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Series: The Topics of God

Passage: Exodus 20:16

Speaker: Dan Doriani

Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani


Exodus, Matthew 12, Ephesians 4

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor was on a radio talk show. After he spoke a while, they took calls. Caller #2: "Do you regret that you let your father die, that you gave up on him, stopped giving him your food at the end of your time in the concentration camp?" That might be the worst question I ever heard. It is so hurtful and judgmental. Wiesel's account of his time in Nazi death camps has many themes. But at a personal level, the greatest theme is the constant effort of father and son to stay together, to watch each other, to help each other stay warm, find food, and stay alive. They gave each other food. When they spent nights outdoors in winter storms, they exhorted each other, "Don't go to sleep! It's too cold! Keep moving." They lived for each other. How could someone say, "Do you regret abandoning your father?" 1

Jesus said, "Out of the overflow [or abundance] of the heart the mouth speaks." We say what is in our heart to say. Something in the caller's heart wanted to criticize, find flaws, cut Wiesel down.

Sadly, I have done the same thing. Most likely, you have too. If there is any faculty that betrays our sinful pride, envy, cowardice, cruelty, it's our speech. "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness." The same mouth praises and curses (James 3:12). I propose: Let's search the Scriptures: First, name the basic requirements for speech, second, understand our sins of speech, third, pursue the blessings of godly speech and fourth, hear God speak about sin, grace and blessings of the tongue.

1. Basic requirements for speech (Exodus 20:16)

The ninth commandment says, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." The word order is slightly different in Hebrew: "You shall not bear, against your neighbor, a false witness." This puts emphasis on the idea that false speech hurts a neighbor. We speak about people and to people whom we know. Our listeners probably trust us, so false speech is personal.

All sin is personal. But it's possible to steal, even to kill, impersonally, at a distance. But speech is face to face; even text messages are person to person.

False speech is also public. "False witness" means false speech in court, under oath, in front of a judge. Most false speech isn't false testimony - a matter of public record. But most speech is semi-public. People hear us and act, think, and feel on the basis of our words. The law says that public speech that falsely hurts a neighbor is wrong, sinful.

There is a whole world of false speech. The Lord says we must not gossip or slander, must not "spread false reports" and must not have dealings with false witnesses (Exodus 23:17). There are many ways to be a false witness:

When we pass off our opinions and prejudices and exaggerations as facts.

When we present half-truths and rumors as facts.

When we pretend our suspicions are facts.

When we make false claims for products, services, abilities, achievements.

When we mock, belittle or taunt and pass it off as a joke.

When we call in sick at work when we are merely tired.

Let's consider a couple of these sins of speech. Gossip, slander and flattery are common sins that run together in our minds but are worth distinguishing. In gossip, we say things behind a person's back, things that we would never say to their face. In flattery, we say things to their face that we would never say behind their back. We gossip to hurt someone's reputation. We flatter to create a false sense that we are a friend, ally or supporter.

The content of gossip can be true. If so, then the gossip takes the truth where it shouldn't go. The content of slander may be entirely false. Then the slanderer takes a rumor or a guess where it should not go. The Bible says, "A gossip separates close friends" (Proverbs 16:28). Gossip finds and discloses the evils of others. Slander fabricates charges and pretends they are truth. Both are sins.

The media, magazines, radio and TV, are full of gossip and slander. Our workplace, even the church, can be too: "Did you hear? Did you know? Somebody said the real reason is…" If you hear gossip, you can break the chain. Walk away from the conversation. Or intervene: "Are you sure that's true? Should we be discussing this?" Or turn off the program. Put the magazine down.

Again, gossip "separates close friends" (17:9). "Love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, through the word of God. Therefore, rid yourselves of evil speech: deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander (1 Peter 2:22-23, 2:1).

In Deuteronomy 5, Moses forbids vain and empty talk. We shouldn't lie, but shouldn't even "speak in vain" in a way that hurts a neighbor. How do we speak in vain?

Paul says "Let there be [no] obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking" in God's family "but rather thanksgiving" (Ephesians 5:4). No cursing, no lewd language, no crude talk that debases both hearers and speakers.

This doesn't mean all joking is wrong. Here is one: A man launched his hot air balloon on a gorgeous day. He was enjoying himself far too much; suddenly he realized he was lost. He spotted a man hiking in a field and dropped down to call to him: "Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?"

The man below paused, then replied: "Well you're in a hot air balloon, hovering thirty feet above a field."

The balloonist replied, "I can see that you are a Republican strategist."

"That's true," the walker replied. "May I ask how you knew?"

"Well," said the balloonist, "You're wandering alone, you took too long to answer, and while everything you said is correct, it's completely useless."

Hiker: "You're good. And I can see that you're a Democratic politician."

"Right!" the balloonist replied, "And how did you know?"

"Well," hiker replied, "You don't know where you are or where you're going. You're in the same position as when we met, but you want to make it my fault."

I like this joke because it reveals the way politics sometimes work: lots of brilliant analysis, often geared to tear down the other party.

Most jokes aren't funny. Many are insulting and degrading. But jokes can teach us to laugh at sin and folly. Read Proverbs and see how many poke fun at sin, laugh at sin. Sometimes that is the best cure for evil:

Telling the truth

Positively, the Bible teaches us to tell the truth, to promote and defend the truth so it blesses people. We must make true statements, but there is more to telling the truth than getting the facts right.

Ephesians says believers have life from God and it should show in our speech. Because we are new people - "created to be like God in true righteousness" - we "must put off falsehood and speak truthfully" (4:25).

This is Paul's genius: He doesn't just tell people to stop sinning, he presents a positive program. In fact, he presents one negative and two positives. For example, he didn’t just say, "Don't steal." He said, "He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must (first) work that he may (second) have something to share with those in need" (4:28). Similarly, we don't just stop lying, we tell the truth in beneficial ways.

As for speech we put off falsehood and (first) speak the truth and (second) give grace to those who listen (4:25, 29). It isn't enough to tell the truth, we must tell the truth in ways that meet needs and give grace. We "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). There are times when it is hard to tell the truth, times when we cannot see how to tell the truth in love. There are times to consider the value of silence. When?

When the truth would cause unnecessary pain. For example, someone shares a piece of music they love. You don't! No need to say, "I hate it." Rather, you could say, "Interesting."

When the truth is long and complicated. When it would shame someone.

When the truth is confidential. When you have pledged, for good reasons, not to reveal something you know.

When you are hiding innocent refugees and an oppressive government says, "Have you seen any refugees." Reply, "There certainly are a lot of refugees these days! Terrible times. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?"

Paul said: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable think about such things." We can talk about them, too (Philippians 4:8). But God also requires that we sometimes tell hard truths. He does! He ordered his prophets to say: war, judgment, plagues are coming. Prepare! It's a hard, necessary truth. The Lord chastises all who say "Peace, peace" when there is no peace.

I heard some hard truth recently. I still teach a seminary class each term, mostly to students in their twenties. My children are twenty to twenty-six. I listen to their music, watch their movies, and have some feel for their culture. The generation gap is smaller than it was twenty, thirty, forty years ago. But then I read a blog by a twenty-something. It said:

I want people over fifty to remember what it felt like to be half their age.

I want to be led by their example, not their theories and statistics.

I want them to realize: we need more of their wisdom, less of their culture.

What did he mean? He meant we don't want your suburbs, your SUVs, your coats and ties. We think: But we got a big house in the suburbs and a SUV for you – so we could haul your friends here for a party and you liked it. And besides my ties are cool. They say, "It's OK. We like you. But your ties? Not so much." This is truth I need to hear if I want to understand twenty- somethings. Sometimes we must tell hard truths. But what of sins and failures of speech?

2. Understanding Sins of Speech (Matthew 12:33-37)

No one suffered more slander and lies than Jesus. He was accused of flouting God's law, blasphemy, leading a rebellion and worse. In Matthew 12, Jesus healed a man who was blind and mute and his foes said that very thing – his power is Satanic.

Jesus explained that such hateful speech comes from the heart. Words are hostile when hearts are hostile: "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks… The evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him" (12:34-35).

Those who have an evil heart say evil things; those with a good heart say good things. Trees bear according to their nature - good trees bear good fruit. It’s the same with people. The Pharisees slandered Jesus because they hated him. We gossip and criticize because we want to promote ourselves and condemn others. We speak from the heart.

People try to camouflage their evil speech. We call our gossip "news." We call our criticism "analysis." We think it's OK if we keep our harsh talk private, but that doesn’t happen. Words get repeated. Besides, the Father hears everything we say.

God hears every word. Indeed, mankind "will have to give account on the day of judgment" for every word we say. "By your words you will be acquitted ["justified], and by your words you will be condemned" (12:36-37). Every word counts because every word reveals the heart.

It is not if we say a certain number of bad words, we are condemned. It is not if we say a certain number of good words, God justifies us. God does not find us guilty or innocent on the basis of our words in a narrow sense.

Jesus says we're judged by our careless words. He pays attention to casual, unplanned words because they reveal the heart. I was with a pastor when his child slammed a car door on his finger. He didn't curse or yell. He simply said, "Open the door as rapidly as possible." The child apologized. The father said he was wrong to put his hand in the door, but it would be good if she looked before she slammed the door. That was all. They had good hearts so they spoke good words.

Our most important words are about Jesus – words of faith and love: I believe, I trust you. As we yield to his Spirit, our casual words should improve. This is Jesus' diagnostic: What do your “careless” words reveal about your heart? About your attitude toward the Lord?

Internal speech

A word on internal speech. Internal speech includes sins such as silent curses and muttered insults ("what an idiot!”). We would never say such things aloud! We don't publicly judge, demean, despise others. But what happens if we tell ourselves harsh, cruel things? On the other hand, warmth, love, and appreciation are good internal speech. Whatever we tell ourselves will eventually show in our attitudes. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.

We can also wound ourselves by our speech. Consider defeatist speech: “It will never work. Why bother trying? I knew it wouldn't work; nothing ever does.” There is nihilist speech: “It's all pointless. Life is hard, then you die.” Self-pitying speech: “I don't have any friends – and I never will. They don't really like me.”

I also think it's OK for a Christian to use positive self-talk: “This just might work. I think we can do this.” Motivational speakers did not copyright this language!

I often wonder why so many people sound like skeptics when someone proposes something new, a change. I hate to say this, but I must: whenever we propose a change at Central, most people are positive, but a few say, "It will never work and here is why." This is true regarding every major change in my tenure: Equip Central, Trio, sites, changes in worship times, worship style, mercy ministry. Why? Some things do fail, but most work. One root of the problem is negative self speech. So let's watch the thoughts and the internal speech that shapes us.

3. The Blessings of Godly Speech (Ephesians 4:25-29).

Paul says our speech should benefit those who listen. How can we do that? I think of a friend from college days and beyond who blessed me with warm greetings: “Dan! Dan-o, Daniel, Danderoo!” His voice said, "Glad to see you" – it blessed me. That led me on a search: in the Bible people often send warm greetings to each other. A small thing, but blessed.

I had another friend, eighteen years older, who often paused for an uncomfortably long time before answering a question. It bothered me at first, but eventually I realized he was thinking through the options, aiming for the best possible answer – so he could say something true and helpful. He lived out Proverbs 25:23, 28 - "The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer" and "How good is a word spoken in season."

How wise! So many questions are complicated. I got this once: "Have you ever thought about suicide?" What does that mean? The person asking the question is obviously thinking about it. Why? Are they depressed? Worried about a friend? About a relative? I need to choose my words and silences carefully.

I must say, "Yes, I have thought about it" because I have. Then lest he worry about me, I add, "I have never contemplated it personally." More care: "But many people do and for various reasons. How can I help you with this question?" Godly speech always begins with the truth, but there is more. Paul says our speech must "give grace to those who hear" (Proverbs 25:11). God says we must put good words in a good setting so people can hear them. How can we do that?

Listening, watching are essential. Listen to what people say and what they don't say. Watch them lean in or pull back, focus or look away, hesitate, blush, or stammer. All this lets us calibrate our words to answer questions and meet needs.

Jesus asked questions and gave commands. He told stories and exaggerated, spoke poetry and fell silent, whatever it took to tell the truth so people could hear.

We think before we speak so we can thank, commend, praise, explain, encourage and celebrate what is good and true. The goal is to tell the truth in a way that blesses, to tell the truth and give grace. It's not enough to tell the truth – we can tell the truth and tear down simultaneously. How?

We can quote someone, just slightly out of context, so that an innocent statement now seems evil. “You said we need to sell our house.” “No, I said that if all else fails, we may need to consider selling our house.”

And it's possible to be honest and not hurt someone at all "What do you think of my dress." Hmm. "That's the new style this summer, isn't it?"

4. God's speech about sin, grace and blessing

But we do more than manage the truth. We want to bless, to give grace. I keep returning to this: You can't give what you don't have. You can give only what you do have. We can give grace if we have grace. We can give love if we have love.

Paul says, "Put off falsehood and speak truthfully" [to each other] because "we are members of one another" (4:25). Because we love each other, we don't manipulate to get what we want. We "speak the truth in love" (4:15). We say "what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may [lit.] give grace to those who listen” (4:29). We "tell the truth" in ways that meet needs and give grace. How?

We can convey God's favor because we have his favor. Why did my friend greet me warmly: Dan-o, Danderoo. Great to see you!” Disposition? Yes. Affection? Yes. But he also drank deep of God's grace and love and so could give it to others. The more we taste grace, the more we can give grace.

By contrast, when we give in to angry or wounded feelings and thoughts, we harp endlessly on problems, we ascribe bad motives to others - "I know why he did that" – when something is wrong in our heart. When we see this in ourselves, we must repent, ask for God's mercy and restoration. Then we can give grace when we have received God's grace.

If you are displeased with speech, I want you to ask why. There are two roots. You have never received God's grace or you have received it, but are not appropriating it. Receive it today. Communion presents it. Jesus loved, came, lived, took on himself all your angry thoughts, emotions, words. Jesus died for them, rose to defeat them. Now you are free from the grip of sin. Receive grace by faith. Have faith, hope, love to offer. O Christian, lay hold of it. Listen well. Tell the truth well. Give grace to those who hear. Give it because you have it – the grace to forgive all your sins of speech. The grace to live like the Lord.