Types of Words That Tear Down

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 (Ephesians 4:29, ESV).

Many of you heard in the news about Michael Richards’ stand-up routine at a comedy club over a week ago. Richards’ claim to fame is his role of Kramer in the sit-com Seinfeld. His body of work is impressive, but his two and a half minute rant that was filled with racist and hate-filled vocabulary has hurt his career terribly if not ruined it. This demonstrates the power of words — they can either build up or tear down.

Paul tells us through the Holy Spirit to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.” That word “corrupting” comes from the Greek word sapros which means “rotten or worthless, not fit for use.” It’s the same word that is used by Jesus when he says, “It is not the good tree that bears bad fruit” (Luke 6:43). Just as we are to be wise about every dollar we give as the fruit of our labor (Ephesians 4:28), so too are we to be wise about every word we give to others. Our speech is our calling card to who we are. What we say is the currency that we use — and how are we using it? To build up, or to tear down? To bestow grace, or to corrupt?

Equalizers: Some use words as weapons to equal and level the playing field — often caused by bitterness. They crack jokes about someone else’ appearance, someone else’s mistakes, or any other perceived deficiency or shortcoming and use those words to point those things out in order to put them in their place. Sadly, this is the result of some subconscious shortcoming in the person telling the joke. Our speech should build up, not tear down in the guise of a joke or a rebuke that has nothing constructive about it. If you have to get a laugh at the expense of someone else, then it’s not worth telling — and would put 99% of the stand-up comics out of work.

Stabilizers. These are words backed by rage or anger — you feel you must speak these words to someone about someone or something to get it “off your chest” so you will feel better. These words may certainly make you feel much better than you did and may make your emotions feel more balanced and … well … stable. Yet while you may feel better, so does the weather seem better after a hurricane blasts through — yet it leaves untold damage in its wake.

Scandalizers. These are the words of a gossips and slanderers. In fact, if you read verse 31, you see the word ‘slander’ as an item we must put away. The word in the Greek is the word ‘blasphemia.’ You guess it, it’s where we get the word blaspheme. “Did you hear that so-and-so did so-and-so and thus so-and-so happened? But don’t tell so-and-so I told you because he might do so-and-so, so… there it is!” When say to someone “You fool,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:22 that endangers us to the fire of hell. Jokes that are at the expense of someone, whether their appearance, their intelligence, or any other thing that tears down rather than builds up has no place in the life of the Christian.

Tranquilizer. These are words which try to knock people out. In verse 31, we see the word, ‘clamor’ which deals with a shout or and outcry of strife with a public outburst revealing a loss of control. When you tell someone to “Shut up!” or to go to a place of eternal destiny that is not heaven or some other expletive and unrepeatable. Rather than a graceful and gracious word coming out, words that possess no love and no edifying nature at all come out.

Trivializer. These types of words are the worst. These are words that take words which are holy and sacred or deal with sacred themes and use them for things profane or vulgar. I call them trivializers because of what John Piper preached one Sunday:

These expressions trivialize things of terrible seriousness. It’s simply a contradiction to believe in the horrible reality of hell and use the word like a punctuation mark for emphasis when talking about sports or politics.

Words that are found in the Bible such as God, Jesus, Christ, hell, damn, or holy are not used for their sacred purpose, but are as Commandment #3 notes, used “in vain.” God tells us elsewhere, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:12, ESV).

Contrast this with Jesus who, in Luke 4:22, is described thusly: “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.”  Our words are to be a blessing that reflects our Lord Jesus Christ in us, not our own vain and bitter musings. 

We surely must be careful to be ones who are constructive, but also appropriate.  Not every word needs to be said, even if it is true.  You may say something totally true, but in such a manner that it hurts more than it builds up.  Going up to a friend and saying, “I think you look fat/skinny/ dumpy/(fill in the blank)” though it may be true, how helpful is it?  In fact, if you are one who says things like that, turn it around — would you like it?  If someone says to you what you say to others, how would you feel?  Better or worse?

Having said that, if we approach it in love and tell someone, “You know, this seems like a sinful and disobedient way to go — I love you in the Lord, but I must say, this seems like a dangerous path.”  This, though at first seems nosy and prying, will build up if this is from the Lord and led with love.

I’ll close with this:

Proverbs 25:11

    A word fitly spoken

        is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.


Proverbs 25:12

    Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold

        is a wise reprover to a listening ear.


Proverbs 15:23

    To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,

        and a word in season, how good it is!


Proverbs 24:26

    Whoever gives an honest answer

        kisses the lips.

Frank Gaebelein wrote:

Tongue control?  It will never be achieved unless there is first of all heart and mind control. . . .  When any Christian comes to the point of yielding to the Lord — in full sincerity, cost what it may — control of his thought life, the problem of managing his tongue will be solved, provided that suce a surrender goes deeper than the intellect and reaches the emotions and the will. 

Most of the problems with our speech comes from the root of being not only out of control with our emotions but out of God’s control.  In other words, the Gospel has not fully gripped our hearts.

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