How do you speak to others? What do people around you say about your conversation? Is your talk kind or very sharp? When you joke with others, are the remarks sarcastic and cutting?
I want to visit a verse that so often is used when we challenge each other to be careful with our humor. But, before we look at it, I do want to say that what has my attention as I look at it is not the more familiar part, so stay with me.
Ephesians 4:29 – 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.
What is corrupting talk? In context, we are talking about lying and, in the next chapter, being crude is in view. A study of the original language shows us that the word Paul used is a word for bad or rotten as in the bad fruit on a tree. Certainly, the speech is corrupt and foul.
Of course this means that evil talk, false talk, God-dishonoring talk must not be a part of who we are. We need to watch our mouths.
But what about humor? I’ve heard this verse used many times for not being a mean joker. Does that actually not apply?
I think, if we follow the way that Paul is writing here, the primary meaning of that first phrase is certainly ugly, base, crude, sinful speech. But I also think, in application, we can say that we need to check our speech, even the way we tease each other, to see if it is rotten.
The next part of the phrase talks about building each other up. Again, on the surface, this has to do with doing each other good, edifying, uplifting sort of speech. We want to speak truth to each other. We also want to speak cleanly to each other, not bringing corruption into each other’s lives with our words. So, again, though harsh and quippy language is not at the center of the author’s intent, it could be captured in this verse as an appropriate application.
But the final phrase is what got my attention today: that it may give grace to those who hear. Our speech is supposed to be grace-giving. That is where, at the end of the day, we will have to check our words more and more. When you talk, do people who have spoken with you feel like they have been given grace? Do people who hear you feel encouraged, comforted, and refreshed? Do those to whom you speak see the mercy of Christ in how you speak to them?
Now we are getting somewhere. Something about my words to you and your words to me should repeatedly sound the note of grace in each other’s lives. Something about the way I treat you and you treat me should make us see ourselves as gifted by God with life and mercy.
Let me apply that part in two categories. First, for the extra serious among us, you need to check your speech. Often the higher and loftier one’s speech, the sharper and more condemning we can sound. Do people walk away from conversations with you, from the spiritual conversations you crave, and sense the mercies of Christ? Or, on the other hand, do you by your style of communication leave them feeling that they do not live up to your standards for what a Christian should be? Do you make it hard for average people to want to talk with you because you are always showing them their faults without showing them God’s grace?
Of course this is not a call not to rebuke or train others. But, if we are honest, we all know that extra spiritual person with whom we dread a conversation because they just do not bring joy and life and mercy into our day. And, if you are a Christian, if you are a deep thinker, if you are serious about your faith, and if you do not know such a person, please examine yourself to see if you are that person. Do not back off truth. But strive to help those who hear you also hear of the love, the grace, the kindness, the tender mercies of Christ in their lives. Build them up, but build gently and sweetly.
Second, on the front of humor, the place I so often hear this verse applied, the call to mercy is a big deal. When you are teasing your friends, when you are just having fun, when you get in a good shot, is there any way that you are building them up in mercy? I would suggest to you that the answer is probably no. When we center relationships on cutting humor, we cannot, at the same time, be helping each other to see the love of God and the mercy of Christ. And so we need to reevaluate how much we treasure following the worldly model of a snappy comeback as a major form of communication.
Here would be my suggestion: Do not lose your humor, but focus your barbs on yourself or on fun and funny things that are not people. There is so much that is hilarious in this world to laugh at that you do not have to find your humor by making fun of your friends or your enemies. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at your own flaws. Laugh at the humor to be found in life in general. But guard against trying to score comedy points at the expense of others. You never know that your words are not cutting more deeply than you realize. And you are certainly forming a habit that is very hard to break. And, looking back at this verse, you are not building up another nor are you showing them the mercies of God.
At this point in the program, many of us fight back with some sort of comment about how this is just how my friends and I communicate. We argue that this is just who we are, and our friends understand us. Let me urge you to revisit this verse and its calls and ask you to reconsider, not if this is who you are, but if it is who you should be. We can better magnify the Lord when we are careful not to let our tongues slice at others.
And, to finish with mercy, let me say that I am by no means immune to this flaw. I grew up thinking that a quick wit and a clever barb was a great way to become the center of attention. It’s fun to have everyone think you are just so funny. But the truth is, I had to repent (and I continue to repent), because I want to leave people with whom I talk with a stronger grasp of the grace and mercy of God. God worked on me, and is still working on me here. Can I urge you as well, if this is a struggle, to be encouraged. God wants to work on you and shape you into a more God-honoring friend to others. God can work on you to be someone whose speech is always full of grace, seasoned with salt, pointing to Christ. Want more of that. Keep humor in life with kindness. Build others up for the honor of our Lord.