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Do you use foul language? You might and not even realize it. Foul language is far more than 4-letter words and other types of speech our society considers offensive. God’s Word calls any speech that doesn’t “build up” the hearer to be “unwholesome” or “corrupt.”

I’ve certainly been guilty of foul language. Sadly, more times than I can count. My thoughtless words have wounded others. My selfish words have hurt those closest to me.

What is “foul language?”

The apostle Paul knew our words have incredible power. What comes out of our mouths can either build up the hearer or tear her down. In his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, he tells them – and us – exactly what effect our speech should and should not have on others.

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. Ephesians 4:29, KJV

Paul says our speech should not be “corrupt” or “unwholesome.” The Greek adjective translated as “corrupt” literally means “rotten or putrefied; unfit for use; worthless.” Physically, the word was used to refer to things like rotting fruit. Figuratively, “corrupt” describes language that is rotten or that spreads rottenness. Corrupt speech is far more than curse words. Corrupt speech is graceless speech. Foul language tears down, deflates.

What does “Gracious” Speech Sound Like?

To better understand foul language – the kind Paul commands us to silence – it’s helpful to know what our speech should sound like. Paul says our speech should “benefit” or “minister grace” to others. “Gracious” speech is morally sound and helpful to the hearer. It will encourage, strengthen, and promote their spiritual well-being.

Gracious words are not always “easy” or “nice.” Sometimes it’s hard to say the gracious thing, the thing they most need to hear. Too often we avoid saying hard things in an effort to be nice. We don’t want to hurt their feelings or strain our relationship with them. But unfortunately, the “nice” words are not always the kindest thing to say. “Nice” won’t encourage them to move forward in their relationship with Jesus. The overall goal of gracious speech is that it helps the hearer to be all Christ wants them to be. (For more on being a person of grace see “15 Characteristics of Grace.”)

A Word Picture

Picture your spouse, your child, a coworker, or friend as a fully inflated beach ball. Every corrupt word you shoot their way leaves a hole. Air begins to escape. Can you see them deflate? Any words not wholesome or beneficial tear others down emotionally and spiritually. Little by little the air goes out. Sadly, I’ve seen my own words have that effect on other people.

Now picture that limp, floppy beach ball. What happens when you blow air into it? It fills and lifts until it’s fully the object it was intended to be. That’s exactly how gracious words affect another person. Like air blown into a deflated beach ball, good, gracious, and edifying words will encourage and build up an individual, helping them to reach their full potential in Christ.

4 Ways Foul Language is More than 4-Letter Words

 Pursuing gracious speech is far more comprehensive that eliminating all the four-letter words from our vocabulary. Since grace should characterize all our communication, let’s take a closer look at four ways that foul language – or corrupt speech – finds its way into our daily lives and relationships.

  1. Corrupt Speech is worthless speech – Have you ever paid for and gone through an online course that didn’t help you at all? Or maybe you’ve been stuck listening to a long, boring lecture on a topic in which you had absolutely no interest? You probably felt like you wasted a big chunk of your time on something completely worthless. At its best, corrupt speech is worthless speech that provides no value to the hearer. It’s unimportant fluff and unproductive filler. So, before we regale our neighbor with the long version of our family story or tell our newly diagnosed friend about our cousin’s nephew’s cancer battle, let’s ask ourselves if it will benefit the hearer in any way.
  2. Corrupt Speech is selfish speech – Too often we put ourselves first, even with our words. We speak to meet our own needs rather than seeking to meet the need of the hearer. Things we say reactively or out of intense emotion can often be corrupted. Speaking without first taking the time to think is selfish. This impulsive speech, often characterized by qualities like anger or sarcasm, is driven by what we think will make us feel better in that moment. Sadly, this selfish speech only soothes us temporarily and it often inflicts lasting harm on the hearer.
  3. Corrupt Speech is cancerous speech – Corrupt speech is not only rotten, it also spreads rottenness. Like a fast-spreading malignancy, wholesome speech moves through families, churches, and communities wreaking havoc along the way. Gossip is one example. If we share a juicy “prayer request” with a friend, she will tell two friends, and then they tell more. The object of the gossip is torn apart and broken down in the minds of the hearers. Each one is not only tempted to gossip themselves, but their thoughts are taken captive and turned away from what is good and honorable.
  4. Corrupt Speech is destructive speech – Like a tornado tearing through the heart of a city, corrupt speech tears down and destroys. It has the power to uproot another’s faith. To chip away at their trust and dependence on God. To make them question God’s love. Any words that point the hearer away from Christ or hinders their spiritual growth are destructive. In contrast, gracious speech will always point the hearer to God, always urge them to trust God, always encourage them to follow Jesus.

Foul Language Starts in the Heart

Even when we long for our words to give grace to others, sometimes things break down between our desire and the words that flow out of our mouths. Sadly, our words will betray us, revealing the junk we have hidden in our hearts. Things like insecurity, hurt, unresolved anger, selfishness, and pride produce words that wound, tear down, and corrupt. God will hold us accountable for every word we speak (Matthew 12:36), so let’s constantly check our hearts for sinful attitudes and motivations (Matthew 12:34-36). Let’s ask God to heal old hurts, soothe anger, and humble pride. Then let’s refuse to use foul language and commit to using gracious words that build up and encourage.

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