“Be Careful What You Say” Ephesians 4:15-5:2 August 9, 2009
Today‟s sermon is titled “Be Careful What You Say.” So before we really dig into
the scripture I want to start off just sharing some of the amusing things that kids can say.
One little boy was visiting his grandmother when he asked, “Grandma, do you
know how you and God are alike?” His grandma puffed up on the inside thinking it had
something to do with how loving she was, or how giving she was, or how her presence
always made him cheer up. She said, “No, how are we alike?” Her grandson answered,
“You‟re both really old.”
A second grader came home from school and said with great enthusiasm,
“Mommy, guess what? We learned how to make babies today!” Her mom tried to keep her
cool wondering how she was going to handle this one. “That‟s interesting, dear,” she said,
“How do you make babies?” The girl answered, “It‟s simple. You just change the „y‟ to „i‟
and add „es.‟”
Another second grade class was learning about public service. The teacher asked,
“Can someone give me a sentence about a public servant?” One of the boys raised his hand
and said, “The fireman climbed down the ladder pregnant.” The teacher took the young
boy aside to correct him and asked, “Do you know what „pregnant‟ means?” “Sure,” he
answered, “it means carrying a child.”
You‟ve probably heard this one. A preacher was feeling like he had just delivered
one wallop of a sermon. As he greeted people on their way out, a little boy came and
tugged on the end of his robe. “Pastor,” the boy said, “when I grow up and make lots of
money I‟m going to give some of it to you.” “That‟s very nice of you,” the preacher said,
beaming with pride for the fine job he must be doing. “Yeah,” the boy said, “my parents
keep saying how you‟re the poorest preacher this church has ever had.” You have to be
careful what you say.
In our scripture reading today we are continuing with the lectionary as it moves
through Paul‟s letter to the Ephesians. In the section that we read today, Paul lists a
number of moral directives on how Christians ought to live. And among those moral
directives he keeps coming back to the issue of words, how we speak to one another, the
things that we say.
This theme of how we are to speak to one another began already in last week‟s
reading. In Chapter 4 verse 15 Paul says, “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up
in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Speaking the truth in love.
In today‟s reading he continues that theme. In verse 25 he says, “Therefore, putting
away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one
another.” And again he comes back to it in verse 29: “Let no evil talk come out of your
mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may
give grace to those who hear.” Let no evil talk come out of your mouths…only what is
useful for building up…so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
I don‟t think we can overemphasize the wisdom of Paul‟s directions to us on how
we ought to speak. I certainly don‟t think that we have adequately understood, either as
individuals or as a society, the impact that our words can have, either for good or for evil.
You‟ve heard the old expression, “Stick and stones can break my bones but words
can never hurt me.” Perhaps you‟ve even taught those words to somebody else. But if you
stop to think about it even a little bit, you know it‟s not true, don‟t you? Who among us has
never been hurt by someone else‟s thoughtless or careless words? We all have. We‟ve all
felt the sting of criticism that was dished out not for building up but for tearing down.
We‟ve all felt the pain of rejection and judgment, intentional or not, but painful
nonetheless. Of course words can hurt. That‟s why God takes them so seriously. And that‟s
why we should too.
Perhaps a slightly better aphorism, one that more accurately reflects the biblical
injunction, is another one that I‟m sure you all heard from your mothers, especially if you
had siblings. Do you know which one I‟m thinking of? “If you don‟t have anything nice to
say, don‟t say anything at all.” When did we get away from that as a society? Do parents
still teach their kids that? Because I don‟t see it getting lived out a whole lot. But that is
pretty close to what this letter to the Ephesians says – if you don‟t have anything nice to
say, don‟t say anything at all.
Now granted, nice is not the category that Paul uses. But he does put some
qualifications around what is appropriate speech and what is not appropriate speech for
Christians. Based on this letter to the Ephesians, here are those qualifications: #1 It has to
be true. #2 It has to be loving. And #3 It has to reflect well upon our relationship with God
#1 Is it true? #2 Is it loving? And #3 Is it Christian? Let‟s look at each of those
points, shall we?
#1 Is it true? Verse 15: “Speaking the truth in love.” Verse 25: “Therefore, putting
away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” Is what you are saying
true? If it‟s not, or even if you don‟t know for sure, keep your mouth shut!
Seems simple, doesn‟t it? You can‟t really get any more straightforward than “If
it‟s not true, don‟t say it.” But it is a little more complicated than that. In the verse right
before he talks about speaking the truth in love, Paul says, “We must no longer be children,
tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people‟s trickery, by their
craftiness in deceitful scheming.” You see, before we can clearly speak the truth, we must
first discern carefully what actually is true and what is not. And Paul says this is the
problem, not that we go around intentionally lying – although we do that sometimes too –
but that we are deceived ourselves about what is truth, and so we go around spreading lies
without even realizing it.
Our son Nathan has a friend in his first grade class who has a zoo in his shed. And
in this zoo in his shed they have one of every single animal in the entire world, including a
tiger, a monkey, a dolphin, a whale; you name it, he has it, living in his shed. I know this
because Nathan told us that this other boy had told him. When I suggesting that maybe this
other boy was just telling stories, Nathan insisted, “No, he said it‟s true.” So there you go.
He also knew a girl in kindergarten who was so strong she could pick up the school
bus and throw it. He told us this with absolute conviction, not because he had seen her do
it, but because “She said it‟s true.” Now was Nathan lying to us? Of course not. Was the
information he was passing on true? I tend to doubt it. But you kind of expect that from
kids, right? Kids that age haven‟t quite learned yet how to discern truth from fiction.
But listen to Ephesians: “We” – meaning grown up Christians – “We must no
longer be children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by people‟s trickery, by
their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in
every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Just a few weeks ago Walter Cronkite died. In all of the tributes to him he was
referred to as “the most trusted man in America.” It was said that if you heard it from
Walter Cronkite‟s mouth you knew it to be true. Cronkite‟s passing gave us pause to
reflect on how different news reporting is today, where bias and spin are regarded more
highly than facts. I heard it stated many times that there is no one in news reporting today
of Walter Cronkite‟s caliber when it comes to being trusted by a broad cross-section of
America to simply report the news. And I got to thinking that there really couldn‟t be
anyone of that caliber today. If Walter Cronkite were just now getting started, he would
have to find a different career, because straightforward facts aren‟t going to get the ratings.
Instead of valuing truth, we value what Stephen Colbert half-jokingly refers to as
“truthiness” – we believe whatever feels true to us. If it fits in with our preconceived
notions, our political philosophy, and our religious assumptions, then we accept it as truth,
if it challenges any of those then we reject it as false, and facts come into play only insofar
as they backup what we already believe.
Now let me pause for just a moment for a word of caution. If you are sitting there
thinking, “Yeah, right on, I can‟t stand how all these other people are being led astray by
trickery and deceitful scheming. Why can‟t they see things clearly like I do?” stop right
there. I‟m not talking about all those other people; I‟m talking about you.
Verses 17 and 18: “You must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of
their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God
because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.” In writing to the Romans about the same
thing Paul writes, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than
you ought to think, but think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith
that God has assigned.”
You see the biggest part of the problem is that we don‟t think clearly about
ourselves; we don‟t realize how deceived we can be, not just by outside influences, but by
our own hearts. Did you know that between 80-90% of drivers consider themselves to be
above average drivers? Unless all of the drivers polled live in Lake Woebegone, I don‟t
know how that can be. And what‟s more, that figure doesn‟t really change much regardless
of whether or not the driver has been involved in multiple accidents.
We can‟t speak the truth and only the truth if we are deceived in our own hearts.
That‟s why Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and
wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” That‟s why he says, “Put away your
former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and be renewed in the
spirit of your minds, and clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the
likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” “Putting away all falsehood, [even
about ourselves] let all of us speak the truth.” Are you certain that what you are saying is
true? Have you examined all the facts? Have you examined your own heart for any impure
thoughts or motives? Have you examined the Word of God and sought the insight of the
Holy Spirit? #1 Is it true?
#2 Is it loving? Paul does not say “Speak the truth in whatever manner you want to
no matter how damaging or hurtful.” He says, “Speak the truth in love.” I have a natural
talent for what is sometimes referred to as brutal honesty. It took me quite a few years of
marriage to realize the fact that brutal honesty is not a spiritual gift. I used to think that as
long as I was certain that what I was saying was true, that was really all that mattered. If
someone got offended, it‟s not my problem they can‟t handle the truth. Well…
There are times when we need to speak a truth that is hard to hear. And there are
times when someone will be offended by that because they don‟t want to hear it. Believe
me, I may be young, but I‟ve been preaching long enough to know that some people are
going to be offended by the truth, no matter how you say, and sometimes it needs to be
said anyway. But not always.
Here‟s the thing when it comes to determining whether something is being spoken
in love or not – what‟s the motivation? Am I burning up on the inside about something and
I just need to get it off my chest no matter who gets hurt in the process? If so, then I‟m not
really speaking the truth in love; I‟m speaking the truth in selfishness. Love, as it is
demonstrated throughout the New Testament, has absolutely nothing to do with what
makes me feel good or what gives me a warm fuzzy. Love is all about giving; it‟s all about
putting the interests of others at least on par with my own if not ahead of my own; it‟s
about building others up.
Notice that throughout this section of the epistle Paul keeps talking about the body
of Christ and our connection to the body of Christ and our connection to one another in the
body of Christ and our common calling in life to help grow the body of Christ.
Listen to Paul again: “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way
into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together
by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes
the body‟s growth in building itself up in love.” That is to be our motivation in all things,
including in the things that we say to one another.
Sometimes we have to speak a hard truth in order to promote that growth in Christ,
but when we do that we need to first make sure that our hearts are right with God, that our
motivations are pure, and that we are attempting to build up rather than tear down.
Verse 25: “Putting away all falsehood let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors,
for we are members of one another.” Did you hear that last part? “We are members of one
another.” When you say something about someone who is your brother or sister in Christ,
you are not just talking about them; you are talking about yourself, “for we are members of
one another.” Are you speaking in ways that will accomplish nothing but to criticize and
bring someone else down and lift yourself up? If so, then it really doesn‟t matter how
truthful the statement is, you‟re not speaking it in love.
Verse 29: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for
building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” So that
your words may give grace to those who hear. Are you just griping and complaining and
trying to clear your chest and trying to make yourself feel better? Or are you genuinely
concerned for the welfare of the person about whom or to whom you are speaking? Are
you just driving a wedge between folks and further dividing the body? Or are you speaking
the words that are going to bring healing and growth, words that demonstrate our unity in
Christ, words that give grace to those who hear? #2 Before you speak, is it loving?
#3 Is it Christian? That is, am I speaking in a way that would reflect well on my
relationship with God in Christ? Am I speaking in a Christ-like manner? Am I glorifying
Christ with my every word? I‟m coming to this point last, but really it‟s the first and
foundational question of them all. Get this one right and the other two just kind of take
care of themselves.
Everything in this second half of Paul‟s letter to the Ephesians follows the word
“Therefore.” Throughout the latter part of the letter Paul keeps throwing in that word
“therefore.” And as the speaker at Annual Conference this year so deftly pointed out,
anytime Paul uses the word “therefore” you have to go back and read the previous chapters
in order to know what the therefore is therefore.
If you go back earlier in the letter, you recall Paul was talking about how we have
been saved in Christ, how we were at one time far off, separated from God because of sin,
but Christ washed that sin away and drew us near to God. You remember he talked about
how there were once so many divisions among us but Christ broke down those division so
that in Christ we are all one. Therefore, since our sin has been washed away in Christ,
since we have been drawn close to God in Christ, since we have been united one to another
in Christ, our words ought to reflect that, should they not?
The words that we use ought to reflect our appreciation for what God has done for
us in Christ. The way we speak to one another ought to reflect the knowledge that each one
of us is a child of God, that each one of us is equally loved by God. The way we speak
about one another ought to reflect the knowledge that we are one with each other in Christ
and that we have been given a common calling to build one another up in love. Remember
the way our passage for last week began: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to
which you have been called.” And our passage for this week from later in that same
chapter reminds us that leading a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called
includes every word that comes out of our mouths.
I know many of you use the devotion book Jesus Calling. The devotion for each
day is written as if it is Jesus speaking to us. I‟ve been using it lately and I‟ve found it
especially helpful the past couple of weeks while I‟ve been away. As I was getting ready
this week to begin working on this message “Be Careful What You Say” the devotion from
Jesus Calling for this past Monday morning began like this (and remember this is God
speaking to us): “Watch your words diligently. Words have such great power to bless or to
wound. When you speak carelessly or negatively, you damage others as well as yourself.
This ability to verbalize is an awesome privilege, granted only to those I created in My
image. You need help in wielding this mighty power responsibly.”
Think about that – the ability to speak is a gift, a privilege, given only to those who
were created in the image of God. We were created in the image of God, so that we might
be reflections of our Creator, and we were given the ability to speak in order to help us
reflect that image and magnify God all the more.
Chapter 5, verse 1: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in
love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.” We are to be reflections of God by
imitating Christ and by allowing the Holy Spirit to work fully through us. And when we
speak in ways that are unbecoming of our Savior then we are speaking in ways that are
unbecoming of us. Speaking the truth in love, let us grow up in every way into him who is
the head, into Christ. Let no evil talk come from our mouths but only what is useful for
building up so that our words may give grace to those who hear. May it be so. Amen.