by Daniel Rieke
If I had a dollar for every time I've walked away from a conversation wishing I had used my words differently, I’d have probably knocked out a good chunk of my student loans. The unfortunate truth is that I affirm in my actions the stinging biblical truth that “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
It’s often fairly easy to identify what I shouldn't have said or how I shouldn't have used my words once I've already messed up, but is there a way to be more proactive with our speech? Is there a way to focus on how to pursue godly speech in advance to mitigate the number of times that I fail to honor the Lord with my words?
By God’s grace, the answer is a resounding “YES!” God gives us a vision for God-honoring speech in the book of Ephesians:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Ephesians 4:29 
First, Paul starts off with a command of what not to say:
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth”
Put simply, don’t say corrupt things. Paul leads off with the simple encouragement to not say bad things. It reminds me of what Thumper the Rabbit said in the movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all!” So when all else fails, keep silent. Better to say nothing than to say something that wouldn't honor God.
Then Paul transitions into the types of things we should say, the types of things that should characterize our speech:
“Only such as is good for building up”
Here we’re told to speak only things that will build others up. We’re told to speak words that will strengthen, or edify, others. So a few good filter questions to think through:
- “Will my saying this sentence build this person up in their love and affection for Christ?”
- “Will this statement bring encouragement or discouragement to this person?”
- “Will this statement be an honest assessment of the person, or am I simply flattering them?” (Because this verse does not mean we’re supposed to falsely build people up through flattery and dishonest words.)
“As fits the occasion”
Essentially, Paul is saying that we need to make sure what we’re saying is appropriate given our context and the situation. There are times where you can say the right thing in the wrong timing and it would cause pain rather than edification.
For example, let’s say someone has just lost their best friend in a tragic car accident. We may be tempted to immediately quote them Romans 8:28 which says that God works all things out for good for those who love Him. This is obviously a true and biblically accurate thing to articulate, but if you’ve ever been in a situation of severe grief, what you really want in that time is the comfort of God and for people to join you in your pain, like Jesus did when he wept with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus (right before he raised him from the dead).
Another more light-hearted example is that I don’t think anyone would appreciate even the nicest of compliments from me if it came at 3:30am with me yelling the words of affirmation from outside of your bedroom window!
So we must consider our context and choose our words accordingly. Timing can be everything when it comes to speaking words of truth and encouragement. We want to consider what would be appropriate speech to edify and build up the person, taking into account not only the content of our speech, but also the setting and occasion of the conversation.
“That it may give grace to those who hear”
Last and certainly not least, Paul instructs us to ensure that our words give grace to their recipients. Our speech should be gracious. Full of grace. Do my words point people to the grace of Jesus? Or do my words bring shame, condemnation and discouragement?
As believers, we follow the Author of grace. And we ourselves have had grace lavishly thrust upon us.
Not because of any good works in us, but solely by grace and for His glory, Jesus entered into history as a man, lived a perfect life of obedience to God the Father and willingly gave His life on the cross for sinners like you and me. Three days later, Jesus conquered the grave and rose from the dead securing my forgiveness and reconciliation with God if I would simply trust in Jesus to count in my place.
I deserve hell for my sin. That’s what would be fair for me to get: hell. Instead, God has given me grace. He paid my penalty. He bore my sin. He rescued me. Not because I was some “rock star” human being with tons of potential. No, it was all grace.
It was a free gift. And as a recipient of that free gift of grace, how can I not extend that same grace to others, especially in my speech?
So may we be those who ask the Holy Spirit to enable us to honor Him in our speech. May we be those who build others up with our words and speak timely encouragement soaked in the grace of Christ!
Additional Passages about Our Speech
Let this small sampling of the book of Proverbs be an additional encouragement to you as you seek to honor God with your speech!
- Proverbs 10:19 – When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
- Proverbs 13:3 – Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.
- Proverbs 15:23 – To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!
- Proverbs 16:21 – The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.
- Proverbs 16:23 – The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
- Proverbs 17:27-28 – Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
- Proverbs 20:19 – Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler.
 Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.