From earliest times, debate has raged over whether God’s word can be taken literally. Since the serpent asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” people have debated if the world was created in 6 days. If Moses really parted the Red Sea. If Jonah really spent 3 days inside a great fish. And so on. Talk about whether the Bible means what it says often focuses on the miraculous events within.
But what about verses like Ephesians 4:29? “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” When Paul wrote that, did he literally mean “no corrupting talk,” or just to aim for less crude language than the average person? Did Paul mean each word needs to “fit the occasion,” or to repeat whatever catchphrase seems to work in most situations? Did Paul mean everything we say should “give grace” to others, or is it ok if sometimes we want to look good or appear gracious? Do we need to always build up those who hear us? Did Paul “actually say” what he wrote in Ephesians 4:29?
We might reply that this is an impossible standard, but Jesus in Luke 18:19 said “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” In that one statement, Jesus testifies that no one is good (everyone misses the mark), and also that He is God in the flesh, come to save us from failing to meet the standard.
So yes, Ephesians 4:29 should be taken literally, but we should also take literally that only Jesus can meet the standard, and that He did meet the standard. Failure to meet our ideals does not mean they are the wrong ideals and that we should change them. Holiness is holiness.
G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy that “it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless.”
In film editing, “the cutting room floor” refers to pieces of physical film that (in pre-digital times) were cut out of the movie and left lying on the floor. When writing this blog, one of the hardest things to do is to cut out parts or phrases I care deeply about, but sometimes it’s necessary, because my words aren’t always Ephesians 4:29 words. Finding these failures can be fruitful if I learn from them and move closer to the ideal. In real-time, daily conversation it’s even harder, but to take Ephesians 4:29 literally, we all have to figuratively ask:
What are we willing to leave on the cutting room floor today?