In seminary pastors learn many new skills. We learn how to study the Bible. We learn to read the Bible’s original languages and how to use them to more accurately study Scripture. We learn theology. We learn practical ministry skills — how to communicate the gospel clearly and accurately; how to administrate in a church; how to develop staff members; and how to conduct weddings, funerals, baptisms, and the Lord’s Supper. And we learn how to preach.
Even when I was in seminary learning to preach — 30 years ago now — we used video recordings to help evaluate our preaching. Learning to watch and listen to ourselves was somewhere between difficult and traumatic, which is to say, it wasn’t easy. But it’s good for a preacher to listen to himself. It’s good to listen for his cadence, his word choice, his clarity, his enunciation, and his content in order to evaluate a key question: Do his words match the words of Scripture and reflect the character of the God of Scripture?
For that same reason, it’s good for the biblical counselor to listen to his words. I’m not necessarily talking about listening to recordings of his counseling sessions (though that is helpful), but I mean that he should be attentive to the words he uses — particularly while counseling.
Are Your Words Redeemed?
Redemption means the believer’s life is bought out of slavery to sin and enslaved to Christ. He is moved from the domain of Adam to Christ and whereas he had been powerless to do righteous acts, now he is empowered to resist sin and obey God. And that is also true of his words. The believer’s words are also redeemed and transformed. Jesus says that one’s words reflect whether he is spiritually alive or spiritually dead. A redeemed man speaks redeemed words; an unredeemed man speaks unredeemed words (Luke 6:45).
Jesus’ declaration reminds us that the words of every believer should reflect the transforming work of Christ. The counselor, who is using words to correct, instruct, and train his counselee, must particularly demonstrate control of the words that come from his mouth. The one who is working to disciple another in Christlikeness must use words that indicate his own life and words have first been redeemed and transformed by Christ.
Are Your Words Truthful?
The apostle Paul also writes about the significance and importance of words. Consider what he says in Ephesians 4. In the first of several statements about the believer’s words, he says, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Eph 4:25).
Since every believer’s words should be truthful, then it is emphatically true that that those who disciple and counsel should be truthful in their words. They should not intentionally mislead the counselee. Misleading could look like misapplying Scripture to achieve a desired outcome, or intentionally failing to address a known sin in the counselee’s life because he fears the counselee’s response. But in every word, he must not intentionally deceive or mislead the counselee; he must not be deceitful in his words, no matter how appropriate his intentions.
Instead, his words should be truthful. We might even say he must be “scrupulously truthful.” He is truthful because they are both members of the one bride of Christ. They are brothers of one another, and brothers of Christ. To lie to a brother is to intentionally drive a wedge into the unity and fellowship of the family — the very thing the believer is to both joyfully recognize (vv. 4-6) and protect (vv. 3, 16).
Are Your Words Wholesome?
When Paul says, “let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth” (v. 29), he means that there should be no occasion when any unwholesome word slips past the tongue. Unwholesome is used to describe items that are rank, foul, putrid, and rotten. They are dead words and deadly words; they do not impart life and hope when they are spoken.
In context, it appears that Paul is thinking about two particular kinds of speech: angry words (vv. 26-27, 31-32) and ungodly sexual conversation (5:4). The words of the believer should never contain off-color jokes, profanity, vulgarity, double-entendre, perverse stories, angry explosions, slanderous or snide comments, or gossip. Nothing the believer says should ever be able to be put into those kinds of categories — either in or outside of the counseling room. The words that he uses in public (including social media) that create the public perception of his character and reputation.
Moreover, those words are a wasted opportunity. When we use unwholesome words, we have not only been rebellious against the Lord, but we have wasted an opportunity to extend grace to someone in need. Here is the principle of these verses: Every word has an opportunity to be a means of blessing or an infliction of pain to others. Be intentional and purposeful about choosing words that will provide blessing. Every word should be chosen with care.
As a counselor, you must be purposeful and intentional with the words you choose. Take some time to think and formulate what you will say in every counseling moment. And when in doubt, always choose the gentler and more gracious way to speak. Also, remember that every spoken word will land with some force on others. Don’t assume that paragraphs of spoken kind words can outweigh one untimely, ill-chosen word. Use every word with a redemptive purpose.
Are Your Words Angry?
Finally, Paul asserts that the believer’s words should never be angry (v. 31). Our words should never be bitter (irritated or corrosive), wrathful (explosively angry), angry (a slowly burning, internal anger), clamorous (boisterous, public arguments), slanderous (speaking with evil of another person), or with any kind of malice (anything bad or wicked). The word “malicious” is used as a broad “catch all” category — the believer’s words must not be angry in any way.
Notice that Scripture says all these kinds of angry speech are to be “put away from you.” Since that is a command, it also means that God has given us the resources we need to put these sins away. We don’t have to be trapped by angry words. We can speak differently, because of our new position in Christ (vv. 20-24). Therefore, these sins are to be put away decisively and intentionally, now.
Instead of being characterized by anger, our words should be kind (gracious and full of good deeds), tender-hearted (compassionate and servant-hearted), and full of forgiveness (ready to forgive and forgiving freely and graciously) (v. 32).
Perhaps Paul finishes on the note of forgiveness (“just as God in Christ has forgiven you”) to remind his readers that while they need to grant forgiveness, they have a greater need of forgiveness from God, who has forgiven them infinitely more than they will have to forgive others.
Friend, before you attempt to counsel with an angry heart (which will prove to be vanity), confess your sin to the Lord and to the one with whom you are angry and receive the grace of God that will enable you to minister to your counselee.
Are You Listening?
Do you listen to your words? What do they say about you? The counselor’s primary tools are two words: the words he speaks, and the Word of which he speaks. If his words are not conformed to God’s Word, then he is hopeless to help his counselee.
So listen to your words. Let God’s Word transform your words, so that your words will give healing and hope to those you serve.
Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC). In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.
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