“Let no 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.” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV)
There’s an old saying that points out that we have two ears but only one mouth for a good reason. How often have I said something that I later regretted saying? How often have I made assumptions about another person’s ideas or motivations, only to later be proven wrong? And how often have I come away from an encounter with someone who asked about me and my life, and realized later that I never even asked them about their life? I can’t even imagine how many times these things have happened, and that saddens me greatly.
We all want to be heard, we all want to be listened to. We all desire to have our say, sharing or imparting to others the knowledge or insights that are important to us. This is a natural and good human quality that leads us to friendship and community. Certainly sometimes our input is actually crucial to others: when we’re training children, say, or enlightening someone with vital information; someone who is asking us for help because we have some expertise or experience. Then our talk, our sharing of knowledge and insight is actually helpful to them and their need at the moment, and they are open to receive it.
Too often though, we – or at least I – just want to have my say, perhaps to be admired for my ability to articulate something or to feel (secretly) superior for knowing something the other person doesn’t. In that case, my words are not a gift to them; they’re tools to get something from them, using them as a means to an end. I’m not inviting them to participate in discovering some truth, but instead using them. My knowledge then becomes a subtle “weapon” to achieve the selfish desires of my own ego, and I am guilty of a great injustice.
I’ve been convicted each time I read this passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that the measuring tool I must acquire for my words is – not surprisingly – the yardstick of unselfish love. Is what I want to say to “benefit those who listen” because what I say “builds them up” and is “according to their needs”? Good questions.