Elevating Our Speech

I was recently reading a book on World War Two’s the Battle of the Bulge. In a section dealing with American POWs held in a German stalag, I came across this interesting passage:

“[After] arriving in Hammelburg, Lyle Bouck realized that his survival would depend on adequate nourishment but also on the ‘mutual cooperation and forbearance’ of his fellow inmates. To his surprise, he discovered that none of the Kriegies (American prisoners) in his barracks swore. It seemed that every man was subconsciously trying to lift himself in language at least above the primitive conditions” (The Longest Winter 183).

This comment fascinates me given the absolute cesspool public discourse has become in our culture.


1. These soldiers, who were likely prodigious cursers, had changed their behavior. They innately sensed the connection between thoughts and words, and they understood that to elevate their thoughts they needed to control their language.

2. They specifically connected vulgarity with the deplorable conditions of captivity: exposure to the elements, starvation, inadequate medical treatment and mental abuse. Their survival depended on maintaining a positive frame of mind, and they realized that guttural language undermined such an outlook.

3. It is also possible that the effort to control their language was a token of personal sovereignty that the Germans could not touch. Part of being a POW is enduring the psychological warfare of demoralization and depersonalization inflicted by one’s captors. The POWs wanted to retain some measure of dignity and control, and they instinctively understood that undisciplined, profane words compromised that mindset.

Scripture connects a man’s speech with how it reflects his character:

“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings for the good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:46).

“But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man …” (Mt 15:18-20).

Since Christians live in “occupied territory,” i.e., a “crooked and perverse generation” (Ph 2:15), is there not a similar need to elevate our speech above the societal norm? It may begin with eliminating the profane from our vocabulary (Eph 5:3-4), but it goes further than that. The world drags us down in other ways, and our speech not only may reflect this influence but weaken our resistance against it.

Our words should be pure. So much is now being openly discussed in the public arena, and to a certain degree such things must be identified and warned against. But so perverse are they that they may infiltrate our thinking, and we may speak of them too much or too casually (Eph 5:12).

Our words should be clear and firm. If ever godliness and purity need bold defense, it is now. We can (and must) love the sinner and still take a strong stand for morality and right living. Sometimes silent assent is harmful; it allows wickedness to dominate unopposed.

Our words should be confident and hopeful. Kurt Vonnegut, who was in the same stalag, tells of a fellow POW, Pvt. Joseph Crone, who “gave up hope and plunged into apathy and then lethal lassitude [and] allowed himself to starve to death … ‘He simply sat down on the floor with his back to the wall. He wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t do anything, and then died’” (ibid 185). We cannot fall victim to negativity, pessimism and futility. The enemy may be all around us, but our King is on heaven’s throne. May our elevated speech lift all boats around us.