by Glenn Conjurske
It is a common thing to hear comments concerning preaching or conversation which has dealt with negative or unpleasant themes, to the effect that such preaching or conversation is unedifying. And sometimes it may in fact be so. But it seems that in the modern church the word “unedifying” has practically become a synonym for “unpleasant.” The prevailing idea seems to be that edification is something which gives you pleasant feelings, though a little consistency would teach people that on that basis a great deal of the Bible must be unedifying, such as Matthew 23, Ezekiel 23, the last three chapters of Judges, the 137th Psalm, and numerous other passages.
But such notions are very far from the truth. To edify is to build up, and “edification” in the Greek is in fact the same word as (in the plural) is translated “buildings” in Matthew 24:1 and Mark 13:1-2. To edify is not to make you feel good, but to make you better
—-to make you wiser, stronger, holier, more loving, more humble, more gentle, more faithful, more useful. And it often so happens that those things which will contribute most to that end are not the pleasant and positive things, but just the reverse.
Paul speaks a great deal about edification in I Cor. 14, and in so doing he draws a sharp contrast between speaking in tongues and prophesying. “He that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification” (vs. 3), but when a man speaks in tongues, “the other is not edified” (vs. 17). Why not? Because “if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you?” (vs. 6), for though it may give the man a warm and glowing feeling, it adds nothing to him
—-does not build him up. “I thank my God,” says Paul, “I speak with tongues more than ye all. Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” (Vss. 18-19). And it is evident throughout this chapter that the edification of which Paul speaks consists of being built up in understanding. Tongues, therefore, do not edify, for they add nothing to the understanding.
Not that Paul would limit edification to the realm of understanding. I suppose he speaks of that alone in this chapter because it is among the smallest parts of edification, and tongues do not even contribute that. But Paul is far from limiting edification to understanding, for of that ministry
which he insists is edifying (prophesying) he speaks thus: “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convicted of all, he is judged of all, and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” (Vss. 24-25). Now to be convicted of all and judged of all can hardly be regarded as a pleasant thing, but it is a profitable thing, and is therefore equated with edification.
Gipsy Smith thus contrasts the prevailing ideas about edification with the true conception presented in this passage of Scripture: “We want them to go away and say, `That is just beautiful.’ The people will not say it is just beautiful if we are faithful. We want people to go away and say, `Oh, I did enjoy that!’ I never heard of anybody enjoying a surgical operation, and that is what every sermon ought to be. It ought to be a piercing to the quick. It ought to be a stirring of the man within. It ought to be the undoing of things and making us feel and realise what we are in the presence of Almighty God.”
Even if we put edification on its lowest ground, a mere increase of understanding, even that is likely to contain much that is unpleasant, if it is the real truth of God in which we are increasing, for Solomon says, “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” (Eccl. 1:18). He does not call wisdom vanity (and it surely is not), but he does call it vexation of spirit (vs. 17). There is a great deal more truth than men realize in the old proverb which says, “Ignorance is bliss.” But we have more to do on the earth than be happy. In knowledge and wisdom there is profit, however unpleasant it may be, and therein is edification.
But Solomon speaks yet more forcefully along the same lines, saying, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his
heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to
hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.” (Eccl. 7:2-5). Sorrow and sadness are better than enjoyment and mirth, because by them the heart is made better. That is to say, sorrow and sadness are edifying. Therefore the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. He chooses that which may be unpleasant for the present, but profitable for the future. To “hear rebuke” is never a pleasant thing, but
it is edifying. The wise therefore say, “Let the righteous smite me: it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me: it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head.” (Psalm 141:5). The Geneva Bible here reads, “Let the righteous smite me: for that is a benefite.”
Fools take another course. They cannot endure the rebuke which sound doctrine administers to their ways. They therefore “heap to them
selves teachers, having itching ears.” (II Tim. 4:3). They want teachers who will edify them
—-that is, make them feel good. Real edification they refuse. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists can smugly apply this scripture to the liberals and modernists and cultists, while they are just as guilty themselves. They want, of course, a teacher who preaches the Deity of Christ, the blood atonement, and the inspiration of Scripture, but do they want a teacher who administers rebuke to them, or who leads them to “the house of mourning?” Do they want a teacher who requires them to change their ways? There is no real edification without this.
But then there is more to edification than rebuke and stern requirement. To edify souls we must encourage them. The law is all stern requirement, and it is the strength of sin. It is the strength of sin precisely because it condemns and discourages. It builds no faith. It offers no hope. Edification must proceed on a different course. “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort [or encouragement] of the scriptures might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4). The ministry which edifies is that which preaches the heart of God, the love of God, the grace of God, the ways of God with men of like passions with ourselves, in such a way as to give hope, to build faith, and so to encourage. The ministry which consists only of stern requirement
—-only of scolding and exhortation —-might rather be called wearing out the saints, than building up the saints.
But caution is called for here. Some weak and half-hearted souls are always looking for encouragement
—-that is, always looking for someone to pat them on the back and tell them they are doing all right —-when in fact they are not doing all right. Encouragement is not to be administered by lowering the standard —-a course which is fatal to both the souls of men and the testimony of the church —-but by inspiring hope to make a start, and faith to press on. “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.” (Heb. 12:12-13).
To maintain the proper balance here is no doubt one of the most difficult tasks before us. Most of us are inclined to be either too soft or too hard
—-yes, and many of us are both: too hard in some situations, and too soft in others. But observe, a balance is not to be maintained by paring down either one side or the other, but by giving equal weight to both sides. Let the standards of God’s holiness be maintained without flinching and without abatement. Let the old man be put off. Let the right eye be plucked out, and the right hand cut off. Let your members which are upon the earth be mortified. The surgeon who spares half of the diseased organ does his patient no favor. But let him cut with a tender hand. Let him not soften the truth, but let him speak it in love. “A soft tongue breaketh the bone.” (Proverbs 25:15). Or, as an old English proverb has it, “A light hand makes a heavy wound.” Here is the real key to edification. Breaking bones is never pleasant business, but a soft tongue will make it as pleasant as such a thing can be. A soft tongue is a gentle, tender, loving tongue, but this of course must often be understood of a soft tongue speaking hard truth. “Rebuke with soft words and hard arguments,” says another old English proverb.
But a good physician does not administer the same medicine to every patient, and neither does a good physician of souls. What is life to one may be death to another. The discouraged and downcast may need no hard arguments or cutting truths at all, but only the tear of sympathy, only the touch of a tender hand, only the sound of a gentle voice, only the healing balm of love. Bones which are broken already need to be healed. “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” (Ps. 51:8). That is no edification which stops short of this.