…that it may give grace to those who hear. (ESV)
…that it may minister grace unto the hearers. (KJV)
…that it may benefit those who listen. (NIV)
…in order that it might give grace to those listening. (Maxwell)
Paul told us what not to do with our mouths: don’t let language unfit for the Kingdom come out our our mouths (v29a). Paul told us what to do with our mouths: only say what builds up the Kingdom (v29b). And before we consider Paul a closet legalist he gives us the motivation for obedience: love. Language is a tool to serve others in love. Paul was not propagating a “don’t say this, but say that” formality. He was commanding a “don’t hate, but love” mentality.
Our responsibility for clean and clear language is not a matter of a social etiquette. We’ve missed Paul’s point if we leave Eph 4.29 reasoning, “Good Christians don’t cuss, so watch your language.” He has called us to view language/words through the eyes of their Creator. Jesus has redeemed all the good gifts we’ve corrupted, including language. Therefore, those in Christ now use their words as God uses his: to give grace to those with ears to hear.
According to this verse, language is a means of grace. We often think of grace as the attitude in which gifts are given, which is certainly true. We can and should give others good things as an expression of grace. In other words, grace is the catalyst of gift-giving, whether or not the person receives the gift as an act of grace. But, what is given in this verse is grace itself. The direct object of the verb “give” (didomi) is grace (charis in its accusative form). (The NIV does not help us here.) Therefore, language is the vehicle by which we give someone grace. Words are not the end of Paul’s command; they are means to an end. They carry grace from one heart to another. Language is a means of grace.
Sarcasm is ungrace. Kingdom language really invests God’s unmerited and special favor in another’s life. When I bring an edifying word to a brother or sister I am calling down heaven’s blessings on them. Just because I didn’t say something sarcastic (indeed a miracle in itself) doesn’t mean I’ve honored God with my words. I’ve honored God when particular grace has been given, when love for my brother’s edification has won the heart.
Even superficial small talk, though not technically unwholesome, can violate the spirit of Ephesians 4.29. It’s disheartening that most conversations among believers are shallow and silly. It’s sinful how little we talk about Jesus with each other, how we’ve seen him lately and we want others to see him. Most conversations are about yesterday’s game, our children’s new trick, or what it was like during the war. Jesus said our heart will be where our treasure is. And he also said we will speak of things that fill the heart. Therefore, we will talk about what we most treasure (that’s the transitive property for you math types). Given the typical conversations in the pew and around the dinner table, what must we say is our treasure?
We rarely get past this small talk to serve one another with God’s words. We will boast that we talked with so-and-so this week, but we didn’t. Talking in God’s kingdom is giving grace through language. Small talk is a way for us to get through a conversation with as little effort as possible. Small talk considers a person inconvenient, but we’re too prideful to admit that. So we wade through the shallow end, skim pleasantries off the surface and call it a conversation. God gives us great responsibility to serve each other with our language. We must not settle for superficial talk, but tunnel to the heart to find out what grace is needed to be more like Jesus.
We are not selective either. Our grace-giving language is to be spent on those listening (present tense participle). If we’re talking to someone then they’re listening (or at least hearing sounds coming from our mouth). And if they’re listening we are to give them grace through what we say.
My journey out of sarcasm is not simply changing what I would say or saying nothing at all. It is praying that my heart change so that I want to use words differently than I’ve used them before. It’s using every occasion to serve others with words of God’s grace. It’s putting the needs of my brothers/sisters above my need to be heard. This journey will be a long one and not soon abandoned, Lord willing.