How to Communicate with Others by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Darkness and Light” published in 1982.
`Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.’
Our text brings us to problems concerning our conversation, our speech one to the other, our communication with one another, in this particular form. We cannot help noticing that in these particular injunctions the Apostle seems to bear in his mind most of the time the great importance of speech. His first injunction was, `Wherefore, put away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour’. Now that is a question of speech, and later in the chapter he comes back to it: `Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice’ (verse 31). And again he will take it up in the third verse of chapter 5, where he says: `But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints: neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.’ Obviously, therefore, in the opinion and estimation of the Apostle this whole question of speech is a vital one and of necessity should receive great prominence as we are dealing with and considering the application of the truth to the details of our lives. And this is not surprising because, as I have already reminded you in regard to the question of lying, speech is, after all, the distinguishing and differentiating factor in man’s life. When you come to compare and contrast man and the animals there are many differences, but this is probably the most prominent and most important; the thing that makes man man is the gift of speech and of expression. In this ability to express himself, we see the image of God in which man was originally created coming out most clearly. Man can think and reason and look at himself objectively and consider himself; the animals cannot do that.
But our text goes even further: man can speak, he can express himself, he can put thoughts into words and into language. It is in many ways God’s greatest gift to mankind, and this being so, it is not surprising that it is the thing which is most misused. In the spiritual realm the devil centres his attack upon that which is most precious in man. And the devastating thing about sin is that it always destroys first that which is best in us. The higher centres are always the first to be affected by sin. It is not surprising, therefore, that considerable attention is paid by the Apostle to this whole question of speech, as it is so expressive of the very essence of man’s being and personality. In the third chapter of his Epistle, James makes exactly the same point. Man’s tongue is there compared to the rudder of a ship, also to the bit, the bridle, that is put into a horse’s mouth: in both cases a very little thing, but what an important thing it is! It changes the course of a great Atlantic liner; it is the thing that keeps within bounds and controls the horse, with all his vigour and power. Therefore, says James, as Christians you have got to realise the vital importance of guarding the tongue and the lips. What havoc, he says, is wrought by the misuse of the tongue! It is a very world of iniquity, it is something that can kindle a flame and a fire that is terribly destructive.
This is the scriptural way of reminding us that in our life lived in this world there is nothing which is of greater importance than the power of speech, because after all we express what we really are by what we say. The words of our Lord Himself—`Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh’-–tell us the same thing. As we speak, we are really expressing what is in our heart. Sometimes our friends remind us that we `give ourselves away’ by our speech. But our Lord has a further truth to tell us `A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shah be justified, and by thy words thou shall be condemned.’ We are all slow to realise the importance of speech. We talk so freely, so glibly, so loosely; and yet, says our Lord, `By thy words thou shah be justified and by thy words thou shah be condemned.’ He assures us that in the day of judgment a man `shall give an account of every idle word that he has spoken’. He means that it is when we are off our guard, as it were, that we really express what we are. Morality can put a certain control upon us. But you really discover the weakness of the non-Christian, moral man in his unguarded moments, when suddenly something happens to him and he expresses himself; then he really shows what he is; and that is one of the ways of differentiating between the merely moral man and the Christian man. The Christian man is not a man who is always repressing himself; there is something different at the centre, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh; it is what slips out that really tells us the truth about one another.
It is not surprising, then, that the Apostle pays great attention to this question of speech. You Ephesians, he says, were once pagans and you were typically pagan in your conversation and your speech. But now, he says, you are new men, you have put off the old man, you have put on the new man, and there is no respect in which you can show this so plainly and clearly as in your conversation, in the kind of thing you talk about, and in the way you speak. And we notice once again that he adopts the same formula that he has adopted in all the other cases: first of all, negative injunction, then positive injunction, and thirdly explanation. `Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth’; there is the negative. But what are you to do? `Speak that which is good, to the use of edifying’; there is the positive. But why should you do this, what is the reason? The reason is, `that it may minister grace unto the hearers’. We adopt the Apostle’s own classification, for we cannot improve upon it.
The negative injunction runs: `Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth’, that is to say, the Christian should be altogether different in this matter of speech from the non-Christian. We must therefore ask ourselves what it is that characterises the speech, the conversation, of the unregenerate and the godless, and it is suggested by the very terms used by the Apostle, which we find elaborated elsewhere in Scripture. One characteristic of the speech of the ungodly is excess, and lack of control. Ungodly people talk too much; they talk without thinking, they are always talking. If you travel in buses or by train, or if you sit in a public room, you will find that there is this constant chattering; it is always characteristic of the ungodly. Probably we have not all realised that Christian people do not talk as much as non-Christian people.
Another characteristic of the conversation of the non-Christian and the thing that really makes it what it is, is that it is just an expression of self. The life of the unregenerate man is always selfish and a self-centred life, and his conversation and speech is turned to an opportunity for self-display. This explains why such persons, when together, all endeavour to talk at the same time. The one cannot wait for the other to finish, they want to get their word in. There is evermore present the desire to be interesting and entertaining and to be admired, with people saying, How wonderful! They all want to hold the floor, they all crave for self-expression and to obtain something for the self.
If you analyse speech and conversation with all these things in mind—the excess, the failure to speak in turn, and the cutting in on one another—you are bound to conclude that they are nothing but a sheer manifestation of self and self-importance, the desire for admiration and for praise. These characteristics abound in the conversation of the ungodly.
Then, too, the Apostle introduces something that surely has a new urgency, alas! in the present day, namely, the lack of delicacy. He refers to that which is corrupt, worthless, ugly, unbecoming, rotten and foul. These are alternative translations of the word he uses. Of course, we have got polite terms for this evil thing; we speak of piquancy, adding a little spice to the conversation, suggestiveness, vulgarity, uncleanness, coarseness, obscenity. This is always the characteristic of the conversation of pagan society, even at its best. I say even at its best! It is perhaps one of the greatest manifestations of the Fall and of the polluting effect of sin, that even men belonging to learned professions and societies, when they meet together at their dinners and parties, always spend some of their time in telling stories, as they call it, to one another, repeating stories, collecting them, taking the trouble to remember them. They do it because they know that they will be admired for it, and become a centre of attraction. And the more daring the more wonderful! Able and intelligent men, high in their professions, literally spend their time in doing that kind of thing. It is plain evidence of the coarseness that sin introduces into human life and into men’s hearts; yet it is considered clever, entertaining. `Have you heard this?’ they say, and everybody listens! Men of intelligence, yes, and men of integrity, are capable of spending their time in this way, an awful manifestation of the polluting effect of sin!
I could very easily digress at this point to call your attention to the obvious increase of this kind of thing in the life of our own and other countries. A coarseness, a looseness is creeping into conversation. People use terms in public, that no one would have dreamt of using forty years ago. Have you not noticed it coming into articles and journals, not only newspapers? Is it not happening in general? This curious tendency to be daring—indeed it has become so customary that it is no longer daring or shocking. And it is becoming appallingly common. Even in journals of repute one cannot but notice the curious, sad decline that is so evidently taking place. And often the godless world turns into a joke, and regards as amusing, that which is really tragic. Why should a married man’s unfaithfulness to his wife be regarded as funny? Why should there be constant jokes about this sort of thing? Nothing causes greater unhappiness to men, women and children than just this very thing, and yet it is regarded as a theme for joking. Acts of infidelity become the subjects of laughter and merriment! Corrupt communication, corrupt conversation, is a mark of the unregenerate. Have nothing to do with it, says the Apostle. It is corrupt in itself and it corrupts others. And this was the thing that was uppermost in the Apostle’s mind here, as it is in all these separate injunctions. He wants believers to consider the influence of their words upon others, so he says, Do not let any corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth; a bystander may hear it and it may do harm to him.
What influence can words have? James reminds us that they inflame, with a passion of hell! Many a man has gone wrong in life by merely listening to conversation that stimulates, and inflames and arouses everything that is unworthy. The Apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthians, warns them that `Evil communications corrupt good manners.’ Therefore, he says, for the sake of others, let none of this come out of your mouth. To put it quite simply and plainly, what he is really saying is, Stop doing that sort of thing! But notice particularly a further word he uses: `Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth.’ In other words, if it even enters your mind, if it is beginning to form on your lips and your tongue, stop! If it has even arrived in your mouth, do not let it come out! Crucify it, kill it, murder it, stop it! If you yourself are guilty of evil thoughts, if the devil suggests them to you—you cannot stop him, he will hurl his fiery darts at you, he will insinuate them into your very minds, subtle innuendos—even so, says the Apostle, what I am telling you is this, Never let corrupt words proceed out of your mouth, let them die upon your lips, for the sake of others. Such is his negative injunction before he urges the positive.
What should proceed out of your mouth? `that which is good, to the use of edifying’. I must again emphasise that a part of the central glory of our Christian faith and life is just this, that it is never merely negative. This is not morality, this is Christianity. Your moral man can put the curbs and the brakes on, and he may be not guilty of certain things, but at that point he stops. But Paul sounds a positive note. The gospel of Christ brings us a life, a new life, and it is full of positive activity and of exertion; and this is always the Christian way. Notice the Apostle’s expression—`that which is good to the use of edifying’. Unfortunately our Authorised Version is really not good at this point, for it puts it the wrong way round. It says, `that which is good to the use of edifying’; but Paul actually says, `that which is good for the edification of the need’. The Revised Version supplies the better translation: `such as is good for edifying as the need may be’. But the Revised Standard Version is better still: `only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion’. What, then, are the principles that are to govern my talk and conversation with others? First of all we shall look at the general principles.
The first is obviously that our conversation must always be under our control. In our former unregenerate state—and, alas, we lapse into it sometimes, even as Christians—we have all been guilty of becoming drunk in conversation. Watch people in conversation, and especially at conferences. The conversation starts rather quietly; the pitch rises; in the end people are shouting; there is much clamour; it is sheer intoxication; they have become drunk on conversation, all controls have gone. One says a thing, another wants to cap it, and a third wants to be yet more daring, and the control has entirely gone. The Christian’s tongue should never be out of control. We must never become so excited that we are really not responsible for what we are saying. There must always be thought behind Christian speech and conversation, because, as I said earlier, our speech and conversation is an expression of our total personality. And that which differentiates the Christian from the non-Christian is just this very thing, no longer excess, but control, discipline, order. The chaos is gone. The God who commanded the light to shine out of the darkness at the creation has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. He has brought order, there is control, and everything is in position. And of course, our conversation is controlled by the truth which we believe.
The second obvious thing about Christian speech is that it is no longer selfish or self-centred. The believer should never set out just to be admired or to be important or to be thought wonderful in conversation. Never! That is the old man. Put it off! stop it! says Paul. Have nothing to do with it, you have been brought out of that; never put yourself forward or seek an opportunity for self-display. That which should characterise the speech of the Christian is a concern for other people. Paul has been saying this in every one of these particular injunctions. He has said `Let every man speak truth with his neighbour’, for the sake of the neighbour! `Be ye angry and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath’—do not go to sleep thinking evil about your neighbour! `Let him that stole steal no more, but let him rather labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth’! In each command the neighbour is prominent, and it is still the neighbour in this matter of speech and talk and conversation. You are not just to display yourself, and to show off, as we say, for the Christian is a man who all along does not merely think of his own things but also of the things of another. He is like the Lord Himself, and His is the mind that must be in us. He did not consider Himself; for the sake of others and for our sakes, He humbled Himself.
These, then, are to be the general principles in our speech and in our conversation. But what are the particular principles? First of all, says the Apostle, our conversation must be `good’, not corrupt. And to `good’ he adds `edifying’. There must be some purpose in it, some point in it, some value in it. We are not just to chatter away the time and talk about nothing. Oh! the hours we have all wasted in life in sheer idle talk and chatter and gossip, and all to no value! The Christian must turn from this. He need not always of necessity be talking religion, but whenever he speaks there must always be some point and some value in it. It must always be good, it must always be clean, it must always in some sense or another be edifying, so that people say at the end, It was a good thing to have spent some time with that man or with that woman, I feel better for having done so. I am almost tempted to say that one of the main differences between pagan and Christian conversation is that Christian conversation is always intelligent and the other is not.
But the command goes further. It includes mention of the need, the edification of the need, or as the Revised Standard Version puts it, `as fits the occasion’, or, as the need may be. This is particularly important. And it is just here that some of us who are Christian—and this perhaps applies particularly to evangelicals—so frequently fall into error and into a snare. Here I am in conversation with another, or with a number of other people. I must not do certain things; I must consider others; my speech must be good and edifying. Yes, but go further, says the Apostle, Your talk must be `as fits the occasion’. A difficult thing, but a vital one!
`As fits the occasion’ means that I must consider the people to whom I am speaking; I must make an assessment of them, and
my speech and conversation must be appropriate for them. But many Christian people do not do this; what they do is to deliver a sermon; they address an individual as if he or she were a public meeting; they sermonise; they give a little address or sermonette; they make very good statements about the gospel and the way of salvation, but sometimes it is not at all appropriate and does not fit the occasion. They act in this way because they are thinking about themselves only, and are not estimating the other. They say to themselves, Now that I am a Christian and must engage in good and godly conversation, I must always be giving my testimony or preaching the gospel or getting in a little word somewhere or other. No, says the Apostle, that is a wrong approach. If you approach it in that way, you are more concerned about yourself and about doing your duty than you are about manifesting the true Christian attitude in this matter. The Christian’s word of edification should always fit the occasion! So we are not to repeat phrases in parrot fashion and feel that we have done well and performed our duty. Not at all! Instead, we are to discover, first of all, what is the exact position of other people. My business is to speak to them in such a way as to help them exactly where they are; `cast not your pearls before swine’, says our Lord. Do not hurl chunks, as it were, of good red meat at a babe who can only take milk! These are the Scriptural terms, are they not? `I could not speak unto you’, says Paul to the Corinthians, `as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes.’ `I have fed you with milk and not with meat.’ The fact was that they `were not yet able to bear it’!
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews bemoans the same fact. He says to his readers, I want you to go on to perfection, but I am held back in my teaching, for you are not willing to receive more than the first principles of the gospel of Christ. Yes, but what wise teachers men of this type were! Recognising that their readers were not yet in a fit condition to take the more advanced teaching, they gave them the teaching that was appropriate to their condition, `as fits the occasion’! Clearly, this is the way in which all Christians must speak. We do not just talk and talk and talk; we do not merely make our correct statements. We have to learn to understand other people and their needs. And we should be so anxious to help them that we take time, we meditate, we think, we feel our way, we see the position and then we apply the necessary and the appropriate word. It demands great wisdom, great understanding, great patience. Do not be unfair to people, do not expect them to be what they are not. Our business is to take people as they are and to try to bring them from that one position to another. So let us be careful that our word, our good word of edification, shall always fit the occasion and be appropriate for whatever circumstances apply in each individual case.
The object of our `communication’ is `that it may minister grace unto the hearers’, that is, that it may impart grace to them in some shape or form. Never forget, says the Apostle in effect, that the man or woman or company of people to whom you are speaking, possess immortal souls; that their life does not end in this world, they go on to eternity. And if we keep that in mind it will surely govern and control our whole conversation. Minister grace to them! Some with whom you talk will be unconverted; let there be something about you and your whole manner of speaking, and about what you say, that will arrest them and call attention to the truth. Do not preach, but let your conversation in general be such that some aspect of grace becomes evident to them. And if on the other hand they are children of God, help them to build up their little stock of grace and of knowledge and of understanding; they are exhorted, as you are, to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord. Let contact with you help that process, and let your conversation with them be conducive to their edification.
I can sum up the Apostle’s teaching by pointing out that what he is really doing here is to ask us to behave like our Lord Himself. How did He behave? We have a description of Him written by the prophet Isaiah in one of his great Messianic passages. In his fiftieth chapter he looks forward and sees Him, and tells us the Messiah is speaking the following words: `The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary.’ My dear Christian people, there are weary people round and about us, weary of sin, weary in sin, weary of life. There are Christian people round us carrying burdens, carrying loads, suffering illness and sickness, disappointment, the treachery of friends, some fond hope suddenly gone, dashed and vanished illusions; there are men and women round and about us who are weary! And as we meet them and speak to them, let us forget ourselves, let us not regard the meeting as an occasion when we can display how wonderful we are. God forbid! Let us pray that we may have this tongue of the learned that we may be enabled to speak a word in season to some poor, weary soul. Our Lord came from heaven to do that; and of Him it was written, and He verified it in His life, `A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.’ That is the way for us also. As we travel through this journey of life we are to help men and women by a word, a word of encouragement, a word of cheer, perhaps a word of rebuke, but a word that will remind them that they are under God, and that if they are in Christ they are precious to Him. Let us go out, therefore, to succour the weary and help the infirm. Let us indeed help one another in the whole of our life and conversation, but above all in our speech. Let no corrupt communication proceed out of our mouth, but that which is good for the edification of others, the improvement of the need, that which fits the occasion, that we may ever administer grace to the hearers. Thank God for the Christian life, in which everything is changed, and all we are and do and say is so different from that which characterised the old unregenerate life. Blessed be the Name of God, who has had mercy upon us and sent His Son not only to die for us and deliver us from hell and its corruption, but who has given us this new nature, and who has fashioned anew our lives after His own image. [253-263]