Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:29d Introduction
All my sermons are dependent on writers I read after. For this message, I am especially indebted to my favorite preacher-writer, Martin Lloyd-Jones, and to Dale Carnegie, a fellow Missourian and committed Christian whose classic work How to Win Friends and Influence People significantly affected my life a decade ago. The book helped me become a better steward of words. I skimmed the work again last week, and several items from it are in this message. The book remains one which every person should read.
Eph. 4:29d “. . .but that which is good to the use of edifying,. . .”
With regard to behavior modification, Paul again follows a negative with a positive. Christianity is more than a religion of “don’ts” and “nots.” Our goal is not zero. Removal of the vice is not enough. A key component of Christian living is displacement. A negative is to be replaced with a positive, as verse 29 again illustrates. Harmful talk is to be displaced with helpful talk, with words which edify, uplift, and encourage others.
Unfortunately, some Christians make us feel worse when we are around them. They may not curse or swear, they may be totally honest, and speak of spiritual things often, but they do not edify others. In battling my depression, I had to reduce the time I spent with a dear friend who was sharp and critical. Being in his presence was hurtful, not helpful.
Avoid being this way. Use words which build up and encourage others. Always find a way to make the people in our presence feel important, for they are! Every human being is created in the image of God. As a result, there is within us an innate feeling of self-importance. We realize there is something significant about ourselves. People want to matter.
We all have a need to feel important. Lincoln was correct in saying, “Everybody likes a compliment.” William James went even further, saying, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
Washington wanted to be called “His Mightiness.” Columbus sought the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” Catherine the Great refused to open letters not addressed to “Her Imperial Majesty.” Victor Hugo sought to have the city of Paris renamed in his honor. The desire to be important can be blown out of proportion and become something ugly, but this does not negate the fact a genuine, basic need is present in us which needs to be met.
Christians need to seek ways to help people meet this basic need. Encourage others. Lift them up. Praise them. Avoid flattery, which is counterfeit, but do remember we are dealing with people made in God’s image. Find something good in them, and highlight it often.
We are all going to speak. People talk. Some even have the gift of gab. We all need to channel our chatter in the proper direction. To people like me who love to talk, I pass on Ironside’s prayer, “Now, Lord, this tongue of mine wants to get going; help me to say something good.”
Eph. 4:29e “. . .that it may minister. . .”
Even in our speech, a Christian is not to be selfish. Do not speak to be admired or wondered at. Words should carry concern for the listener.
Most of the people we see every day are hungering and thirsting for compassion. With genuine love, provide it for them. Hurok was at one time one of America’s greatest music managers. He claimed his success in handling famous temperamental stars was due to his three-fold response to their ridiculous idiosyncrasies: “sympathy, sympathy, and more sympathy.”
Paul’s admonition to use our words to “minister” cannot be obeyed without a willingness on our part to invest time analyzing and figuring out others. The only way our words can help people where they are is for us to take time to find out where they are. We need to take time to love others, to look deep into their eyes until we see to their very hearts and souls, thereby penetrating to the essence of their hurt. If we have fifteen minutes scheduled to discuss business, find a way to do it in thirteen and allow two minutes to reach into the heart of our listener. We can “minister” with our speech if we care enough to take time to get to know others.
Learn to talk about others. If you want to be a bore, talk incessantly about yourself. If you want to be a blessing, talk about the listener. Disraeli said, “Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours.”
After we become mindful of a person’s needs, we can use words to supply it, by counselling, comforting, informing, refreshing, or cheering. We can serve others by words as well as by deeds. “Sometimes a message of cheer has more value than a gift of gold” (Eerdman). Eliphaz complimented Job, “Your words have kept men on their feet” (Job 4:4, Moffatt). Apt speech is wonderful. “A word spoken in due season, how good is it!” (PR 15:23b). “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (PR 25:11). “He kisses the lips who gives a right answer” (PR 24:26, NASB).
People all around us are crying, “Help me!” These wounded and bleeding lambs can often be bandaged with healing words. “There are weary people round and about us, weary of sin, weary in sin, weary of life. There are Christian people round us carrying burdens, carrying loads, suffering illness and sickness, disappointment, the treachery of friends, some fond hope suddenly gone, dashed and vanished illusions; there are men and women round and about us who are weary! And as we meet them and speak to them, let us forget ourselves, let us not regard the meeting as an occasion when we can display how wonderful we are. God forbid! Let us pray that we may have this tongue of the learned that we may be enabled to speak a word in season to some poor, weary soul. . . .As we travel through this journey of life we are to help men and women by a word, a word of encouragement, a word of cheer, perhaps a word of rebuke, but a word that will remind them that they are under God, and that if they are in Christ they are precious to Him” (Lloyd-Jones).
Eph. 4:29f “. . .grace unto the hearers.”
A Christian, by his speech, should be a channel of “grace,” a trait of God Himself, to the listener. To “minister grace” is to converse in such a way that our words become vehicles on which the grace of God can ride. We need to use words “which God can use to help other people” (Philips).
Paul’s intent is that we strive to be nothing less than a reproduction of our precious Lord Jesus. The people of Nazareth “wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth” (LK 4:22). People were awed by the grace of his words. The same trait should mark His followers.
Grace characterized Jesus’ words. Let it also characterize ours. We are saved by grace, kept by grace, and should live and speak grace. The standard for acceptable Christian speech is lofty. It is not enough to cease “corrupt communication.” It is not even enough to rise to the level of pure and honest words. We must fly even higher, soaring to the plane of Christ’s “gracious words.” Bad words must become good words, good words better words, better words best words. We need to be like Alexander Whyte, of whom it was said, “All his geese became swans.” All who come into the orb of our life should feel they have been in the presence of the Lord Himself.
Our duty is to “minister grace,” to impart a blessing, to convey divine influence, to say things which will aid others in their earthly journey. Some of our hearers will be unconverted; find a way to point them to the truth. Some listeners will be Christians; find a way to help them on their pilgrimage. Whether the listener is saved or lost, blessings and benefits should accrue to the hearer from the gracious words of the speaker.
Verse 29 reminds us we have an awesome stewardship with words. They take on lives of their own and have enormous power to destroy or to heal. When Count Leo Tolstoy died, his wife confessed to her daughters what they already knew, “I was the cause of your father’s death.” Her constant criticism, complaining, and harsh words literally drove Tolstoy to his grave. His dying request was that his wife not be permitted to come into his presence. What makes this even sadder is that no marriage ever began better. In the beginning their happiness seemed too perfect, too good. They even knelt together and prayed for God to continue the ecstasy which was theirs. Then came the years of harsh, cruel words. Finally, Tolstoy reached the point he could not stand to be near his wife. Words had destroyed their relationship. His wife realized too late the damage she had done. When old and heartbroken, starving for affection, she would come and kneel at Tolstoy’s knees and beg him to read aloud to her the wonderful and loving words he had written in his diary about her fifty years earlier. He would read the beautiful passages, but they knew those days were gone forever. Both of them would weep, grieving over a union destroyed by words.
What a contrast to Disraeli, who attributed his success to his wife. Whatever he undertook, Mary Anne simply did not believe he could fail. (Years ago, in my copy of Carnegie’s book, by this story I wrote, “sounds like Ruth Ellen.”) Robert and Elizabeth Browning had an idyllic relationship. They expressed their passionate love through letters, poems, and other word-devices. He treated her so kindly that she once wrote to her sisters, “And now I begin to wonder naturally whether I may not be some sort of real angel after all.” Thank God for people who know the value of good words. Oh the power of words! “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” God, make us good stewards of speech.