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WATCHING ONE’S WORDS
All Bible references are to the Anglicised New International Version (NIV-UK)
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Colossians 4: 6
SALTY LANGUAGE is generally understood to mean the kind of talk that borders on indelicacy and is suggestive, crude or risqué. The expression originated several centuries ago and appears to allude to the colourful language of mariners, absent from polite society for long periods of time. Though referred to as ‘old salts’ from the 19th century, this may have more reference to the saltiness of the sea than to the supposed strong language of sailors.
It may seem curious that the Apostle Paul exhorts the Colossian Christians to season their language with salt, but we can be sure that he was not encouraging them ― or us ― to spice up our language! Rather, he urges caution: ‘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’ (Ephesians 4: 29).
In the public arena our ears are assaulted every day with bad language. It is almost impossible to avoid affronts to decency and the more sensitive may feel defiled at witnessing such depravity. Shielding their children from bad language is a major concern of most responsible parents. Youngsters learn quickly and repeat everything they hear, including swear words and obscenities, and it is impossible to avoid every danger. Unless strong and loving parental guidance is instilled from infancy to puberty, the urge to be ‘cool’ among their friends may lead teenagers to use language they would not use at home. Television, and to some extent the internet, presents a serious challenge to parents, as standards continue to plummet, and protests are usually ignored or ridiculed by the purveyors of vulgarity.
Salt as a Symbol
A ‘covenant of salt’ is an Old Testament expression for a covenant, or agreement, that was supposed to be honoured forever (Numbers 18: 19). Salt apparently was used as a figure of speech for binding agreements because it was a basic part of the Israelite diet and it was also used as a food preservative in the ancient world. The Mosaic Law required that the ritual grain and meat offerings of the people must be seasoned with salt, signifying their covenant relationship with their God.
In Bible times salt was expensive, prized for its preservative and culinary uses, and guests who had eaten their host’s salt ― received the hospitality of a meal ― were obligated to him or her, the Middle Eastern expression ‘there is salt between us’ epitomising their relationship.
Jesus told the disciples that they were ‘the salt of the earth’, implying their wholesome influence among a race afflicted by the demoralising effects of sin (Matthew 5: 13). The expression is still used as descriptive of the best type of people, though not exclusively of Christians.
Seasoning our Speech
It was evidently important that the Apostle Paul should speak plainly to the Ephesian believers about their conversational habits. ‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you’ (Ephesians 4: 31, 32).
This is sobering counsel for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. Men marvelled at the Master’s powers of persuasive speech, unmatched by any of his disciples, and even His most intimate followers as ordinary men would be careful to ‘watch their language’. How much more those men and women joining the early church would need instruction.
And as the Lord’s people today, can we excuse ourselves from the Apostle’s suggestion that even we may be in need of caution? While brawling, slander and malice may never sully our conduct, are we ever guilty of bitterness and anger, backbiting or gossip? When hurt or offended it is all too easy to relate the circumstances to others, thus increasing the damage and perhaps lessening the offender’s chances of recovery. Whilst of all the human faculties the tongue is the one most prone to lead us astray, the pen ― and the keyboard ― are also instruments in need of godly supervision, as unwise or unwholesome communications so easily take root and proliferate. We may all do well to echo the appeal of King David in Psalm 19: 14: ‘May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.’
As Others See Us
How we say something may be more important than what we say, and one’s tone of voice can convey an instant impression. But words are not strictly necessary, as the face can be an index of our thoughts. An open gaze or the avoidance of eye contact, a raised eyebrow or a frown, a ready smile or pursed lips are all instantly ― and perhaps unconsciously ― registered by others as indicating our thoughts. Yet the kindly observer will make allowances for another’s shyness or social anxiety and resist a too-hasty judgement of that person’s demeanour. As the observer or as the observed, how vital it is, then, that we remember the wise man’s advice: ‘Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life’ (Proverbs 4: 23, King James Version).
And what about slang? This is informal language using words and expressions not appropriate for formal occasions. Slang may be regarded as offensive or vulgar, and a ‘slanging match’ between quarrelling opponents is verbal abuse not pleasant to witness. But slang may be merely somewhat colourful and often humorous language, causing no offence, originating from various trades or professions, perhaps from childish euphemisms, or imported from other language groups.
Should Christians avoid slang? Generally speaking, slang is not edifying and probably should be avoided. We cannot imagine Jesus indulging in slang or cheap expressions. People who are refined in their speech as well as in their general conduct have the greater influence upon others, who are apt to judge us not by their own standards, but by what they consider to be our standards.
Using the Lord’s name profanely is another hazard. How often one hears the exclamation ‘Oh my God!’ from the lips of somebody obviously not praising His name. Christ’s name is also heard as an expletive, offensive to the ears of Christians, and Heaven and Hell are frequently called upon in the sense of profane oaths, though some to their credit do modify their language in the company of those they feel might be offended. Jesus set the standard when He exhorted the disciples: ‘Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. . . . Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one’ (Matthew 5: 34, 35, 37).
But there are pitfalls even for believers. According to the dictionary, ‘gosh’ and ‘golly’ are euphemisms for God, and ‘heck’ is used for hell. There are doubtless many more substitute words used ― perhaps innocently ― which would be better avoided. Can the use of the milder expressions be excused? The Apostle James has much to say about the control of the tongue, and ruefully admits that ‘We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check’ (James 3: 2). Mercifully we have a God who knows the human weaknesses of His people, but sees also the sincere intentions of our hearts.
The Conversational Style
The discourses of Jesus were not stuffy and the common people heard him gladly, as He spoke their language, illustrating his meaning with familiar situations and experiences of everyday life, such as the weather signs, the lilies of the field, the innocence of little children. The colloquial or conversational style is often more effective in interesting others in the Gospel message than a formal address as delivered from a church pulpit. And humour need not be excluded. There were surely many occasions for laughter among the disciples as they witnessed the varied reactions of the humble and the haughty to the message of the reactionary preacher from Galilee. His castigation of the Scribes and Pharisees who loved the top seats at banquets, made lengthy prayers in public, strutted about in flowing robes and who would ‘strain at a gnat and swallow a camel’ would have His followers muffling their mirth at such audacity.
Of course there are many examples of humour in the Bible. The account of Jonah’s grouchy reluctance to preach to the people of Nineveh and his peevish attitude when they received his message, presents a comical view of human contrariness. The Proverbs offer a wry comment on human frailty, as in the observation that it is ‘Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife’ (Proverbs 21: 9). And in spite of the seriousness of the situation, there must surely have been some chuckles when Paul made his escape from Damascus in a basket (Acts 9: 23-25). And long afterwards the Apostle Peter may have related amid much laughter the events of that night when he was miraculously released from prison, and arriving at the house where the disciples were praying for him, knocked on the door but was kept waiting for admission, the young maid Rhoda being so astonished at hearing his voice that her wits deserted her (Acts 12: 1-16).
As ambassadors of Christ, we have an amazing privilege and responsibility. What we say, and how we say it, is a matter for constant vigilance as to our conduct, and a godly common-sense approach. In witnessing the Gospel to others, and in our daily walk and conversation as disciples of Christ, a little gentle humour is like wholesome seasoning ― salt, and perhaps a little pepper ― to make the message appetising and the Christian way of life appealing. And when the work of Christ’s Kingdom is accomplished, the promise of Zephaniah 3: 9 will be fulfilled:
For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent. (King James Version)
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