Don Imus, the hugely popular radio shock jock, made headlines last week for using a racial epithet to describe the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. There is no need to repeat what he said here. Everyone has read it and heard it numerous times. And there is no need to attempt a defense for the indefensible. What he said was not only ignorant. It was morally repugnant and wrong. It was truly ugly, which should not surprise us since at its heart all sin is ugly.

Years ago I remember reading an essay on something called a “theology of beauty.” Most of what I read has escaped me, but I remember the conclusion. The writer developed the point that beauty comes from God. He is the ultimate author of all true beauty in the universe. Satan cannot create beauty. He can only take what is beautiful and distort it for his own evil purposes. At the end of the essay, the writer addressed Satan directly in words such as these. “Satan, you are ugly. Everything about you is ugly. There is no beauty in you. You are hideous and repulsive and everything you do is hideous and repulsive.” The author went on like that for several paragraphs. As I thought about Don Imus, those words floated back to my mind for the first time in more than thirty years.

The tongue, James says, is set on fire by hell. Though it is small (your arm is much larger than your tongue), it gets you in a lot of trouble. Think about that. For every time your arm gets you into trouble (for hitting someone, for instance), your tongue gets you into trouble ten times. Or maybe a hundred times.

In my book Stealth Attack, I discuss how the devil uses our careless words to hurt others, based on Paul’s warning in Ephesians 4:29. “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.” That’s from the New International Version. Whenever I read that verse, my mind goes back to a speech class I took in college. The teacher was a young man in his first or second year of teaching. He was friendly and wise and very earnest. On the first day of class he said we were going to take a verse of Scripture as our theme for the semester. He picked Ephesians 4:29, which we repeated every time we met. Back then everything we learned came from the King James Version so that’s how I remember it: “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.” What the NIV translates as “unwholesome talk,” the King James translates as “corrupt communication.” The underlying Greek word means “rotten.” It was used for decaying flesh, rotten fish or rotten fruit. The meaning is, “Don’t let any putrid words come out of your mouth.” Or we might say in street lingo, “No trash talk!” What qualifies as rotten speech? Here are a few examples:

Vulgarity, obscenity, indecent language.
Dirty jokes, off-color stories.
Pornographic language.
Racial or ethnic insults.
Humor meant to insult or to put someone down.
Angry outbursts, harsh words.
Mean-spirited comments.
Gossip, rumors, false accusations.
Imputing bad motives.
Public criticism of your spouse or children.
Yelling and screaming.
Threats and intimidating comments.
Endless criticism.
Quick, cutting comments.
Cheap shots.
Talking too much.
Talking without listening.
Condemning others.
Exaggerating the faults of others.
Excusing unkind words by saying, “I was only joking.”

The Greek construction of verse 29 is a bit unusual. The verse opens with a Greek word that means “all, each, every.” The word meaning “no” occurs later in the verse. That gives a particular emphasis to his words:

Every critical comment that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every filthy word that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every harsh word that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every cheap shot that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every bit of gossip that comes out of your mouth … not!

Why is this so important? Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Every time you open your mouth either life or death comes out. The Bible speaks of the throat as an “open grave” (Romans 3:13). When there is death on the inside, it will eventually show up in the your words. According to Proverbs 12:18, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” James 3:5-6 offers this penetrating warning:

Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

Ephesians 4:29 offers a Christian alternative: First, we are to speak good words that build up instead of tearing down. Second, we are to speak words that minister grace to those who hear them. And we are to do it all the time and in every circumstance. We are to speak good words that bring grace according to the need of the moment. Here is the teaching of the verse put very simply:

Every word … all good … all grace … all the time.

We all have our excuses for what we say, don’t we? We’re tired or we’re provoked or we weren’t thinking or we didn’t mean it or it’s true so we said it. On and on we go, justifying our verbal diarrhea. We all have people in our lives who drive us nuts. Some people just seem to have the “spiritual gift” of irritation. They know how to get under our skin. It might be a friend or a spouse or our children. It certainly could be an ex-husband or an ex-wife. It almost always is someone close to us–at home, at school, at work–who knows how to push our buttons so we will say something foolish.

As the world rightly condemns Don Imus, we all need to take a look in the mirror and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We miss the whole point if we think we’re better than Don Imus. Between Don Imus and us, there’s not much difference. Apart from the grace of God, who knows what stupid things we might say? So be on your guard, watch your words, think before you open your mouth, and ask God to help you get rid of all your stinking speech today.

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