimpse of the future that awaits us in Heaven, when all effects of the curse, including upon languages, are no more.
But for now, our footprints still leave traces of the dust of Babel. One day the curse will be lifted and pure language will return. Until then, how shall we speak?
2. Taking Every Word Captive
Practically every page of the Bible teaches or illustrates something about how we should use words. But Scripture is not chiefly concerned with providing a list of words to avoid nor with drawing a line past which words are sinful. It is rather concerned first with a transformed heart, then with how a transformed heart transforms thoughts, and only then with how both transform words. So this article is written for Christians whose hearts and minds have been transformed by Jesus Christ. Its principles are useless for anyone else.
My first job offer was to work for a political candidate. One of my responsibilities would be to teach him how to talk like a Christian so he could win the Christian vote. (I declined the job.)
Talking like a Christian without being one sometimes wins elections, but it never wins entrance to Heaven. Salvation only comes from repenting from sins and believing in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Once this happens, the process of our sanctification begins. This is the process of becoming more holy and set apart from the world in every area of our lives.
As our hearts change, our thoughts change. Paul calls those with changed hearts to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5). Then our changed hearts and thoughts change our words, and we take every word captive.
3. Speaking the Truth
Christians speak truth. Every principle that shows us how to speak shows us how to speak the truth.
Truth is foundational to the Law. It’s one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). If you bore false witness against someone, you earned the penalty they would have received had your witness been true (Deuteronomy 19:18-19).
Truth is also foundational to the Gospel. Jesus revealed Himself to us as the truth: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a).
And Revelation 22:15 tells us that “whoever loves and practices a lie” is not welcome in the New Jerusalem. Telling the truth is that important to God.
What does it mean to tell the truth?
Part of telling the truth is to speak truthfully of ourselves. I Peter 2:1 calls us to lay aside all hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a temporary condition. We might camouflage an unchanged heart, but only temporarily. Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34b). And as He discussed the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, He also said. “For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known” (Luke 12:2).
The solution to hypocrisy is repentance, not sinning openly. Other religions are content to change behavior. Christianity is concerned first with changing the heart. Only then do we seek actions reflecting a changed heart.
Hypocrisy is attempting to advance ourselves by misrepresenting ourselves; flattery is attempting to advance ourselves by misrepresenting others. This is also folly; Psalm 12:3 asks the Lord to “cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaks proud things[.]”
We flatter those around us when we say something that is complimentary but not true. Sometimes we do it to make them feel better about themselves. Sometimes we do it to make them feel better about us. The problem is not necessarily that someone feels better about themselves or us; it is when we try to achieve this goal by saying something that is positive but untrue. We can almost always achieve the same goal with a little extra work by finding something that is positive and true.
Oaths and Vows
The Old Testament permitted oaths and vows (Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:21-22, Zechariah 8:16-17). There were some limitations; for instance, a father could nullify a foolish vow made by his youthful daughter (Numbers 30:3-5). But the main requirement for an oath or vow was to keep it.
Then in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to a higher standard: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).
James goes beyond oaths and vows, offering an illustration: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that’” (James 4:13-15).
In calling us to this higher standard, they call us to speak truthfully of the future. Our words should reflect that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Sometimes we speak truthfully of the future by simply speaking of our future plans. “I plan to finish this article by January 15th” is a present-tense statement of current intentions. Other times we simply use the wording James offers us, “if the Lord wills.” It may seem or be awkward, but it can open the door for an opportunity to share our faith in a God who knows the future when none of us do.
Lying to Save Lives
The Bible never commands us to lie to prevent what we might perceive as a greater evil.
Lying is mentioned in several stories. In Genesis 20, we see Abraham trying to save his own life by misrepresenting his relationship to Sarah. This deceit nearly cost an innocent king his life (Genesis 20:3). On the other hand, Rahab, a harlot in Jericho who did not know or follow the law of God, hid two Hebrew spies, lied to save their lives, and was spared in Jericho’s fall (Joshua 2). The Hebrew midwives speaking to Pharaoh in Exodus 1:19 are sometimes mentioned here, but their statements may have actually been truthful.
Sometimes God uses a Scriptural narrative to show how He accomplishes His purposes despite human sin. He permitted the Messianic line to come from David’s union with Bathsheba, even though that union began in adultery. But we gravely err and miss the point entirely if we take this story to say that God commands, condones, or even permits adultery. God accomplished His purposes despite David’s sin.
This is just one example; characters in Scripture stories break many commands, including all Ten Commandments. The end result of these stories is often God’s judgment for sin. But when the story does not end in judgment, this never means that God commanded or condoned the sin; it is instead a testament to His ability to accomplish His purposes despite it.
Scripture’s stories are infallibly accurate historical accounts, but they never override Scripture’s commands. God will accomplish His purposes despite our sin, but this is never a command or even a permission to sin.
4. Speaking With the Fruit of the Spirit
How should Christians speak the truth?
Many Bible verses give specific principles for how we should speak. But we miss the heart of Biblical communication if we look only for a guide to external behavior.
So instead we start not with what we do but with who we are. We’re believers in Jesus Christ. This means that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, for He dwells in all believers: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:9).
As the Spirit dwells in us, He changes us. Paul described this change in Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:19-23).
Jesus said that “a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33). No matter how hard it tries, a peach tree cannot produce apples. Nor can an apple tree produce horses! A tree can only produce the kind of fruit that is its nature to produce.
Suppose Paul had described the works of the Spirit. We might then think these were goals to achieve in our own strength. But instead he described the fruit of the Spirit. A fruit tree doesn’t struggle to produce fruit; producing fruit is its nature. So also the fruit of the Spirit should flow naturally from a transformed heart.
No Christian perfectly displays the fruit of the Spirit in every aspect of his life. So we should show grace to ourselves and others. But we should not excuse a consistent pattern of falling short. The fruit of the Spirit should show in the general pattern of our heart, thoughts, and words.
5. Speaking in Love
The first of the fruit of the Spirit is love. And this principle is at the heart of Biblical communication; in the words of Paul, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
As Paul said in I Corinthians 13:1, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Truth proclaimed without love may be heard loud and clear, but is usually completely ineffective.
Speaking the truth without love is like driving a car without wheels. You can press the gas pedal and rev the engine to your heart’s content, but you will never reach your destination.
Love without truth is like wheels without a car. You can start the wheels rolling and they will go somewhere, but probably not to your destination.
What is love? “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).
It is no coincidence this list has a considerable overlap with the fruit of the Spirit. We understand true love and dismiss false imitations when we understand love through the light of the other fruit of the Spirit.
And this helps inform how we speak. We might think of a sharp retort or a fiery social media post as “tough love”; but if they do not reflect gentleness, kindness, and patience, they reflect neither love as defined by I Corinthians 13 nor the other fruit of the Spirit.
Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruits. These are not nine separate characteristics but nine values of the same characteristic. So when we speak in true love, we are speaking with joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
One way we speak in love is to speak with respect, especially for those in authority over us.
Reverence for God. We respect earthly authorities despite their flaws because God has placed them in their positions. Reverence for God is different, because it is due to His own perfect and unchanging nature.
We show respect for God through respect for His name. Not taking God’s name in vain is so important that it’s in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11). Under the Old Covenant, taking God’s name in vain resulted in immediate death (Leviticus 24:10-16).
Does that seem extreme? Consider this: God identifies Himself to the world through His name much like a nation identifies itself to the world through its flag. Taking God’s name in vain is the spiritual equivalent of flag burning.
Respect for Parents. Honoring parents is so foundational to functional society that God also put it in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12) and prescribed the death penalty for those who would curse their father or mother (Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9). Jesus quoted and reaffirmed both commands (Matthew 15:4).
Respect for Older People. Leviticus directly connects respect for the elderly with fear of God: “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32). Judgment fell on those who did not (Lamentations 4:16, 5:12). Paul reaffirms this in the New Testament, urging Timothy to “not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father” (I Timothy 5:1-2).
Respect for Civil Leadership. The Old and New Testaments alike command respect for civil leadership. Exodus says, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28). II Peter says that those who walk in the flesh and are unjust are “not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries” (II Peter 2:10).
God illustrates how seriously He takes this in Korah’s rebellion (Numbers 16) and the serpent punishment (Numbers 21:4-9). But He also gives us examples of how it’s done right. Three are from Daniel: The negotiations over the Babylonian diet (1:1-15), worshiping Nebuchadnezzar’s image (3:1-18), and interpreting the writing on the wall (5:1-29).
Sometimes the prophets rebuked wicked kings (I Kings 18:7-18 and 21:20). The prophets were God’s original ordained civil leadership for Israel, for generations before the people rejected God as king and asked for an earthly king (I Samuel 8:7). So when a prophet rebuked a king, it was the God-ordained original and greater civil magistrate rebuking the newer and lesser civil magistrate.
Under the New Covenant, our citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians 3:20; see also Hebrews 11:13-16). We are ambassadors here. Like ambassadors of earthly nations, we follow the laws and honor the leadership of the country where we reside except only where the laws of our own country of citizenship do not permit it.
Our default stance toward civil leadership is being “subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1); we obey except when they command what God forbids or forbid what God commands. But even when we cannot obey, we can always respect (Acts 4:18-20). We show respect for the sake of our hearts and theirs, and so that bystanders can witness the transforming power of the Gospel in our lives (see I Peter 2:11-17, especially 12).
Respect for Church Leadership. Elders who rule well are “worthy of double honor” (I Timothy 5:17). We submit to them “for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (Hebrews 13:17). This is easy in theory but challenging in real life. Hopefully, a church’s elders are among its most spiritually mature men. But they are still men, still sinners. They might even have sins different than ours; it’s so much easier to work up indignation over those! But if we can be faithful to Scripture’s commands to speak respectfully of wicked leaders, then surely we can also speak with respect of imperfect church leaders.
When Lines of Authority Overlap. There are particular challenges when lines of authority overlap. A pastor’s parents or mayor may attend his church, while a mayor’s parents or pastor may live in his town. A conversation between overlapping authorities calls for mutual respect.
Respect for Others. While the Bible singles out several groups of people—those in positions of authority over us—as worthy of particular respect and honor, it leaves no doubt that we should speak of respect to everyone. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3).
We should not make fun of people based on the quantity (II Kings 2:23-24) or color of their hair, their weight, or genetic or ethnic attributes.
The Gospel breaks down the walls between cultures: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Underneath apparent differences, we all belong to the human race, since God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26).
Some statements about a group of people are respectful but not true; other statements are true but not respectful. Stereotypes are neither; they are disrespectful generalizations about a group of people or things that share a particular characteristic.
But there is a time and a place for true and respectful statements, even if they are critical. There have been cultures where a widow is expected to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to join him in death. This shows a cultural attitude toward the value of human life far below the level of respect the Bible commands. It is not racism to call this element of these cultures inferior; in fact, doing so shows a greater respect for the lives of the people living in those cultures than the culture’s own worldview shows.
6. Speaking With Joy
Christians are not always happy; we sorrow and we grieve. But joy is not the same thing as happiness. Even in unhappy times, we have God’s comfort now and God’s promises to hold on to for the future.
When times are not good, we are tempted to grumble and complain. But Scripture cautions us against both (I Corinthians 10:10, Philippians 2:14, James 5:9, I Peter 4:9).
When we speak with joy in challenging times, this is not an artificial happiness. It is an honest assessment that it is a challenging time but that we view it through the lens of the present and future joys God grants us.
7. Speaking With Peace
If our lives reflect the fruit of the Spirit, our actions and our words should be marked by peace. We should be known for being people of peace.
Certainly one who is known as a person of peace will not seek unnecessary conflict. We aspire to do “all things without complaining and disputing” (Philippians 2:14). But some conflict is unavoidable in a fallen world. We can engage in a contentious situation without being contentious. We are to speak words of truth in a way that reflects the fruit of the Spirit, with the goal not to provoke a response but to bring a peace and unity that is founded on truth.
The internet era has made it easy to start or continue an argument in seconds, with the click of a button. This ease has seemed to spur an increase in polemic (combative) approaches at the expense of irenic (respectful and gracious) responses.
When we disagree with a fellow believer, we need to care more about winning our brother (see Matthew 18:15) than scoring points at his expense. Though not always possible, it should always be our goal to represent their position in such a way that they would agree that they were represented accurately. This helps us avoid the straw man fallacy, where we exaggerate their position into something they do not actually believe. When we do that, we are neither speaking the truth nor speaking in love. And we are also not speaking effectively, for if we don’t respond to what they actually believe, we are very unlikely to persuade them of our position.
Representing their position in a way they acknowledge is accurate usually means that we have to re-articulate both our position and our objections to theirs with a greater degree of nuance. This is harder but more accurate and has more chance of succeeding.
Truth is a hollow victory if it is won at the expense of our brother. Peace is a hollow peace if it is purchased at the expense of the truth.
Scripture calls us to pursue peace with all and to do all things without complaining and arguing. It doesn’t make exceptions for unbelievers.
Yes, we are to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). But it is possible to earnestly contend while speaking the truth in love. We have twin goals of advancing truth and winning souls; it is impossible for either to proceed alone at the expense of the other.
Unbelievers do not hold to the same source of ultimate authority. We believe that truth is true because God makes it true; all truth is God’s truth. There is no neutral ground in this universe over which God is not God and over which His standards of right and wrong do not apply. Yet God in His grace lets unbelievers acknowledge some of His truths. A mutually accepted truth can be a starting point even if they believe it for different reasons.
It can be particularly hard to reason with unbelievers who actively attack the truth. It’s easy to think of them as the enemy. But they’re not. They’re prisoners, in bondage to our true enemy (Galatians 4-5). Because God loves to save the vilest of sinners, any person we talk to may be a captive who will one day be set free, a future brother or sister.
Perhaps the most challenging scenario is to speak the truth in love to a heretic who claims to be a fellow Christian but who denies and attacks central doctrines of orthodox Christianity. They wish to be treated as a fellow Christian, but sometimes they are not. Few tasks are more formidable than speaking enough truth to deny the claim, combined with enough love to show that we care about the person behind the claim. But God saves heretics, too, and even in these challenging situations we need to remember that we may be talking with someone whom God is about to adopt as a future brother or sister, and that He may intend us to play a role in that process.
True peace only comes through saving faith in Jesus Christ. So as we pursue peace with all, we remember that our objective is not to win arguments but to win souls.
8. Speaking With Patience
The Epistle of James tells us how to speak with patience: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
There is some overlap between patience and self-control. But where self-control might come out more in what we do not say, patience comes out more in what we do say.
When we are patient, we listen before we speak. Whether we agree or disagree with the person we’re speaking with, patience tells us to let them complete their thought instead of interrupting with ours.
When we do speak, we don’t react with emotion in the heat of the moment. Patience in being slow to speak leads us to think before we speak.
And sometimes when we speak, our viewpoint doesn’t find immediate agreement. Patience tells us to be slow to wrath.
9. Speaking With Kindness
True kindness is, first, true. It is not kindness, for instance, to reassure an unrepentant sinner that God loves them enough to ignore their sin. This is a worldly imitation of kindness; it rests on deceit. True kindness reassures the sinner, gently and patiently, that God loves them so much that He gave His own Son to pay the price to forgive the sins of any sinner who repents.
True kindness is also unmerited. It’s easy to be kind to people who are kind toward us. But God directed His kindness toward the “foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another” (Titus 3:3)—in other words, toward us.
Modern American culture is anything but kind and often anything but true. A Christian who can deliver truth with kindness stands out and can make an impact for the Gospel which cannot be ignored.
A kind and gentle Christian is not a sarcastic Christian. This is a striking statement, in part because it relies on a precise definition of sarcasm. Merriam-Webster defines it [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sarcasm] as “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny.” So sarcasm, under this strict definition, is neither speaking the truth nor speaking in love.
It is a hybrid of irony and satire. Irony is [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/irony] “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny”; this is where sarcasm gets its lack of truthfulness. It gets its lack of love from its satirical element; satire is [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire] “a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc.; humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.”
The Bible might never use the word “sarcasm,” but it has much to say about it. Its admonition to speak the truth in love is completely sufficient. But there are also several more specific references to this practice under scorning and mocking.
The Psalms begin by praising the man who does not sit “in the seat of the scornful” (Psalm 1:1). Proverbs criticizes the scorners who “delight in their scorning” (1:22) and tell us that God “scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble” (3:34).
No matter how witty or clever, any form of speech that involves scorn and mockery is forbidden to Christians. Is that terribly unpopular? Sure, but it’s the truth.
It could be objected that Paul used sarcasm in I Corinthians 4:9-14. He did use exaggeration, but it was in the form of hyperbole, [http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hyperbole] “language that describes something as better or worse than it really is; extravagant exaggeration.” When he described himself as weak and foolish and the Corinthians as strong and wise, he was not seeking to insult his brothers or saying the opposite of their intended meaning. Instead his love for them prompted him to exaggerate their argument for effect, hoping to persuade them.
Elijah did mock the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18:27. He mocked his enemies; the New Covenant calls us to the higher standard of loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44). It is also helpful to remember here that we are not commanded to imitate everything in every Biblical story (narrative is not imperative).
There is a time and a place to use metaphors or hyperbole to help a brother understand the folly of his ways. This time and place is when lesser measures fail and when we clearly communicate we are doing it in love. There is never a time and place to use sarcasm to score points at a brother’s expense.
10. Speaking With Goodness
The Bible clearly tells us to think about good things: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8). And since our words necessarily reflect our thoughts, this will lead us to also speak about good things.
But the world is not always good. And our world, our circumstances and relationships, are not always good. How do our thoughts and words reflect goodness in a world that is not always good?
We deal with that which is not good when necessary, and only to the extent necessary. But we keep that which is good as our focus.
We do that with thankfulness. Hebrews 13:15 calls us to “offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.”
We do it with praise: “I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works” (Psalm 9:1).
We do it with rejoicing: “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
As we strive to speak with goodness, the words we don’t say are as important as the words we do say. Let’s specifically consider three areas.
Countless Scripture references make it quite easy to say that gossip or slander is wrong (Leviticus 19:16, Psalm 101:5, Proverbs 16:28, Proverbs 17:9, Proverbs 25:9-10, Proverbs 26:17, I Thessalonians 4:11, I Timothy 3:11, I Timothy 5:13, James 4:11, I Peter 4:15).
We can avoid gossip by staying out of quarrels not our own: “He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears” (Proverb 26:17).
What does concern us? If someone sins against us, we first seek resolution directly. If this fails, Matthew 18:15-18 instructs us to reason with the sinner with one or two fellow believers as witnesses. If that fails, the sinner can be corrected before the whole church.
Carefully disclosing information necessary to complete the process of church discipline is not gossip; it is part of this Biblically commanded process. By rejecting calls to repentance earlier in the process, the unrepentant sinner has chosen to expose his sin to a wider audience.
What should we do with sins committed by Christian celebrities?
Cases of heresy are simple. When a false teacher proclaims heresy, it is the Christian’s responsibility to proclaim truth. Heresy can be rebuked publicly (Galatians 2:14, II Timothy 4:10, III John 9, Revelation 2:20). When a celebrity publicly proclaims heresy, this is not a matter for private Matthew 18 counseling; it is a matter for public rebuke.
Scripture describes the character qualities of the men who should be entrusted with leading a church (I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9). If a celebrity has character issues that would disqualify him from local church leadership, it is unwise to invite that celebrity to fill our pulpits, in person or through video messages, performing the same function from which he has been disqualified in his local church.
This particularly extends to publicly documented heresy and moral failings. It is wise to be much more cautious with less-documented rumors. Though sometimes true, unsubstantiated rumors are always gossip. If the celebrity has a healthy relationship with his home church, correction and perhaps restoration should happen in that context; if he does not, we should keep a distance from that celebrity no matter the apparent value of their content.
Paul addresses vulgar language and off-color jokes: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:3-4).
James addresses cursing: “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” (James 3:10-12). We don’t curse our enemies; we don’t call for God to bring evil on them. But if we wish evil would befall them, that is the same heart condition, lacking everything but the curse itself? So Jesus calls us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).
Discretion is an old-fashioned word. Many would say it is an old-fashioned virtue. And we might indeed laugh at the extremes to which people went in the Victorian era. Blushing at an uncovered ankle? Yes, that is funny. But surely it is less extreme to blush at the sight of an ankle than to not blush at a tiny bikini that covers mere square inches of a body! Surely the cultural pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
Discretion includes not speaking of things that should not be spoken about; it also includes speaking of things that should be spoken about in the proper way and at the proper time.
American culture has lost its sense of shame. Little is off-limits. And this, Ephesians tells us, is a sin: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-12).
Jeremiah says that God will judge those who have no shame: “‘Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? No! They were not at all ashamed; nor did they know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time I punish them, they shall be cast down,’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 6:15).
Isaiah adds that the righteous shut their eyes to avoid even seeing evil (Isaiah 33:15).
Some things are always shameful to mention; Scripture mentions several in Romans 1:27 and I Corinthians 5:1, specifically highlighting their shamefulness. We should only mention these and sins of a similarly egregious nature in a context where it is absolutely necessary to define them as sinful behaviors.
To what extent should children be sheltered from the depravity of our culture? The answer is simpler than one might think: The righteous man “shutteth his eyes from seeing evil.” All of us, adults and children alike, should shelter ourselves from beholding evil to whatever extent we can as long as we can. Sometimes we learn the details of a specific sin as we witness to someone in it or counsel someone who has come out of it. Even then, why seek unnecessary details? So we do spare children from the details of depravity for as long as possible. And while we’re at it, let’s also spare ourselves. The less depravity we must know, the better.
This principle particularly applies to entertainment. Much modern American entertainment seeks to normalize sinful behaviors and worldviews in conflict with Christianity, or contains crude or blasphemous language, full or partial nudity, or gratuitous depictions of crime. I do not mean to suggest that no secular book, television, or movie has redemptive value; sometimes there may be enough that is good to make it worth overlooking a small amount that is not. But a diet of thoughts and words centered around modern American entertainment will not lead a Christian to a healthy emphasis in thoughts and words.
Some matters are no sins at all and are perfectly appropriate to discuss in the right setting. For instance, it is perfectly appropriate for a husband and wife to privately discuss the physical aspects of marriage. It is appropriate for older women mentoring younger women to be better wives, mothers, and keepers at home (Titus 2:3-5) to privately discuss specific advice about childbirth. But discretion guides us to keep these conversations private.
11. Speaking With Faithfulness
Part of speaking faithfully is speaking with purpose. Jesus said that “for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). But God doesn’t just record our wasted words: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name” (Malachi 3:16).
Speaking with purpose does not mean that we only discuss theology. In the closing verses of Paul’s epistles, he discusses health updates (II Timothy 4:20), travel plans (I Corinthians 16:8, 12), and lodging for his next visit (Philemon 22). Likewise at our home church, there are usually saints dealing with health issues, seeking employment, or bringing updates on mutual friends. Mature Christians can help newer Christians understand how to respond to important developments in culture and the church from a Biblical worldview. Older men and women can help younger men and women work through life issues. There is no need to resort to trivialities.
None of these are idle talk. But if you still end up in a conversation when there is nothing productive to say, say nothing. “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”
Another part of speaking with faithfulness is speaking with clarity. As Paul said, “For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken?” (I Corinthians 14:8-9). His context was church order, but the principle applies elsewhere. No matter how gracious, loving, or gentle we intend a statement to be, our intent is futile if we are not clear.
Effective communication involves an attempt to bridge the gap between speaker and listener; to not only understand what we intend to say but to observe whether our listener has correctly understood our intent.
Part of speaking with clarity is speaking with precision. We are not precise if we are vague or unclear. But we are also not precise if we do not use the appropriate words to convey our intended meaning. Words have objective meaning. But if the listener does not understand this meaning, we have not communicated well. And sometimes a word is used different ways in different contexts (e.g., “insane,” “wicked.”)
Another aspect of speaking with faithfulness is asking whether what we are saying is possibly true or certainly true. This brings us into the realm of conspiracy theories. The first draft of history is not always correct. So how should a Christian correct the established narrative?
Consider the Holocaust. There was some initial skepticism that a modern country like Germany would murder millions of Jews. But it was documented through thousands of first-hand accounts of concentration camp survivors and the soldiers who liberated them. Contemporaneous written accounts and other artifacts were preserved for history. German records ultimately provided more confirmation. This is a textbook case of how to overturn the established narrative.
A detailed discussion of proper historical and historiographical method falls outside the scope of this article. But a documented, proven correction of the historical record is backed up by meticulous research carefully presented. A conspiracy theorist is content to string together improbabilities, questions of sinister motives, and a few circumstantial facts that suggest that something may be true. But the Christian should distinguish between what is possibly true and what is certainly true, and focus on that which is certainly true.
12. Speaking With Gentleness
Paul urged Titus to remind the Christians under his care “to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men” (Titus 3:2). He urged the Philippian church, “Let your gentleness be known to all men” (Philippians 4:5a).
American culture glorifies the fierce athletic champion, the politician with the brash sound bite, and the influencer with the cutting Twitter quip. It seems like the assertive and brash will take the world by storm. But that is not Jesus’ way: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5, probably referencing Psalm 37:11).
True meekness and humility, not the charlatan’s cheap imitation, are the external reflection of a broken heart and a contrite spirit (see Psalm 51:17).
Meekness is incompatible with pride and biting sarcasm. But it is not incompatible with confidence in the truth. In fact, we are specifically called to meekness as we share our faith: “[A]lways be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15b).
Gentleness without truth is just a charade. It may seem gentle to assure a sinner that he can remain unrepentant and still reach Heaven; it is false, and thus cowardice rather than true gentleness. We can speak the truth in humility, meekness, and gentleness without showing any lack of confidence in the truth. In fact, those who are most confident in the truths of Christianity are the ones most able to be humble when advancing it. We know that Scripture is true and that truth prevails in the end. So we of all people should be the ones most able to be gentle, patient, and humble when opponents of the truth work up to their most feverish pitch of blustery attacks.
When we are gentle, we are more concerned about the impact of our words on the person to whom we are speaking than on scoring points and proving we are right. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Sometimes this means that we do not carry an argument as far as we can. Because our ultimate goal is to win our brother (Matthew 18:15), not win points, this is when it “is honorable for a man to stop striving, since any fool can start a quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3).
It is an attainable challenge to speak the truth. It is an attainable challenge to speak humbly. But to speak humbly with a quiet confidence in the truth takes a lifetime to master.
13. Speaking With Self-Control
“Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20). “The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil” (Proverbs 15:28).
When we speak with self-control, we pause before we speak, and ask if what we are about to say reflects all of the fruit of the Spirit. Rather than speaking rashly or letting our emotions get the better of us in the heat of the moment, we pause before we speak. We exercise the discipline to ask if what we are about to say reflects love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.
Sometimes nothing we want to say passes every test. These situations call for the other half of speaking with self-control: Knowing when not to speak.
This is especially important in a situation where we are angry. The Old Testament and New Testament alike urge us to be slow to wrath. Proverbs says: “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29).
James ties it all together: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
We live in a culture that is slow to hear, swift to speak, and swift to wrath. When someone begins to express a view we do not share, too often we jump in at the first opportunity to score points and show why they are wrong. Too often this is before we fully understand the nuances of their position. Where our culture prizes the instant hot take, Scripture prizes slow reflection and careful speech, delivered after the heat of the moment has passed.
The Internet has given us infinite opportunities to debate. But we have a finite number of hours in a day and days in a life. So we are wise to avoid fruitless debates. Debates can be fruitless when the topic is not worth fighting about. But it is also rarely fruitful to debate an important topic with someone so entrenched in a position that they are unwilling to carefully consider an alternative. (Occasionally such a debate can benefit undecided onlookers, when both sides are willing to state their cases with respect, humility, love, and clarity.)
Colossians 4:5-6 reminds us: “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” We redeem the time when we choose the right times to speak and the right times to hold our peace.
There is coming a day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). In that day, the curse that hinders our communication with one another and with God will end. And in that day, God will “restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).
Languages have been under the curse since Eden and Babel. They will continue to decay until the New Jerusalem. But as Christians, we humbly resist this decay. We do not adopt the increasing irreverence, brashness, and pride characteristic of modern communication.
If we move toward a Biblical standard while the culture around us moves away, we will look increasingly peculiar to our culture. This can be a good thing. It can lead to questions, and questions can open doors for opportunities to “give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15b).
We’ll never achieve perfection in this life. We will still say some idle words. We’ll still fall short of speaking the truth and speaking it in love. Yet we trust God’s grace and forgiveness and keep steadily moving onward.
One day, by the grace of God, every word will be taken captive. We will speak in a pure language. But until that day, God presents us with daily challenges to grow our faith, to increase our sanctification, to make us more like Jesus. And every day He gives us is a chance to take a few more words captive.