Today, as I read through Ephesians, I was struck by the metaphor of speech as a tool of construction. Paul requests that we should “Let no evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear (Eph 4:29).” Two things really stood out to me. First, if evil is, in some sense, simply the lack of good then any word delivered without some form of generous spirit behind it is a potential force of destruction in others. Why? In essence, all of us are either in the business of building up or tearing down with our words. There really isn’t much of a middle ground.
Unfortunately, in my experience people seem to find it preferable to tear others down than build them up. To make matters worse, breaking someone down is easy. Conversely, building others up with our speech seems (quite often) to require a conscious effort on our part–it is quite often hard and time consuming. My father-in-law gave the boys an elaborate toy last Christmas; it was a game where two people race marbles down a large series of ramps, twists, and turns. The manual for putting this thing together was over 30 pages and it took me the better part of a day to put it together! The boys played with it for a few months but–as boys do–they soon broke it. When it was no longer functional the three of us tore it down. It took 30 seconds. A whole day to build it up and half a minute to tear it down.
It doesn’t take much of an effort on our parts to be demolition experts. How many times have you returned home from church and before lunch has been served you have already shredded your pastor’s sermon, ridiculed the musicians’ performance, questioned the selection for the dramatic reading, doubted the competence of your child’s teacher, commented on the fact that you weren’t greeted when you entered the church, etc., ad nauseum, ad infinitum. Maybe you didn’t even make it home before the criticism began?! God knows I have been in my share of those car rides. The saddest part is that I cannot recall there ever having been a purpose behind said criticisms other than my desire to be critical. All that I know for sure is that over the course of years that I have participated in such activities I have successfully cultivated a rather critical spirit. I really don’t want to pass that on to my children…
The other thing that struck me about this passage in Ephesians is the notion of being a conduit of grace for others. In church lore the idea of communicating grace is usually reserved for sacred (sacramental) things such as the Lord’s Supper, the Word of God, and Baptism–things in which, through which, God’s grace is communicated to us. Taken in this light, Paul is encouraging–no, instructing–us to be channels through which God’s grace can travel to others. If you are a follower of Christ then that should be pretty powerful motivation and quite convicting.
It may be easy to tear someone down but a kind word can be a lasting vessel of grace. Throughout our relationship, my wife has been in the habit of supplying me with graceful words. Early on I would receive cards with lengthy notes inside. They were filled with words of affection that expressed her gratitude for us and her complete faith in me. These cards appeared quite frequently and at completely random intervals–no anniversaries or holidays, rather they came just because she thought I needed to hear the words or she wanted to make sure I knew something important about how she felt. Even more impressively, the notes were rather lengthy and thoughtful.
One of the last cards I received meant so much to me that I keep it as a bookmark that goes with me everywhere that I go. It contains the vows that she had prepared in the off-chance that we decided to prepare our own vows for our wedding day. I now read those vows from time-to-time when I feel like a sub-par parent or a failure in general, and those words streamline her gracious spirit right into my very soul. That one act of building me up with her words has extended grace to me a hundred-fold. A kind, thoughtful and selfless word can truly be a lasting vehicle of grace.
I will be perfectly honest; being a blessing to others is something I have always longed for but never really taken the time and energy necessary to make it a present reality for me. Why? It takes work! It is exhausting! It requires not putting myself first, and, lets face it, that is what comes natural to me. The times that I have attempted to transform myself I have failed miserably. But you know what? I have become thoroughly convinced of a rather obvious truth. If you want to be transformed then impart grace to others. Commit yourself to being completely generous with words of kindness for others. Invest in the well-being of others; partake in their transformation, and wait and see if they do not return the favor thereby arriving at the transformation you have so desperately sought.
Real transformation happens in community. Extend words of grace to others and see what happens.