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A Word about Our Words

I’m not entirely sure how to explain what happened to me on Friday morning (12-3-04), or even why I feel compelled to comment on it, but I’ll do my best.

I was sitting at a table in a local coffee shop, checking e-mail and reading Greg Beale’s new book on the temple (I’ll review it at a later date). A few tables away from me were two female employees, one in her late thirties or early forties, the other a teenager. The older of the two began telling her tale of woe. She was lamenting the fact that she had discovered her teenage son smoking pot in the car of their driveway. She was furious that he had been so brazen and open about it, evidently caring little for his family or even the possibility of being caught. From this she turned to an angry reaction to his plummeting grade point average in school. As if that were not enough, she then related how she was dumping her boyfriend, twelve years her junior, because he was infringing on her freedom to live as she wanted.

I suppose I could have turned a deaf ear to what was being so loudly projected in my corner of the restaurant, but her story was being told with the help of virtually every four letter word imaginable. I may sound like a chauvinist in saying this, but here goes. It’s one thing to hear such language coming from a man. Often we write it off as the crudity of working in a depraved society where standards of decency and common courtesy have largely disappeared. Or perhaps it is simply masculine posturing, an attempt to project a macho image of the typical tough guy. But when such vile speech comes rushing from the lips of a woman, it strikes me as uniquely and profoundly offensive. No, I’m not suggesting that we are free to “write it off” simply because they are men. No, I’m not in the least suggesting that men are free to speak in a way that women are not. No, I’m not in the least suggesting that women are more accountable for their language than men or that the words they use take on a different moral character simply because of a difference in gender.

In fact, the more I think about it, the problem is mine. There simply is no excuse or biblical reason why I should be less tolerant of the sinful verbal habits of women than of men. I’m just a bit old fashioned and am jolted more when I hear it from feminine lips than from masculine ones (even though, I confess again, I probably shouldn’t be). Perhaps I should move on lest I get myself in real trouble!

While writing this last paragraph, I was treated to a graphic and obscene description of the drinking habits of her father and former husband as well as her visit to Las Vegas for Christmas last year.

So why am I telling you this? Good question. I suppose it comes from the glaring inconsistency and blindness that it revealed. This woman, who undoubtedly had lived a hard and demanding life, was scandalized by her son’s rebellious behavior and poor performance in school. I wanted to stand and shout, “Lady, what did you expect? It’s more than simply the immoral atmosphere your speech patterns undoubtedly create in your home. It’s more than simply how your speech constitutes a tacit endorsement of the values of the world at large. It’s more than simply the incredible disrespect you display toward yourself, others, and the world around you by using such crude and offensive language. At heart, it’s about your heart. As Jesus said, ‘For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. . . . I tell you on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12:35-36). Paul said it so clearly: ‘Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving’ (Ephesians 5:4).”

Paul’s words are part of a larger context in which he delineates the sort of behavior, such as “foolish talk” and “crude joking”, because of which “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).

My point, I suppose, is this. What we say or speak or utter in jest or even in casual conversation, or perhaps in the frenzy of an athletic event, all reveal the quality and character of our hearts. Speech is a barometer of the soul. It reflects the degree to which our minds and hearts and affections have aligned with the corruption of the world around us, or, conversely, with the purity and beauty of Christ. How we speak speaks volumes about what we value, about the reason we make our decisions, as well as the inward moral foundation on which we build our lives, our relationships, our goals in life.

I don’t want to judge this lady unjustly. Perhaps I misread her. But all I had to go on was what I heard come from her mouth. And it tells me plenty, although she was evidently oblivious to it all, about why her life and children and relationships in general are what they are.

Perhaps I was also a bit agitated in realizing that so few people any longer are offended by such speech. It has become so commonplace, almost expected. May I be so bold to suggest that how we react when we hear such language from others is as revealing of the state of our souls as when such language is spoken by our own lips. To the degree that we are not broken, grieved, and yes, even outraged by such language ought to tell us plenty about the spiritual condition of our hearts. Stop for a moment and ask yourself, “Do I notice any longer the profane language of those around me? Am I offended by the barrage of filthy words on television or at the movies? Have I become accustomed to it all? Has my soul acclimated to the prevailing verbal climate of the world around me? Do I simply write it off as inevitable in our society? Or does it cause my spirit to cringe within?”

I fear that what I heard that morning told me plenty about the state of at least one soul. I hope and pray that I am wrong in that judgment. I hope and pray that when that lady left work she was convicted, broken, and quickly repentant that she had yielded to the impulse to punctuate her speech with such vile utterances.

I’m a long way from being as offended as I should be when I hear such speech. Nor am I immune to using such language myself. I can only pray that, by God’s grace, should such filthy jesting come from my lips, the Spirit would convict and awaken me to the eternal gravity of what is at stake. Even more, I pray the Spirit would make me keenly and powerfully aware of the degree to which my sinful speech diminishes my capacity both to enjoy Jesus and to embody and express that joy to a lost and dying world.

Ultimately I’m not accountable for what she said, but I am for what I say. And you are for what you say.

“Oh God, purify my heart by satisfying me with the beauty and splendor and love of your Son. Oh God, may that purity flow forth in speech that is wholesome, edifying, honoring to you and consistent with the eternal values of your kingdom. Amen.”