I was first introduced to the writings of Jane Austen back in college. The first reading of Pride and Prejudice was a bit of a struggle as I waded through the unfamiliar English of the Regency era. However, with each subsequent reading it became easier. Over the years I have acquired all of Jane’s novels in a variety of paperback forms. They have all been read repeatedly and as a result are dog-eared and shabby, but they have a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart.
As I consider what I find so appealing about the works of Jane Austen many things come to mind. Of course, they are so romantic! Superbly crafted, they showcase slow-building, believable relationships. The growing sexual attraction between characters is never stated, but is instead implied through gestures, glances, and carefully chosen phrases.
Another delight in reading Austen’s books is the opportunity to learn about life in the early 19th century. I love this peek into a very different world. I understand the view may be somewhat limited as it is coming from a single point of view, but I nevertheless find these glimpses very satisfying.
One thing in particular that strikes me about the social discourse that flows from her pen is the decorum and civility that underscore almost every conversation. It is such a contrast from much of what passes for dialogue today. In our culture today almost any choice of words, any form of self-expression is acceptable. Very few boundaries remain. Do you remember Joe Wilson, a member of the U.S. Congress, shouting out, “You lie!” as the leader of the free world gave a speech on health care reform? No matter what our political persuasion, surely we find this lack of civility disturbing. Of course, a few months later the president himself was in the spotlight for criticizing the Supreme Court during his 2010 State of the Union address. It seems that we so value our right to speak freely, that we have forgotten that there are times when it is best to remain silent. Just because we think it, doesn’t mean we have to say it.
When I started thinking about civility in conversations, I was immediately reminded of a sermon I heard a number of years ago on this subject.
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29 RSV
This was the E-F-G sermon: edifying, fitting, grace-giving. Although I fail more often than not, my goal is to be an E-F-G user of words.
I did a little research on the etymology of the word ‘edify’. It comes from the Latin word aedificare “to erect a building”. There was a gradual extension of the meaning when it took on a verb form and its meaning broadened. The Macmillan British Dictionary defines it as “to teach someone something that increases their knowledge or improves their character”. It is clear that this instruction is of a spiritual nature. When we want to edify someone it is more than just encouraging them or making them feel better; it is actual instruction so there is an increase in knowledge which can lead to a change in character. Just as a building is changed when a brick is added, so people can change when spiritual knowledge is added.
Knowing when to say something can be just as important as what we say. We may have information or an opinion that could be inserted into a conversation, but we need to ask ourselves, “Are my words fitting for this occasion?” Is this the appropriate time to share what I am thinking? King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said there is a time to be silent and a time to speak ( Ecclesiastes 3:7).
Sometimes the correct choice is to refrain from speaking even if the message we have is correct. Our goal is to edify others; we need to be sensitive as to whether or not it is a good time for our listener to hear what we have to say. Like golden apples in silver settings, so is a word spoken at the right time. Proverbs 25:11
Last, we want our words to give grace to the listener. Words of grace begin with graciousness: kind, courteous, and tasteful words. It doesn’t mean that we don’t bring up hard subjects, but the goal never changes. We want to always build up and encourage others to press on in their pursuit of godliness. Grace is extending to others what God has given to us.
I recently received a hardback set of Jane Austen’s novels. I am so pleased with them that I have put them in a prominent place in my living room. I have started to reread them and as always enjoy my journeys to 18th century England. But while I love the display of good manners that I find on page after page, I am convinced that it is not mere politeness God wants from me. Manners can be just a veneer; truly gracious words come from a heart that has tasted God’s grace. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Luke 6:45
I want to taste more and more of God’s grace; as He fills me, may words that are edifying, fitting, and gracious be ever more evident in my life. Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Psalm 34:8