Do Not Grieve the Spirit
“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.”
That’s Ephesians 4:29 in the New International Version. Whenever I read that verse, my mind goes back to a speech class I took in college. The teacher was a young man named Cecil Burhenn. I think it was his first or second year of teaching. He was friendly and wise and very earnest. On the first day of class, Mr. Burhenn said we were going to take a verse of Scripture as our theme for the semester. He picked Ephesians 4:29, which we repeated every time we met. Back then everything we learned came from the King James Version so that’s how I remember it: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” What the NIV translates as “unwholesome talk,” the King James translates as “corrupt communication.” The underlying Greek word means “rotten.” It was used for decaying flesh, rotten fish or rotten fruit. The meaning is, “Don’t let any putrid words come out of your mouth.” Or we might say in street lingo, “No trash talk!” What qualifies as rotten speech? Here are a few examples:
Vulgarity, obscenity, indecent language.
Dirty jokes, off-color stories.
Racial or ethnic insults.
Humor meant to insult or to put someone down.
Angry outbursts, harsh words.
Gossip, rumors, false accusations.
Imputing bad motives.
Public criticism of your spouse or children.
Yelling and screaming.
Threats and intimidating comments.
Quick, cutting comments.
Talking too much.
Talking without listening.
Exaggerating the faults of others.
Excusing unkind words by saying, “I was only joking.”
The Greek construction of verse 29 is a bit unusual. The verse opens with a Greek word that means “all, each, every.” The word meaning “no” occurs later in the verse. That gives a particular emphasis to his words:
Every critical comment that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every filthy word that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every harsh word that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every cheap shot that comes out of your mouth … not!
Every bit of gossip that comes out of your mouth … not!
Set on Fire by Hell
Why is this so important? Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Every time you open your mouth either life or death comes out. The Bible speaks of the throat as an “"open grave” (Romans 3:13). When there is death on the inside, it will eventually show up in the your words. According to Proverbs 12:18, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” And James 3:5-6 offers this penetrating warning:
Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
Ephesians 4:29 offers a Christian alternative: First, we are to speak good words that build up instead of tearing down. Second, we are to speak words that minister grace to those who hear them. And we are to do it all the time and in every circumstance. We are to speak good words that bring grace according to the need of the moment. Here is the teaching of the verse put very simply:
Every word … all good … all grace … all the time.
I asked the congregation to repeat that when I preached on Sunday. Take a moment and repeat it to yourself once or twice.
Sometimes we need a friend to remind us to watch what we say. Gordon MacDonald tells the story of a trip to Japan he took as a young man. One day, while walking the streets of Yokohama with an older pastor, he made a comment about a mutual friend. It was a quick, sarcastic comment that was unkind and unnecessary. The older pastor stopped, looked him in the face, and said, “A man who truly loves God would not talk about a friend like that.” Gordon MacDonald said it was as if a knife had been plunged between his ribs. The pain was so great that he didn’t know how to respond. Reflecting on that experience 20 years later, he remarked that the memory of those searing words had helped him 10,000 times when he was tempted to make a critical comment about a family member, a friend, a colleague or someone he knew casually. Many of us need to take that story to heart. “A man who truly loves God would not talk about a friend like that.”
We all have our excuses for what we say, don’t we? We’re tired or we’re provoked or we weren’t thinking or we didn’t mean it or it’s true so we said it. On and on we go, justifying our verbal diarrhea. We all have people in our lives that drive us nuts. Some people just seem to have the “spiritual gift” of irritation. They know how to get under our skin. It might be a friend or a spouse or our children. It certainly could be an ex-husband or an ex-wife. (When I mentioned your ex-husband or wife, someone in the congregation called out, Yes!)
What is God saying to us? No more stinking speech!
Grieving the Holy Spirit
Paul mentions the sad consequence of our unkind words in verse 30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Did you know that you could grieve the Holy Spirit who lives within you? The word “grieve” comes from a Greek word that signifies deep emotion. You can only grieve a close friend or a loved one. You can’t grieve a stranger you meet on the street. You can irritate a stranger and you can offend a casual acquaintance, but you can only grieve someone very close to you. As usual, Paul’s advice is both practical and profound. We tend to talk a lot about interpersonal problems, as if the greatest issue in life is how we relate to other people. But verse 30 reminds us that our primary relationship is always with God. And it is possible to grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You can make the Spirit weep because of your thoughtless words.
Here’s the reason: The Holy Spirit not only lives in you. He also lives in the Christian brother or sister you just slandered with your lips. Evil speech destroys Christian unity. Last night I read a bit of D. L. Moody on this topic. He commented that he had never known God to bless a church where the Lord’s people were divided. This is a word we need to hear today. This is God’s Word to Calvary Memorial Church and to every church. We tolerate and sometimes even encourage a thoughtless attitude in the way we speak to each other and about each other. Every time I speak carelessly, I hurt at least three people:
- The person I speak carelessly about.
- The Holy Spirit.
Every time I open my mouth, one of two things will happen:
- I build someone up, or
- I tear someone down.
This does not mean that we will never say anything hard or difficult. The warning goes to motive or purpose and must be judged by the context. Proverbs 27:6 reminds us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (KJV). Sometimes true friends “wound” each other in order to bring healing. Just as a doctor must sometimes cut us in surgery in order to remove what is killing us, true friends sometimes say things that aren’t easy to hear. But in those cases, true friends first remove the telephone pole from their own eye before they remove the speck of sawdust from someone else’s eye.
We grieve the Spirit first by rotten speech (v. 29) and second by rotten attitudes (v. 31). But these two things are not separate. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Whatever is in the heart must eventually come out in the words we say. Whatever is down in the well will come up in the bucket sooner or later. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (v. 31). These words describe a collection of wrong attitudes that corrode the soul from the inside out. They produce a spiritual jaundice that colors all we see. None of us is immune. Taken together, they form a kind of spiritual staircase of ascending evil. First there is bitterness, a word that means “pointed” or “sharp,” referring to the pain we feel when we think we’ve been mistreated. It speaks to a deep emotional reaction that keeps us from thinking clearly. If we dwell in bitterness long enough, it produces a wounded spirit and a hard heart.
The second step is wrath, a word that originally meant to snort. It has the idea of the nostrils being flared in anger. This is hot-tempered anger that explodes under the slightest provocation. We use the same image when we speak of someone being all steamed up, with smoke coming out his ears.
That leads to anger, the third step. This word speaks of a settled condition of the heart. Did you ever know a person who was angry all the time? I noticed on Sunday that when I asked that question in one of the services, two young girls nodded their heads vigorously. I wonder whom they were thinking about. Such a person seems to be angry all the time. They get up angry, they shower angry, they eat breakfast angry, they go to work angry, they come home angry, they watch TV angry, and they go to bed angry. And when they are happy, that makes them angry. Nothing pleases a person like that. Anger leads to jealousy, harsh words, and it can even lead to murder.
Angry people usually express themselves in brawling or clamor, the fourth step. The word means to raise your voice. It includes all forms of physical and verbal intimidation. It has the idea of shouting back and forth during a quarrel. How many arguments could be avoided if we didn’t raise our voices. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Slander is the final step. Paul uses a very strong word to describe this form of evil speaking. It means to make false accusations about someone or to offer vague insinuations that make another person look worse than they really are. We can slander with our words, with a lifted eyebrow, with an unfinished sentence, with a rhetorical question left dangling in the air, or by quoting someone but taking their words and twisting them into something sinister. We can slander through insults, ridicule, cruel jokes, taunts, unkind nicknames, rumors, mocking, belittling, or by passing unfair and hasty judgment. In legal terms this is called “defamation of character.”
Words give us control over others. We all feel better if we can name something. Every word we say impacts our relationships for good or for ill. Once a slanderous word escapes our lips, our relationship is changed forever. It can never be the same again.
This was the particular sin of those who crucified Jesus. They mocked him and lied about him and falsely accused him. As a result of their slander, the Son of God was crucified. When you slander someone, you join with those who crucified our Lord.
Stairway to Hell
Malice, the final word, describes an underlying attitude of ill will. It’s a general dislike of others. Malice can be described as congealed hatred. A malicious person can’t get along with anyone.
Note the progression in the first five rotten attitudes:
What starts in the heart ends up on the lips. What begins with bitterness ends with slander. We think, we feel, and then we speak. What starts as a grievance becomes an outburst of wrath that hardens into anger that expresses itself in clamor and ultimately as slander. Malice marks such a person through and though. And it all starts with personal hurt that becomes bitterness. Stop it at the first and you won’t have to stop it at the last. That’s why Proverbs 4:23 reminds us to “guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.”
We are doing Satan’s work when we climb that staircase. Every step is a step for him.
Note that Paul says to get rid of “all” these wrong attitudes:
No root of bitterness.
No symptoms of wrath.
No trace of anger.
No echo of clamor.
No slime of slander.
No dregs of malice.
As long we harbor these things within, the Holy Spirit weeps inside us.
From God to Us to Others
Those things must go … and be replaced with something much better. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (v. 32).
Kindness speaks of gentleness in the face of provocation. It reaches out to the unworthy and withholds punishment even when it is deserved. Kindness is daring and dangerous because some mistake it for weakness. It is “the oil that lubricates the machinery of life.”
Compassionate comes from a word that means “good intestines” because the ancients thought the intestines and the bowels were the seat of the emotions. We mean something similar when we speak of a belly laugh. Compassion says, “I will care for you and I will not shut you out.”
The key to forgiveness is the middle syllable—give. Forgiveness is a gift we give to those who don’t deserve it. Note that verse 32 starts with us and ends with God. We are kind, compassionate and forgiving to others because that’s how God has treated us.
From God … to us … to others.
We do for others what God has done for us. We have been forgiven; we know what it is like. Now do the same for others. We are not left to wonder what it means to forgive those who have hurt us.
You cannot understand God’s love unless you go to the cross.
You cannot understand the cross unless you see in it God’s love.
His death became a sacrifice that was a sweet aroma to the Father (Ephesians 5:1-2). Man’s murder became God’s sacrifice. A heinous crime paid an impossible debt. Through the death of an innocent man, we the guilty go free. If we had been there, the stench of death would have overwhelmed us, but the cross smelled good to the Father. The work of salvation was finally done:
See, from his hands, his feet, his head
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love or sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
This text ties the most practical spiritual duties with the loftiest spiritual truths:
No more trash talk.
No more bitterness.
No more wrath.
No more anger.
No more clamor.
No more slander.
No more malice.
No more making the Spirit weep within you.
God asks us to do what he has already done for us. We are not to forgive in order to be forgiven. We forgive because we have been forgiven. Last weekend Marlene and I drove to Camp Forest Springs in northern Wisconsin for their Memorial Weekend Family Conference. I spoke five times on forgiveness. During each session a tall woman sat directly in front of me. After one message she introduced herself and told me a bit of her story, which included her own struggles with forgiveness. I received the following letter this week:
May 31, 2005
Dear Pastor Pritchard,
I left Camp Forest Springs with a full heart yesterday. Thank you for your ministry among us. I am the tall woman who sat pretty much front and center to you. Your last message was deeply challenging to me to go beyond just forgiving to the point of neutrality. Since Christ commanded that we be proactive in this matter, it can only be done by his power. Humanly speaking I am bankrupt. Just where he wants me.
Then she added a little smiley face in the text.
I carried the enclosed article around in my Bible for several years. I can’t tell you how many times I have read and reread it. I want you to have a copy for your illustration file.
She enclosed a photocopy of an article by Richard Wurmbrand published in the December 1998 issue of Voice of the Martyrs. Pastor Wurmbrand spent 14 years in a communist jail in Romania. This is part of what he wrote:
Let me tell you about a man who was in prison with me. Demitri was a pastor whose backbone had been beaten with a hammer. When certain vertebra was hit, he was paralyzed so that he could only move his neck.
You can imagine what a tragedy this was. If he had been in a home or hospital, he would have had a wife, mother, or nurse to take care of him. How would we take care of him? There was no running water to wash him, no linen to change him. He lay there in his human waste. He could not stretch out his hands to drink a cup of water. The others who could walk and work were taken to slave labor during the day. When they came back in the evening, he had to wait for them to help him drink a cup of water.
He lay like this in prison for a couple of years. It was hell on earth. Then in December 1989, Romania had a revolution and the dictator Ceausescu was overturned. Freedom came and Demitri was released from prison to be with his family and friends. No doctor could help him, but now he had loving hands to help him. He still could not move hand or foot.
One day someone knocked at his door. It was the Communist who had crippled him. He said, “Sir, don’t believe that I have come to ask forgiveness from you. For what I have done, there is no forgiveness, not on earth or in heaven. You are not the only one I have tortured like this. You cannot forgive me; nobody can forgive me. Not even God. My crime is much too great. I have come only to tell you that I am sorry about what I have done. From you I go to hang myself. That is all.” He turned to leave.
The paralyzed brother Demitri said to him, “Sir, in all these years I have not been so sorry as I am now, that I cannot move my arms. I would like to stretch them out to you and embrace you. For years I have prayed for you every day. I love you with all my heart. You are forgiven.”
Demitri had learned love from Jesus who called Judas “friend,” who prayed for those who crucified him, and who accepted Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor, and made him an apostle.
Our faith in Jesus means imitating him. Jesus, as often as he met a sinner, did not reproach him. He took that man’s sin upon himself and suffered on the cross for the sin.
If you want to know what love is like, go to Golgotha and fix your eyes on the man hanging from the center cross. Study what he did and you will know true love.
Then go and do for others what God has done for you.
But you say, “I can’t do that. You don’t know what they did to me.” What if God treated you as you treat others? You’d be in hell already.
What if God were as unkind and unmerciful as you are? What if he kept a record of your sins? You’d never get within a million miles of heaven.
“I’m going to trash him like he trashed me.” What if God said that about you?
“I don’t know how much I can take?” Just go as far as Jesus went for you.
Do you want to know what troubles me most about this text with its warning against rotten speech and rotten attitudes that grieve the Spirit? I see far too much of myself in it. It is so easy for us to be unkind and ungracious. Between the second and third services on Sunday, I found myself in the Portico talking with a friend. He made some quip about a third person who was not present and I made a quip back—a comment that I should not have made. As my friend walked away, I felt immediately pricked in my conscience. Even after preaching this sermon twice, I found it all too easy to violate the very thing I was trying to say to others. So I confess my own weakness and ask the Lord to baptize my mouth, sanctify my lips, and transform my heart.
Maybe you need the same thing. Perhaps you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with the Lord and then with others close to you. After the first service, a woman came up to me with tears and said, “Pastor, I’ve been so hard on my children. I’m going to go home, get them all together, and ask for their forgiveness.” That’s hard to do, but it’s also the path of true spiritual liberation.
Whatever God tells you to do, do it. Stop making the Holy Spirit weep because of your unkind words and your inner ugliness. Cry out to God for his help. Ask the Lord to open your eyes and see the uncleanness within. Pray for a fresh vision of Jesus dying for you.
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit any longer. This is the word of the Lord. Amen.
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