As the pile of loot in a book giveaway dwindled to the dregs, a writers’ conference I was attending offered a self-help book for Christians who have a problem with swearing. Awkward moments passed before one brave soul said, “Oh, what the h—!” and stood to claim the prize while the crowd erupted in laughter.
Though most of us probably don’t struggle with gratuitous swearing, we may very well be trapped in a pattern of speaking destructively. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
I’m sure “unwholesome” includes swearing, but I believe the territory is much larger than that. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines unwholesome as “detrimental to physical, mental, or moral well-being.”
What are you offering your children, partner, coworkers, and others who drink daily from the fountain (or trickle) of your words? By becoming mindful of what and how we communicate, we can build others up.
Written and spoken words are soul food. We all hear internal echoes of positive or negative remarks long after they are spoken to us. Our words are particularly potent for those under our leadership like our children, students, young athletes we coach, or teens in youth groups. I have not forgotten the words my Grade 9 English teacher scrawled in red pen on one of my essays: “Keep writing.”
I also recall high school friends jokingly but repeatedly telling me, “You’re a klutz.” It took years to erase those words from my soul. Negative comments don’t have to be at the level of verbal abuse or bullying to be destructive.
Source of our communication
What is the source of our communication and how can we keep it wholesome? Jesus taught that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (NRSV). In another translation, Luke 6:45b says, “Your words show what is in your heart.” Therefore the secret to constructive communication is a clean heart and a right attitude.
Anger or bitterness will eventually leak out as poisonous words, no matter how hard you try to be nice. Talking through difficult situations and forgiving people helps to keep your communication constructive and your relationships functioning.
Many destructive words are spoken in the heat of the moment. If you notice you’re becoming irritated with someone, lower the temperature by excusing yourself from the conversation. It’s much better to say, “I can’t talk about this right now,” than to spew lava-hot insults that burn into your listener’s soul.
Giving unconditional compliments
In Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships, management consultant Ken Blanchard encourages readers to catch people doing things right rather than focusing on their mistakes. It’s important to notice what others do well and to compliment them on it – even if the task was not done perfectly.
Sometimes I struggle to give an encouragement without including what could have been done better. We often say things like, “Dinner tasted fabulous, but it was late.” With God’s help, we can appreciate excellence but save perfection for heaven.
Though there is danger in embedding a criticism in a compliment, it is equally sad when we miss opportunities to speak life by remaining silent. It could be as simple as saying, “That’s a great colour on you,” to a stranger, or “You did a great job on that report,” to a co-worker.
And of course, it’s even more important to communicate loving words to the people closest to us. Notice and comment on what’s unique about your family members and friends. Tell them what you appreciate about them. Though we still need to point out problems, the balance of our speech can shift to include more encouragement.
Let’s take time to notice and affirm whatever is “true, noble, beautiful, excellent, or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8), and watch new life spring up in the hearts of those who listen.