Thursday, December 20, 2007

Watch Your Mouth

You frequently hear Christians say, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth” [Eph 4:29]. The Clintonian question always comes up, “Define 'unwholesome'?” We always want to qualify Scripture and our subjective interpretation of terms makes for a great escape hatch. We all become expert defense lawyers as we look for the loopholes in the syntax. Profanity hits most of us where we live and it is a low blow that really convicts our conscience. As a Soldier, I am the chief of sinners in this regard. This is a temptation that I fall on all the time.

People have different levels of what is appropriate and what is not. Some people consider some words okay as long as it is not “mixed company”. My sainted grandmother followed the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule. To her, being rude was almost a form of cussing. If you get a bunch of people together and run down a list of borderline words, they will not all agree on which are clean and which are dirty. If you ask people like Howard Stern, there is no limit at all. How do we know what we are allowed to say?

Okay, let’s settle what constitutes profanity. The translation of the word in question can be “corrupt”, “corrupting”, “profane”, or “unwholesome”. The modern world has cheapened the meaning of these terms. FCC censorship does not determine the definition of profanity, the dictionary does. As an example:

pro·fane [ prō fáyn, prə fáyn ] (adj): 1. irreverent: showing disrespect for God, any deity, or religion; 2. secular: not connected with or used for religious matters; 3. uninitiated: not initiated into sacred or secret rites.

But the intent of the verse goes far deeper than that. The words that are being discussed in the passage are not just those that are inherently corrupt. It can also include those that are technically clean but are used in such a way that they lead us “to corrupt” ourselves and others (by even using ‘clean’ words that form lies, innuendo, gossip, complaining, sarcasm, etc.)

This understanding makes sense in the context of the entire passage that I quoted at the start of this post. Here is the full verse in context: “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. [Eph 4:29]

The scriptural definition for what our language should sound like is even higher than the secular definition. The Bible restricts us to: “only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment.” Corrupt in this sense is everything that is not holy and edifying. That covers many of the clean words that are used to be rude, deceptive, or inflammatory.

We see this concept also covered in other epistles. For example, “Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.” [1 Tim 5:13]

So the Bible teaches that the specific words that we use are not as important as how they are used and why we use them. This extends back to the Old Testament where the passage which contains what we call "The 10 Commandments" speaks several times about how our words have consequences. We also hear advice about watching what we say. We read, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth. The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense.” [Pvb 10:19-21]

This standard is so high that the Bible teaches that even the most proper among us speak corruption. We all fall short of God’s holy standard for what constitutes proper speech. We fail on a regular–if not daily–basis. As James says, “but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” [James 3:8]

Words… any words that might stand in the way of edification, love, and support are to be carefully controlled regardless of the specific terms that are used. As is so often the case in Christian life; it is not so much the “what”, but the “why” that counts.

So, Granny Baker was right all along. (…again!)

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