Words that Fail

Words that Fail  

By Dr. Curt Brannan

I can’t get away from thinking about the power and importance of words!  James, in his letter, reminds us that the tongue may accomplish great things, but untamed and out of control it is a destructive force. Either way, it’s powerful! This was the Apostle Paul’s concern when he wrote the following words to the church in Ephesus:

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)

I must admit to often reading this passage and quickly passing on without a pause.  The reason was my belief (which I now see was superficial) that the focus here is words or language I think of as gross, course, vulgar, or profane – words I no longer use. Without doubt this sort of degrading speech qualifies as “unwholesome” and clearly has no place in a Christian’s dealings with others. In fact, words of this sort have no place whatever in a Christian’s vocabulary. But recently, as I meditated on this verse, I realized something I had missed before – something that has expanded my understanding and concern for the power and impact of the words I use every day.

Irrelevant Words

In the context of Paul’s letter, it’s clear that much of the apostle’s concern is for those intimate personal relationships in which we live daily: husband/wife, parent/child and even work relationships (See Eph 5-6). All our words are powerful, but in these most intimate of interactions as no where else, words carry incredible weight for either good or bad.

With this in mind, what is an “unwholesome” word?  The passage itself defines Paul’s meaning.  An unwholesome word is one that fails to build up the other person at the point of their most critical need.   Generally people wouldn’t call these “bad” words.  In fact, unwholesome words may even sound loving at the time.  They are unwholesome, however they may sound, if they fail in speaking to that critical place, often unrecognized by the persons themselves, which must be addressed if they are to develop full lives.

When “Good” Words are “Bad”

Do you see the implications of this?  First, it implies that we have been given a place of responsibility for those we touch in these intimate relationships. Because of this, our focus cannot be on ourselves, but must consciously be given to understanding the other person so well we are able to strengthen and develop their lives. Peter says of the husband’s responsibility that he is to understand his wife and her needs (See 1 Peter 3:7).  In Ephesians Paul says later in his letter that fathers are responsible to understand the needs of their children.  They are not to frustrate them by indifference or demands and expectations that ignore or give no thought to their uniqueness and needs (See Eph 6:4). But, all this is impossible apart from our giving honest and careful attention to the other person as to how we may build them up.

A second implication is that some words, even words we think of as good, may in fact be unwholesome in their effect. Even praise can fall into this category. Always approving a person when actually they need to be confronted or challenged becomes unwholesome in its impact. We have been sold the idea that a “good self image” is important to well being. And, in one sense, it is.  But, if because of our words there is no substance to the image we help build, we have effectively undermined that life. Actually this is a kind of flattery that, if believed, leaves the person to face a world that will be unrelenting in its criticism.  It’s ultimately true as the proverb says, a flattering mouth works ruin (Prov 26:28).

Finally, at times we may use words that justify or shield someone from the consequence of an irresponsible habit or action.  And, once more these words may sound loving; but, they are tragically unwholesome because they fail to address the true need of the person. All of us are happy to escape consequences when we have messed up; but, human nature is such that if we are repeatedly shielded from the truth about ourselves we come to believe it is alright to handle things this way. A man once said to me regarding his temper and angry outbursts toward his family, “That’s just they way I am and have always been.”  The inference was that his angry, hurtful words should be seen as normal and his family needed to understand that. Someone failed him! A two year old may act this way, but a 40-year old husband and father ends up destroying, not building his family, with angry outbursts.

All through scripture God’s reproof and judgment is consistent and designed to call us back from that which is destructive in our lives. His words lovingly confront us at the point of our real need.  He doesn’t let us off, but points us the way toward being all He has called us to be as His children. In fact, the process of challenging and disciplining is presented in the Bible as the essential mark of real love. The Hebrews writer says: For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives (Heb 12:6).  And in John’s vision, the heavenly messenger, after delivering a piercing rebuke to the church of Laodicea, closes with these words of hope:  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent (Rev 3:19).

Words that Fail, Words that Count

In every relationship, but especially in marriage, parenting and teaching, our words are powerful.  There is obviously no place for critical-spirited, put-down, sarcastic, or angry words.  These never build up.  But, neither is there a place for words that, though they sound caring, are empty of real substance. Unwholesome words fail to provide nourishment for building the lives of those we love and for whom we are most responsible. So I ask myself, what about my words?  Do they nourish, or are they like junk food, sweet but empty? And I ask you, what about your words?