So, what are we supposed to say and how are we to say it?
Answering the second part first, consider what Jesus and James said: “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or “No, no; anything beyond this is evil.” (Matt. 5:33-37) and “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no so that you may not fall under judgment.” (James 5:12)
You might think these passages are just about oath taking before God in some religious ceremony, not normal conversation but it is precisely in regular dialogue that oath taking is prohibited. Saying anything like “I swear on a stack of Bibles that I’m telling the truth” or “As God is my witness what I say is true” or “I swear on my mother’s grave I’m telling the truth” or any other creative appeals have no place in Christian conversation. Why? Because whatever we say, whenever we say it, and to whomever we say it about anything at all is to be trustworthy. This eliminates the need for any invocation of God, graves or Bibles as guarantors of our veracity.
Living in our culture makes this a tall order indeed. Expediency and pragmatism rule conversations so people are inclined to say whatever serves their purpose and advances their cause, from sales to politics. We must admit that none of us is exempt from facing circumstances where speaking the truth might mean losing livelihoods, alienating friends, being rejection by fellow-workers, or even being placed in harm’s way and, consequently, tempted to lie. There are even philosophies suggesting that lying can serve a higher good than truth-telling and in certain circumstances should be preferred. I can only say that loving, serving and obeying Jesus is the highest good and that we are exhorted not to lie (Col. 3:9); this seems to be the sum and substance of the issue. I don’t have the wisdom to decide if there are exceptions. So it seems that the best answer to the second question is this: we are to always speak the truth and do so with love thereby forgoing all types of false and deceptive speech. (Eph. 4:14-16)
Now, regarding the first question posed “what are we supposed to say?” the Bible has many examples, far too many to discuss here so just one will have to do. Particularly apropos to our societies drug and alcohol induced euphoria and escapism, even amongst Christians who struggle with such things, is Ephesians 5:18-21. We are instructed to “not be drunk with wine, which is dissipation (read reckless living and/or debauchery), but be filled with the Spirit speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things…”. This is, indeed, elevated conversation that not even the most educated and sophisticated in the politest of conversations can hope to match.
I think it significant that being filled with the Spirit and speaking are closely associated here. Recall from the previous post that speech is self-revelation and self-definition; it is who I am and what I mean. When we speak we create an environment, a kind of world in fact, in which all who hear our words are affected, for good or for ill. The environment we create when filled with the Spirit is filled with joy, praise, laughter, encouragement, and thanksgiving for all things which sets Christian conversation apart from all others. When filled with the Spirit, we can be thankful, always thankful (not just when the mood strikes us) for all things (not just those that suit us. This is especially important because an attitude of thanklessness describes an entire world rejecting any knowledge of God and in unparalleled hubris falling into idolatry. (Romans 1:21-23) Unlike the world, Christians acknowledge God as creator and sustainer of all things and thank Him for His gifts including existence itself. Speaking thankfulness (it is important to say it, not just think it for it is a witness to those still in darkness) for all things in our conversations reveals the stunning reversal of humanities hubris through God’s redemptive work.
The question for all of us, then, is what kind of ‘world’ do we create when we talk to others? Is it a world filled with condemnation, vulgarity, and darkness or one filled with grace, love, compassion, wisdom and truth? Is it a world people are drawn towards or repelled by? Is it a world Jesus would feel comfortable in or be embarrassed? I’ve asked myself these questions and consequently I’m much more attentive to my wagging tongue and what it’s saying.