William Shakespeare, in his play King Lear, wrote, “Mind your speech a little, lest it may mar your fortunes.” Clearly, this statement recognizes the power of our words to harm our future. Our hateful speech, undiscerning words, and statements delivered at inopportune times can destroy relationships, end careers, and otherwise bring us much pain.
It is no surprise, then, that Scripture recognizes how our words can be used as weapons. Yet though the Bible warns us that we can harm ourselves with our words, the emphasis in God’s Word is often on how our words hurt other people. The apostle James certainly understood this. His warnings against misuse of the tongue are largely intended to prevent false teaching from spreading in the Christian community and to keep people from harming others who bear the image of God (James 3:1–12). Paul concurs with James, explaining in today’s passage the need for believers to stay away from corrupting talk and to speak only edifying words (Eph. 4:29). Putting off our old selves in favor of Christ means putting away vulgarity, spiteful speech, mocking of others’ flaws, and other corrupt talk.
Christians must never utter a harmful word. The Greek term translated corrupt in Ephesians 4:29 is used elsewhere to describe spoiled fruit, rotten fish, and anything else that is worn out and useless. Words with such corruption bring decay to the bonds of fellowship in the church, undermining the effectiveness of the covenant community. If even our idle words will be brought into judgment, how much more will speech designed purposefully to hurt other people impact our assessments and rewards on that last day (Matt. 12:33–37)?
Paul’s admonition does not mean harsh words are never appropriate. After all, sometimes only a hard conversation will turn other people from their sin, thereby edifying them in the long haul (Jude 22–23). Ultimately, the standard for acceptable speech is that which edifies the body of Christ (Eph. 4:29). Our words are to help provide what is lacking in other people, to give them encouragement that will advance their spiritual growth. Jesus spoke these kinds of gracious words (Luke 4:16–22), and we who are His disciples can do no less.