Much of the time, people try to keep their ugliness concealed. We are all, in our natural state as Adam’s children, born in sin and slaves to unrighteousness, however much we may try to hide our sin or justify it. Even the redeemed still struggle against sin’s vestiges, and we will do so until we are freed from the presence of sin in glory.
That ugliness sometimes comes to the surface in the form of slanderous, intemperate, false, or otherwise sinful speech. Because individual sin often has a social dimension, the motive for such speech may be to be part of something. We long for a shared experience.
The desire for a shared experience is not a bad thing in itself, for God has made us as social creatures. Where it becomes a bad thing is when that shared experience is based on sin—partiality, racism, sexism, xenophobia, or other poisonous attitudes and actions. Even in indifferent matters, we might assume that everyone around us thinks the way that we do and so express our opinions without humility or love. Among the sins forbidden by the ninth commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism lists “speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning” (Q&A 145).
For Christians, there is a better way. In the first place, we know that as humans made in the image of God, we are already part of something. We have a shared experience. We all partake of the blessings of God on earth and behold Him in the things that have been made (Ps. 19:1; Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17; Rom. 1:18–20). Our common humanity means that we are neighbors of one another, called to love one another (Lev. 19:18; Luke 10:25–37).
In the second place, we as Christians are part of something even more glorious: the church, the body and bride of Christ, the house and family of God. Our new identity in Christ and our new position as God’s adopted children call us to a new manner of living. The Larger Catechism says the ninth commandment calls us to a “charitable esteem of our neighbors” and to “studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report” (Q&A 144).
Our Lord cautioned, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36). This is a fearsome warning. Likewise, Paul admonished the Ephesians, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place” (Eph. 5:4).
What should we speak instead? Thankfulness (Col. 3:17). Praise (v. 19). The gospel (Matt. 28:18–20). Truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Encouragement (Heb. 10:25).
May our speech never bring shame on the name of Christ. Rather, may it build up other believers and lead them to praise God, and may it cause even unbelievers to glorify Him (1 Peter 2:12).