Our Speech & the Holy Spirit

On the Lord’s Day, February 21, 1748, a sorrowful Jonathan Edwards mounted the pulpit of the Northampton meeting-house to deliver a funeral sermon for his daughter Jerusha (1730-1748), whom Edwards later said in a letter to John Erskine was “generally esteem’d the Flower of the Family.”

As he spoke that morning of his daughter who had died the previous Sabbath and who was the first of Edwards’ eleven children to die, he confessed that his heart was “very heavy and sorrowful” and that his daughter’s death was “so bitter and afflictive” to him. Yet, Edwards was ever the disciple of Christ, eager to learn what his divine Lord was teaching in the midst of this sorrowful event

As Edwards sought to apply the lessons that God was teaching through his daughter’s death, he began by telling the young people of the congregation to:

“Avoid a light and vain conversation. Don’t let any filthy communication come out of your mouth, contrary to that rule, Col. 3:8… Don’t delight in lascivious talking and jesting, and lewd and filthy songs, contrary to those rules, Eph. 5:3-4…And avoid all profane speeches, speaking in a light manner of things that are of a sacred nature, as though you had not much reverence towards God and things divine and religion, but could lightly bring in these things to set off a jest and enliven your diversions with them. It becomes Christians to observe that rule, Col. 4:6, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt.” When you meet together, contrive that your conversation may often turn upon something in some respect profitable, tending to some instruction.”

Among the passages that Edwards is drawing these thoughts from is Ephesians 5, in which Paul is listing things that grieve the Spirit of God. While all unholiness grieves the Spirit, Edwards was right to notice the way that the Apostle Paul highlights misuse of our tongues as a way of grieving the Spirit.

“Do not grieve”

The text, Ephesians 4:30, is a classical proof-text of the personhood of the Spirit. This ascription of grief to the Spirit is an assumption of His personality. “To grieve” is to “affect with … deep sorrow.” In other words, “to grieve” is to cause emotional pain, deep emotional suffering, to disappoint, to sadden. As such, it is an affection which is only felt by persons. Only persons have such a rich emotional life to encompass grief. One cannot grieve a force, nor I dare say, animal. It is only persons who can be grieved.

As the Puritan author John Owen rightly says: “to talk of grieving a virtue or an actual emanation of power, is to speak that which no man can understand the meaning or intention of.”[2] The practical consequences of this means that we are to reverence and obey the Spirit.[3]

Forgetting who the Holy Spirit is

How are we to reverence the Spirit? Well, first, we are to reverence the Holy Spirit by having a high view of the Spirit. We grieve the Spirit when we fail to consider that dwelling within us is a co-equal member of the Godhead, worthy of worship, reverence and honour, One who has all the resources needed to overcome sin.

A part of a letter, though written nearly 200 years ago, well expresses the point here. It comes from the pen of a young Welsh Calvinistic Methodist woman named Ann Griffiths (1776-1805). Writing to a friend named Elizabeth Evans she says the following:

“Dear sister, the most outstanding thing that is on my mind at present as a matter for thought is to do with grieving the Holy Spirit. That word came into my mind, “Know ye not that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in you” [1 Corinthians 6:19]; and on penetrating a little into the wonders of the Person, and how he dwells or resides in the believer, I think in short that I have never been possessed to the same degree by reverential fears of grieving him, and along with that I have been able to see one reason, and the chief reason, why this great sin has made such a slight impression upon my mind, on account of my base and blasphemous thoughts about a Person so great.

“This is how my thoughts ran about the Persons of the Trinity. I feel my mind being seized by shame, and yet under a constraint to speak because of the harmfulness of it. I thought of the persons of the Father and the Son as co-equal; but as for the Person of the Holy Spirit, I regarded him as a functionary subordinate to them. O what a misguided imagination about a Person who is divine, all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful to carry on and complete the good work which he has begun in accordance with the free covenant and the counsel of the Three in One regarding those who are the objects of the primal love. O for the privilege of being one of their number.

“Dear sister, I feel a degree of thirst to grow up more in the belief in the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit in my life; and this by way of revelation, not of imagination, as if I thought to comprehend in what way or by what means it happens, which is real idolatry.”[4]

Notice the statement “all powerful to carry on and complete the good work which he has begun.” Ann is alluding to the fact that the Spirit is the One who enables us to persevere to the “day of redemption”, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:30.

Grieving the Spirit by sin

But we also grieve the Spirit when we sin in thought, word or deed. Paul lists some examples of such sinful behaviour in the larger context of Ephesians 4:17-5:14:

We grieve the Spirit when:

· We live as though we do not have a new nature (Ephsians 4:17-24; 5:8-9). In general terms, the Holy Spirit is grieved by everything that is contrary to Holiness. Since he is the “Holy Spirit,” he is always grieved by unholiness.

· Specifically, when we sin with our mouths by lying (Ephesians 4:25), using “foul or abusive language” (Ephesians 4:29), slandering others (Ephesians 4:31), uttering obscenities, foolish talking, coarse jokes (Ephesians 5:4), we grieve the Spirit.

· When we exhibit unjustified anger (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31).

· When we steal (Ephesians 4:28).

· When we engage in sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3). Cp. 1 Corinthians 6:19.

· When we covet (Ephesians 5:3, 5).

Notice how behind these admonitions lie a number of the ten commandments: You shall not murder, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not covet.

The Holy Spirit and our speech

Now did also you notice how many of the sins listed in these verses involve the tongue, Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31; 5:4? In fact, the Scriptures devote a lot of attention to sins of tongue. This devotion is well captured by a remark attributed to C.H. Spurgeon that “if all men’s sins were divided into two bundles, half of them would be sins of the tongue.” That this statement is no exaggeration is shown by the frequent reference to the tongue in, for example, Proverbs, our Lord’s teaching, James 3, and the letters of Paul, of which the text before us is a very instructive example.

Ephesians 4:25

Lying and deceit grieve the Spirit. “Falsehood can mean any distortion of the truth whether in act or word. Here, however, the emphasis seems to be on spoken falsehood, i.e. lying.”[5] Christians are to steer clear entirely of this vice. Yet, how easily to fall into, especially when we’re in a tough spot. Instead, Paul says, and he quotes from Zechariah 8:16, Christians are to tell the truth to one another. Why? First, truth is admirable for its own sake. By being truth-tellers we reflect the character of the Holy Spirit: see Titus 1:2.

Then, lying is especially detrimental to the Christian community. It is noteworthy that Paul does not appeal to the Decalogue: see Exodus 20:16. Instead he states that the bonds of Christian love and fellowship are broken when we deceive one another. “How can there be fellowship if there is lying?”[6] And Christian unity is a creation of the Spirit—look back to Ephesians 4:3. Insofar as lying hurts Christian fellowship, it grieves the Holy Spirit. When we speak the truth, we gladden the Spirit.

Do you grieve the Spirit by lying? Do you embellish, stretch the truth? Do you exaggerate? Do you flatter? Do you make promises you have no intention of keeping? Or do you seek to be honest with all your words?

Ephesians 4:29, 31; 5:4

Not only lying grieves the Spirit, but also “unwholesome word(s)”(NASB)/“corrupt communication” (NKJV). What is meant by “unwholesome words”? Look at some different ways this phrase is translated:

· “corrupt communication” (KJV; NKJV)

· “evil talk” (RSV)

· “unwholesome talk” (NIV)

· “foul language” (Phillips)

The Greek word behind these different translations has the idea of something that is “rotten” or “corrupt,” and bears the connotation of that which spreads rottenness. It can also be used to mean something that is “useless” or “worthless.” What lies behind this admonition is that “words reveal character.” See Matthew 12:33-35.

Further on Paul uses other terms that are part of this general admonition: slander and malicious gossip, described in Ephesians 4:31 as blasphemy and obscene language and lewd stories (Ephesians 5:4). Blasphemy is “speaking evil of others, especially behind their backs, and so defaming and even destroying their reputation.” It “includes the enjoyment linked with slandering others, deliberately saying or repeating things about others that are calculated to do them harm.”[7]

Even the best of Christians wrestle with this misuse of the tongue. A good example comes from the diary of John Newton (1725-1807), the well-known evangelical author and hymn-writer, and author of “Amazing Grace.” In a diary entry for 1777, some 30 years after his conversion, we find these words:

“My Lord, forgive me that, besides many other things wrong in me, I have not bridled my tongue. I profess to abhor evil speaking of another, yet I fear I have been guilty of it in a rash and needless censure of Mr. De Courcy—was ensnared in other respects with levity, from a foolish desire of pleasing. Oh pardon me, and teach me to avoid the like evils in future.”[8]

Ephesians 4:31

Then, finally there is the sin of shouting, screaming, brawling, which has its roots in anger and wrath (Ephesians 4:25-26). Now, Paul is aware that there can be such a thing as righteous anger. See Ephesians 4:25-26. Verse 26 is best understood in relationship to a text like James 1:19-20. “Anger, though on a rare occasion appropriate, does not often serve God’s purposes…, since it is usually compounded with…human sin. Only if this can be excluded can anger be justified.”

From the example of Jesus we see that anger may be free from sin, but such anger is rare in our existence. And even justified anger has a way of taking control of a person if it is nursed and allowed to smolder in the heart. Thus Ephesians 4:26. If one fails to heed this and allows anger to linger on until it grows into bitterness and resentment, you give the Devil a foothold, a base of operations, within your life, from which he can pollute your entire being (Ephesians 4:27).

What about you? “Are you guilty of any contention or strife? Do you quarrel, argue or engage in heated discussions?” Do you like to give people a “piece of your mind”?

The solution

How do we deal with the problem of the tongue? First, there needs to be constant recollection of who indwells us, namely, the blessed Holy Spirit of God who is grieved when we misuse our tongues. If we were more conscious of his presence and more fearful of hurting him we would be less likely to sin in this way. Then, Paul gives us positive ways of using our tongue:

· Speaking the truth (Ephesians 4:25)

· Ephesians 4:29: The test of a man’s conversation is not simply “Am I keeping my words true and pure?” but “Are my words being used to minister grace to the hearers?” And to do this, Paul stresses we must take into consideration the needs of those to whom we are talking. As we do so we follow footsteps of Christ: Isaiah 50:4.

· Ephesians 4:32.

Finally, there needs to be persistent prayer: see Psalm 141:1-3. A striking illustration of this is found in an account of the early ministry of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (d.1981) by his Bethan Lloyd-Jones in Aberavon, Wales:[9] “William Thomas seemed to have little trouble with the lesser things, nor with some of the bigger hindrances either. His drinking habit just left him, with no effort on his part to deal with it. It had been a part of the whole of his adult life. There were not many days without drink playing a big part in them – not many evening and nights when he was not totally incapacitated through alcohol. And yet, at his conversion, his desire for it left him and was never a problem in his Christian life.

“There were, however, other areas of fierce struggle, and heading the dark list was bad language. Staffordshire Bill was foul-mouthed—so much so that even the toughest of his worldly acquaintances were sickened by him—one of the reasons why he always found himself left to his own company, in some deserted corner of the place where they were drinking. With his conversion came the conviction that he must do something about this. He realised that it was dishonouring to God and offensive to man. He must stop swearing and using bad language. But now he discovered that he was up against something that was too strong for him. He could not speak without swearing, he could not utter a sentence that was not peppered with oaths and blasphemies. He could not help it and he could not stop it.

“The truth is that he did not know that he was doing it until the words were out, and then the realisation that these horrible terms and words came from his own lips sickened and shamed him and he was driven to a frenzy of despair and to abject misery. It may seem strange that he never sought the help of a fellow Christian in this matter, but he was too ashamed, and he suffered for some weeks, little dreaming that deliverance was at hand.

“It came about in this way: he was getting up one morning and gathering his clothes together to get dressed. But there were no socks among his

clothes. He went to the bedroom door and shouted to his wife ‘I can’t find my … socks! where are the … things?’ As he heard himself, and realised what he had just said, a great horror possessed him and he fell back on the bed in a paroxysm of despair. He cried aloud: ‘O Lord, cleanse my tongue. O Lord, I can’t ask for a pair of socks without swearing, please have mercy on me and give me a clean tongue.’

“As he lay there and then got up from that bed, he knew that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His prayer, his cry of agony was heard and answered. It was his own testimony that from that moment to the end of his days no swear word or foul or blasphemous word ever again passed his lips. Hearing his own account of this amazing deliverance on a subsequent Wednesday night at the Fellowship Meeting is something we who were there will never forget. His face, wet with tears and alight with an inner joy and wonder, his faltering voice broken with emotion, brought a warm wave of response from every heart.”

[1] OED, IV (1933), s.v.[2] Works, III, 88.[3] Cf. C.R. Vaughan, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975; rpt. 1894 ed.), 409-412[4] Cited A.M. Allchin, Ann Griffiths (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1976), 49-50.[5] C. Leslie Mitton, Ephesisans (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1976), 167.[6] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 155.[7] Lloyd-Jones, 282. Cf. L.H. Marshall, The Challenge of New Ethics, 284-285.[8] Josiah Bull, John Newton (London, 1868), 223. [9] Memories of Sandfields 1927-1938 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 86-89.