“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Colossians 4:6
Imagine a resource with endless supply that can be leveraged for unbelievable good or incomprehensible evil and distributed instantly through global networks.
What is this resource? It is the simple commodity of words.
We were told as children that words could not hurt us, but that is not true. Words have power.
The universe was created by the Word of God (Heb. 11:3). God used words to instruct the children of Israel, literally writing with His hand on tablets of stone (Exod. 31:18). It is through the Scriptures—written words inspired by God, chronicled by man—that we learn of God and find faith (John 5:39; Rom. 10:17).
Jesus, the gospel writer John says, is the living Word of God (John 1:1, 14). As a man He was sustained by the very power of God’s Word (Matt. 4:4). As God incarnate, His last words on the cross, “It is finished,” satisfied the wrath of God and secured the faith of those who believe (John 19:30).
The wise Solomon wrote that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Prov. 18:21). James, the brother of Jesus, said “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:10).
Words lit the fire of the Reformation and inspired the American Revolution. Words have sent people to the death chamber and stayed the hand of execution. Words have begun wars and ended wars.
Words can be instruments of healing or as destructive as “sword thrusts” (Prov. 12:18). Most of us have been both inspired and wounded by them. Words of Scripture. A speech. A sermon. Song lyrics. Lines from movies. A teacher’s encouraging remark. A loved one’s angry outburst. A friend’s sincere compliment. A rebellious teen’s nasty text.
Words hold weight. We know this. So, as people of a Book (the Bible), as followers of the Word (Jesus), as children of a God who speaks, how then shall we think about our words?
A world of words
Today, perhaps more than at any time in history, we live in a world of words. Technology has enabled us to communicate more widely and freely than ever before.
GlobalWebIndex reports that 665 million people use Facebook each day to communicate items of interest as well as personal information. Twitter is the fastest growing social network with 288 million active users each month—21% of the world’s Internet users. Add blogs, podcasts, newspapers, magazines, books, and the millions of words uttered around the world on TV and in public events and personal communication.
Never have so many words been spoken to so many people across so many platforms with such great efficiency.
Writing from a Roman prison, the aging Apostle Paul penned a letter to a five-year-old church plant in Colossae, a small but influential port city in northwestern Asia. Meeting in the home of a converted Gentile businessman named Philemon, this congregation was mired in disputes that threatened their fragile unity.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians begins with an affirmation of their security in the gospel then moves on to the implications of this gospel, asking and answering the question that still challenges Jesus’ followers today: How should the gospel change the way Christians live?
Colossians 4:2-6, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
What intrigues me is how much ink Paul devotes to the substance of a Christian’s words. Putting to death the old life, crucifying the desires of the flesh, knocking down the false idols—this type of spiritual reconstruction has implications not only for our sexuality and work ethic and stewardships but also for our words.
His admonitions are grounded in the urgency and desperation of communicating the mystery of the Gospel to unbelievers. He prays for a door of opportunity. He urges believers to apply wisdom to their relationships with the lost. He says to make the best use of time. The right to speak, to influence, is earned. It must be cultivated by the use of right words.
We live in a distracted world. There are only a few moments when the average person may lift their head from the din and listen intently to the words a Christian speaks. A Christian transformed by the Gospel must communicate to the world in a noticeably different tone than that of the prevailing culture.
I’m afraid the Church has lost the art of careful communication. We too easily employ the tools of a sinful society. We dilute important arguments with harshness and confuse courage with incivility. Holding the right positions has limited value unless you can express them in a winsome way that will cause others to listen.
Moderation is a tone
Some of you hear the word “moderation” and equate it with abandonment of principle. You hear “speak with grace” and imagine affirmation of all viewpoints as valid and true.
But please do not misunderstand. I’m not advocating cultural disengagement. I’m not advocating a quasi-tolerance that denies the faith. I’m advocating smart, spiritual, grace-filled engagement.
The gospel may be the most radical, unpopular, paradigm-shifting argument ever presented to the world. The cross is a controversial symbol, a dividing line. We must speak prophetic, biblical arguments to a culture that doesn’t want to hear them. But Paul says it’s not enough to be right in our arguments. We must be right in how we articulate those arguments.
The Scriptures call us to gospel-centered speech with all of its radical implications. Not so we can be liked and loved. Not so we can avoid uncomfortable conversations. The Scriptures call us to gospel-centered speech because we hold in our lives a most precious truth the world needs to hear.