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The book of Proverbs and the epistle of James have much to say about the use of the tongue. James 3:10–11 says: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” Paul speaks in a similar vein: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths” and “Let there be no . . . foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place” (Eph. 4:29; 5:4).
Yet we live in a day when public discourse has become more and more coarse. Public figures commonly use words that simply were not uttered in polite company a generation ago. Even worse, some who claim to be ministers of the gospel use crude jokes and coarse language in sermons, claiming that they are only being authentic. Such practices only debase the users and encourage debased language in those who hear them.
The fact that both Paul and James thought it necessary to speak firmly to the issue indicates that it is not a problem limited to our own day but was common enough in the first century that new Christians needed to be warned about how they spoke. We often speak carelessly, and the coarse language of the streets can readily spill out from our lips. It behooves us as Christians not to speak thoughtlessly but thoughtfully. As Paul says regarding speech, in the same context noted above, we should speak “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In addition, he says, “let there be thanksgiving” (Eph. 4:29; 5:4).
We downplay the sinfulness of crude and obscene language. Our excuse is that we don’t mean anything by it or that we’re just being authentic. But Jesus reminds us that we will be held accountable for every careless word that we speak (Matt. 12:36). Such a statement from our Savior ought to make us more circumspect in our speech, to make us think before we speak rather than rattling on before our brain gets into gear.
Further, we do not consider the effect of our speech on others. Crude and coarse language offends, demeans, and corrupts others. As Paul points out, our responsibility as Christians is to use language to build up, not to tear down. Language is to be used to teach, to reprove, to correct, and to train in righteousness. It is to be used to bless others, not to curse them. It is to be used to give thanks and to bless the God who has saved us. But in the strength of the flesh, such restraint of the tongue is not possible. It is only by the power of the Spirit that we can bring our tongues under control and by that same Spirit use our speech for the upbuilding of the church and the glory of God.